Sleeper [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - MGM Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (17th May 2013).
The Film

Luna Schlosser: You don't believe in science, and you also don't believe that political systems work, and you don't believe in God, huh?
Miles Monroe: Right.
Luna Schlosser: So then, what do you believe in?
Miles Monroe: Sex and death - two things that come once in a lifetime... but at least after death, you're not nauseous.


“Sleeper” is an absurdist sci-fi comedy directed by Woody Allen, and co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman (who also co-authored “Annie Hall” (1977), “Manhattan” (1979) and “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)). It is perhaps the most fondly remembered of what the filmmaker later called, in the pseudo-autobiographical “Stardust Memories” (1982), his, “earlier, funnier movies.” Funnier is up to debate; a lot of Allen’s later films are still very funny, even some of his works with a decidedly serious edge have humorous bits. And what Allen himself is implying in the line from “Stardust Memories”— are viewed, at least in the eyes of the general movie-going public and some critics, his earlier works were somehow better—is less debatable. It’s true that a vocal minority prefers Allen’s early movies, like “Sleeper”, and detests anything he made after, but as many, if not substantially more, prefers what came later. And people like me, who just appreciate Allen as auteur (and his catalog containing some 40-odd films and counting, as a whole) don’t really care one way or the other; there are early Allen films I love, latter Allen films I loathe, and vice versa. Now, in my not at all unique opinion, Allen’s better movies—and, indeed, his best pictures—are exactly the films he made after those “earlier, funnier movies.” But that’s not to say earlier Allen isn’t good, or that his earlier movies aren’t funny. It’s just… Allen’s early films are distinctively different from his later, more character-driven, dramas and comedies.

Unlike his more dramatic work that came later—where a different type of humor springs organically from rich characterization and plot—the comedy in Allen’s early films comes largely from anachronistic absurdities; simple situations where the protagonist is out of time, place, or both. For instance, in “Bananas” (1971), Allen plays a bumbling New Yorker entrenched in a Latin American revolution. In “Love and Death” (1975), Woody is a solider in czarist Russia caught up in a plot to kill Napoleon. Sandwiched between “Bananas” and “Love and Death” (and the less easily categorized “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972)), and sharing some thematic and other superficial similarities with the first two, is “Sleeper”, which is probably the best of these earlier movies.

“Sleeper” tells the tale of Miles Monroe (Woody Allen), a jazz clarinetist and part owner of the Happy-Carrot health food store. In 1973 (the year the film was written and released), Miles was put in cryogenic storage without his consent, after a routine medical procedure went wrong. Eventually unfrozen, some 200 years later, as Woody’s early characters are wont-to-do, Miles gets caught up with a band of radicals who have plans to snuff out the nose of the head of state (honestly, that’s statement that makes much more sense if you’ve seen the film).

“Sleeper” takes place in a dystopian future dated to sometime in the 22nd century, set long after a third, atomic, World War, has turned the former United States into a totalitarian police state. No doubt, the oppressive government came to power—and has stayed in power—because most of the people populating this brave new world are some of the most unintelligent “intellectuals” ever depicted, blissfully mindless to their master because they’re chemically altered, and mentally stunted, to be much more interested in sex and drugs (a giant orb that makes people loopy) and having parties. Miles’ eventual lover, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) is one such dumb dog. She’s an untalented poet who quite literally has a Ph.D in oral sex. (Although hilarious, and surely a suggestive aside about academia in some way, that last bit has always been a bit of an oddity to me, considering this society has supposedly progressed to a point where a device called the Orgasmatron is essential to sex.)

At the beginning of “Sleeper’s” silly story, Miles is awoken by a group of actual smart people—separatist scientists—for a particular purpose. They want to use him in their scheme to overthrow an oppressive dictator who rules the land with the iron fist of fascism. It’s believed, because Miles isn’t in the system, he’ll infiltrate the government and easily learn all he can about a mysterious plan called the Aries Project. Of course, nothing goes right; Miles is split from the scientists, forced to pretend he’s a robot to escape the secret police, meets, kidnaps and subsequently falls for Luna and turns her onto the separatist cause, is himself captured and reeducated by the enemy, and finally brought back into the revolutionary fold after a rescue. Like so many characters in similar themed sci-fi, Miles becomes both a rallying point for the oppressed revolutionaries, and a target of the totalitarian regime.

“Sleeper’s” simple but superficially complex plot really only exists so Woody can do three things: pay homage to the great science fiction authors and works of yore, give similar service to the master comedians of, mostly silent, cinema (mixing in elaborate word-less sequences of slapstick as needed), and to parody/satirize/make comment on the socio-political movements of the then-contemporary late 60's and early 70's. He succeeds in all three. The film is suitably both Orwellian and Chaplin-esque, with nods to 1984, “Modern Times” (1936), and a whole host of other classic works (including “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), the work of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and The Marx Brothers). The less-than-flattering depiction of the revolutionaries as long haired hippies, promoting free love, and accomplishing little, along with Miles’ ultimate denouement—that the separatist leader, Erno Windt (John Beck), will surely turn out like every other leader before him, and end up exactly like, if not considerably worse than, the man he deposed—seems to suggest that the character, and in turn Allen himself, is somewhat critical of such movements (perhaps only because, cynically, he saw the cyclical consequences).

But, at its core, “Sleeper” is mostly a light comedy, and Allen had more interest in the first two things. The commentary is minimal, and much of it is done in the service of comedy. A served sign on a still-standing McDonalds arch stretches into near infinity (doubly droll because it means the fast food giant survived a nuclear holocaust and has no problem existing in a fascist faux-utopia). A moment where the scientists quiz Miles on curious relics of the past of which they are clueless about is particularly entertaining, with the character, realizing they’ll believe whatever he tells them, makes up utterly absurd answers. The film is filled with funny moments like those, fueled by its two excellent lead performances. Miles is an acerbic, neurotic, misanthropic, perpetual ladies man—essentially, a very early version of the character Allen would play repeatedly throughout his career (i.e., a greatly fictionalized take on himself). It is Diane Keaton, as Luna, making her first appearance in an Allen-directed picture (they’d appeared together in “Play It Again, Sam” (1972), a film Allen wrote and starred in), who takes the best turn. She clearly has great fun as an airhead, and the curious quickness of her slow wit proves Keaton a great actress (not that anyone needed to be reminded of that; she’d been in the “The Godfather” (1972) the year before this). After “Sleeper”, Allen and Keaton would strike up one of the greatest filmmaker/actor relationships, and make movie history with their later collaborations—specifically the suburb “Annie Hall”. But, as good as Allen and Keaton are, the real standout of “Sleeper” isn’t either of them; it’s the script, which filled with both witty dialogue and amusing (and astute) visual asides and silly sight gags.

“Sleeper” isn’t quite as polished as some of Allen’s later films, although it is one of his stronger earlier works, and one that with a surprising vision for something produced on a meager budget. There are still signs that expose Allen as artist experimenting and finding his voice—a voice that would begin singing a far different tune just four years later. But, in the end, some 40 years on, “Sleeper” has stood the test of time. It’s a very funny movie, and one worthy of a spot on many a film fans’ shelf.

Video

“Sleeper” is encoded in 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition, using the AVC MPEG-4 compression codec, at an average advertised bitrate of 30 Mbps. Although obviously struck from a dated source, the high definition master used for this Blu-ray results in a generally pleasing image. The source is surprisingly clean, with minimal damage, dirt and debris. Grain is noticeable, never intrusive, but also not always properly resolved and occasionally verging on a noise in some scenes. Definition ranges from decent if slightly soft (seemingly related to the cinematography by David M. Walsh, and not unwanted noise reduction or some other type of digital manipulation) to surprisingly sharp and detailed at times. Despite an abundance of contrasting elements—the stark futuristic architecture juxtaposed against the lush surroundings the countryside in the Colorado Mountains—the film is fairly flat, lacking depth. Again, that’s probably inherent to the photography. More, and less inherent to the 35mm source, is the disappointing black level, which falters on several occasions leaving shadows murky and gray-ish. Colors, however, are largely stable, and natural, especially in daylight sequences; skin tones are rarely flushed. A trace of ringing, and a little edge enhancement show in a few frames, as does a hint of wobble, but each instance is brief. Otherwise, artifacts and other anomalies are absent. Like many of Woody Allen’s older films, “Sleeper” could probably look better with a fresh remaster. Unlike some of Woody’s older films, as is, the current Blu-ray still looks fairly good.

Audio

A creative quirk keeps Allen’s movies in no more than stereo even into modern times, only because the director shucks conventions like surround sound. However, “Sleeper’s” English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono mix is not unconventional, and more representative of the time in which it was made. Few comedies were produced in any other format in 1973. The lossless rendering is quite good; dialogue is clean, and the score, composed and performed by Allen (with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra—yet another anachronistic element clashing against “Sleeper’s” post-modern setting, and one of Allen’s first films to use music editing to a great extent—has excellent fidelity. Additional options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, and subtitles in English and Spanish are also included.

Extras

The only supplement is a theatrical trailer (1080p, 2 minutes 19 seconds) for “Sleeper”. Allen shot additional material specifically for this tongue-in-cheek preview, which makes it worth checking out, and, in my mind, a genuine extra.

Packaging

“Sleeper” arrives on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox, distributing the film for MGM Home Entertainment. The single-layered BD-25 is region A coded and housed inside an Elite eco-case.

Overall

Today, “Sleeper” is perhaps the best of Woody Allen’s less serious output from the filmmaker’s formative period before “Annie Hall” (1977). “Sleeper” is a smart satire and parody of the time in which it was made, as well as a timeless send-up to both classic sci-fi and silent comedy. Fox and MGM’s Blu-ray release offers a generally pleasing high definition transfer, a serviceable soundtrack in Woody’s preferred monaural format, and, exactly as Allen likes, without any supplements (aside from a trailer). Recommended.

The Film: A- Video: B Audio: B+ Extras: D- Overall: B

 


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