Not many films merge existential ruminations, horrific re-creations of World War II tragedies, satirical vignettes about the domestic life of a suburban optometrist, and surrealistic sci-fi interludes featuring a topless starlet abducted by aliens. So it goes in Slaughterhouse-Five, the elegantly made but emotionally distant adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s most celebrated novel. Very much like Mike Nichols’ film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970), another impressionistic riff on World War II, George Roy Hill’s film of Slaughterhouse-Five boldly attempts to translate uniquely literary devices into cinematic language. And very much like Nichols’ Catch-22, Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five boasts a handful of effective moments amid a whole lot of eclectic sprawl. In fact, Hill conveys certain elements of Slaughterhouse-Five exquisitely, such as the imaginative visual transitions that bounce the story back and forth between different time periods.
Alas, bravura editing is not nearly enough to compensate for the way Vonnegut Jr.’s fantastical storyline is pulled down to earth by the oppressive realism of Hollywood filmmaking. Very specifically, the fact that very young leading man Michael Sacks plays his character in many stages of life, all the way to late middle age, forefronts artifice. Furthermore, because Hill creates believable images during outlandish scenes, he robs Vonnegut Jr.’s metaphors of their ability to percolate in the reader’s mind. Everything feels numbingly literal. And, of course, because Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller dropped whole elements of the source novel, it’s hard to imagine this film fully satisfying either fans of the book (who could rightfully lament alterations) and newcomers (who could rightly claim befuddlement at how the reality-based and surrealistic aspects of the movie are supposed to converge).
In any event, the movie concerns Billy Pilgrim (Sacks), whom we meet as an aging man living alone in the ’burbs following his wife’s death. Billy claims to be “unstuck in time,” so he flashes back to periods including World War II, when he was a POW in the German city of Dresden during its merciless firebombing by the Allies. (Over 100,000 people were killed in the attack.) The movie tracks Billy’s wartime interactions with fellow POWs including Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), a well-meaning father figure, and Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman), a smart-mouthed psychotic. Other threads of the story include Billy’s relationship with his wife and kids, as well as Billy’s abduction by aliens to a distant planet, where he and starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) are put on display like zoo animals, expected to cohabitate (and copulate) so the aliens can study them.
Hill shoots every scene of Slaughterhouse-Five beautifully, even if some aspects of the picture undercut his skillful direction. Sacks’ uninteresting non-performance is the biggest flaw, and it’s disheartening that the movie becomes, in its final scenes, a bit of a feel-good homily. Still, Slaughterhouse-Five is fundamentally ambitious and artistic, so there’s a strong temptation to seek hidden virtues, and, indeed, many viewers have found much to praise. The picture won the Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe and a WGA Award. The lingering question, however, is whether Slaughterhouse-Five actually does justice to Vonnegut Jr.’s novel—or, for that matter, whether it truly succeeds as a filmic statement.