Movies We Like
Most films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that, because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans.
In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working with Woody for the second time after Play It Again, Sam. This was the first of seven films she would appear in that he would direct). She lives in a totally pretentious bubble with no clue to the world around her. But after finally revealing his true identity to her, he kidnaps her and they go on the run, fall in love, and she becomes a born-again rebel.
Of course, during this era Allen’s plots were only used as ways to string together jokes and observations and Sleeper provides some of Allen’s best, most famously when he quips “My brain? It's my second favorite organ.” Another classic line is when Luna says to him, “It's hard to believe that you haven't had sex for 200 years,” he adds, “204, if you count my marriage.” Or when helping scientists understand relics from the past, they show him a TV clip of Howard Cosell, and the scientist speculates, “We feel that when people committed great crimes against the state, they were forced to watch this.” Woody takes a moment and then replies, “Yes, that’s exactly what that was.” Brilliant.
With his follow-up, the wonderful Love and Death, Allen would fully perfect his verbal Bob Hope persona, but with Sleeper he is still working in slapstick, more in the Buster Keaton / Charlie Chaplin mode. The film is full of visual gags which are, physically, so ambitious that they actually require some crazy stunt work, while Dixieland jazz plays (with original music credited to Allen). Like much of his early films, the more memorable element now is the verbal gags, though as a kid, the universality of the silent movie gags is what first turned me on.
Most 1970s science-fiction, the kind that falls in that transformative period for the genre between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, had a paranoia about the government (this was, after all, the Vietnam/ Watergate era). So many of the big titles are about mistrust of our institutions or suspicions about technology—Soylent Green, Rollerball, Zardoz, Westworld, Capricorn One, Z.P.G., Colossus: The Forbin Project, THX 1138, and The Day of the Dolphin all share with Sleeper that fear. Even Disney’s lightweight The Cat from Outer Space has an anti-military slant. Sleeper borrows a Buck Rogers aspect: a man waking up trapped in a new future world, and from Flash Gordon it borrows the fish-out-of-water, Earth-man-taking-on-a corrupt-evil-government motif and mixes it with classic Orwellian dystopian hijinks. Sleeper proves that not all of Allen’s influences have to be Bergman or Fellini. Woody’s character even declares, “I go into the hospital for a lousy operation, I wake up 200 years later and I'm Flash Gordon.” Sleeper may be a slapstick comedy, but it’s also a legitimate sci-fi flick. In some ways the sexless future Allen envisions, full of mindless consumer followers, is proving much more apt than so many of the other future visions of the era.