Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

82% – Critics
68% – Audience

Slaughterhouse-Five Storyline

Using his own terminology, Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time”, which means he is moving between different points in his life uncontrollably, although he is aware of it at certain of those points as witnessed by the letter to the editor he writes to the Ilium Daily News about his situation. Primarily, he is moving between three general time periods and locations. The first is his stint as a GI during WWII, when, as a pacifist, he was acting as a Chaplain’s assistant for his unit. This time is largely as a POW, where he was in Dresden the day of the bombing, spending it with among others an older compassionate GI named Edgar Derby, and a brash loudmouth GI named Paul Lazzaro. The second is his life as an optometrist in Ilium in upstate New York, eventually married to the wealthy and overbearing Valencia Merble, and having two offspring, Robert, who would spend his teen-aged years as a semi-delinquent, and Barbara, who would end up much like her mother. And the third is as an abductee on the planet Tralfamadore, along with his devoted dog Spot, and Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack – who was not averse to taking off her clothes to further her career – the Tralfamadorians who have put them on display. The more time he spends on Tralfamadore, the more he understands the meaning of what is happening to him.

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Slaughterhouse-Five Movie Reviews

Vonnegut’s Classic Through Roy Hill’s Lens

The film Slaughterhouse 5 is a brilliantly portrayed interpretation of a great but typically multilinear novel by science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut. With all due respect to the literary critics, sci fi really is what Vonnegut most often wrote – whether or not it is viewed as allegory or even ‘serious literature’. As such, it was not really made to convey the same messages,nor even the aesthetics of the book, but rather to convey the director’s (and others on the creative team) impressions of the book.

The book is also brilliant, but none of Vonnegut’s work is easily adapted to the medium of film. Not quite the task Cronenberg took on when he directed Burrough’s Naked Lunch, but very similar in method.

S-5 exposes us to the life of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) and his many loves (his dog spot, his wife played by Holly Near and an actress played by Valerie Perrine), as he either blacks out and travels into the deep recesses of his memory experiencing the delusion of time travel or (as indicated by his occasional leaps forward in time), he actually has become ‘unstuck in time.’ Between trips back to Dresden during its WWII bombing and trips forward to the planet Tralfamador, it seems that Billy is constantly tripping. Yet he manages to build a successful and very normal American life despite his bizarre and uncontrollable time-travel habit.

The film illustrates the non-linear manner in which the book is written by skipping from time to time in a seemingly random manner, but it manages to do so without losing focus on Pilgrim, who is, in fact always living in the present regardless of what time he happens to be experiencing. Fantastic directoral method!

The film makes a lot of subtle, simple and very good points by making Billy – a quiet simple guy with an extraordinary set of circumstances in his life – a true hero simply because he is relatively nice, somewhat aloof, happy, and quite normal. Sacks’ performance is spot-on.

This film is beautifully photographed, very well paced, perfectly directed and edited. The acting is all quite good, and comes from a well appointed cast mostly consisting of character actors. I was particularly impressed with Eugene Roche’s excellent portrayal of Edgar Derby.

Highly recommended for the art-house crowd and friends of intelligent sci fi.

lackluster lead holds back movie

Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is “unstuck in time” as the film goes back and forth in his life. He grows up as a weakling and he’s in WWII as an assistant chaplain. He is captured and sent to Dresden to stay in Slaughterhouse-five. He is threatened by Paul Lazzaro who wants revenge for his GI friend. He is protected by Edgar Derby. After the war, he returns home and gets electroshock therapy. He gets married and has a family. He survives a plane crash but his wife doesn’t survive a car crash. He is abducted by aliens to Tralfamadore along with porn actress Montana Wildhack where they start a family.

It’s an interesting idea for a movie. The time bending nature does not get too confusing. It’s easy to follow. The bombing of Dresden need to be more thrilling. The major issue is the lackluster lead Michael Sacks. It may be deliberate to get a slack-jawed nobody to play the slack-jawed dullard. It doesn’t make it compelling. A better, more charismatic actor could play a weakling if he’s good. Sacks doesn’t make him interesting. He’s kind of annoying.

I Wish I Hadn’t Read the Book First

I got hooked by Kurt Vonnegut early on. I must say that I thought to myself many times, you just can’t turn these book into movies, from “Sirens of Titan” to “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” I guess “Slaughterhouse Five” is Vonnegut’s magnum opus. It is a wonderful book, but it banks on time travel and a kind of cerebral narration. The movie tosses these things around for us and we get to see visually what is going on with Billy Pilgrim, but it is disjointed and disappointing. There are striking moments, especially having to do with World War II prisoners and the cruelty of the Germans. However, Vonnegut was most taken with the Dresden fire bombing, where people suffocated as the fires sucked the oxygen from the air. The city was destroyed. I had the good fortune to visit Dresden this summer. It has been completely rebuilt to look like it did before the war. Remarkable representation of the human spirit. War is, indeed, hell. How I felt for those people who were really not responsible for that war but paid a huge price.