Respectfully, SLIPSTREAM does have a modest bit of charm to it. Besides Hamill (as Will Tasker, lawman), the film offers the always likeable Bill Paxton in what might be one of his earliest lead performances as the kinda/sorta fortune hunter and hustler Matt Owens; and it’s Paxton’s obvious chutzpah that makes much of even the dullest points of the plot work. The late Bob Peck – best known for his turn in Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK wherein he portrays the big game hunter tasked with keeping the predators under his watchful eye – plays Byron, an android (of sorts) on the run from Tasker for reasons that never quite get adequately explored. Throw in the fact that even the great Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham fill out important supporting roles and one begins to question why the film hasn’t been more widely seen … but leave it to those who have seen it to perhaps enlighten the rest.
Thematically, SLIPSTREAM is all over the place.
The feature opens with a voiceover – something I’ve often called a “kiss of death” for the Science Fiction film: if your world is so complex that it needs to be explained by essentially breaking the fourth wall, then you’re already embarking on a risky business. Basically, what we learn is that it’s the future, the Earth has suffered some kind of environmental catastrophe, and now mankind is left to navigate the planet via the ‘slipstream,’ an apparently global phenomenon perhaps a bit too mystical for something as simple as “wind.”
At times, the film feels almost juvenile, especially early on when Paxton’s antics resemble somewhat his performance in James Cameron’s ALIENS yet toned down as if presumably for a younger audience. However, once Peck and Paxton join forces, the film takes on an almost “buddy comedy” quality, all this in spite of the fact that Paxton’s Owens eventually seeks to profit from the bounty on the android’s head. Director Steven Lisberger sets much of SLIPSTREAM’s action in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland not all that dissimilar from George Miller’s MAD MAX films (indeed, the flick at times ‘feels’ like it could be in the same universe), with nifty air-gliders replacing the gas-guzzling vehicles. Late in the piece, however, SLIPSTREAM suddenly starts channeling SciFi’s meatiest elements with characters suddenly delivering brief soliloquies about space and time and one’s place in the remaining universe, even postulating (almost ironically) whether or not androids dream of electric sheep. (The wittier readers will understand the reference.)
Quantitatively, it all builds to a life-or-death showdown, but – qualitatively – methinks most audience members will be left scratching their heads over scenes involving vengeance and mercy in a film that spent so much of its time in the vastly more comfortable “fish out of water” territory. Hamill’s Tasker – in particular – is so poorly written by screenwriter Tony Kayden that it’s hard to understand whether or not we’re supposed to like or hate him; he’s introduced with a kind of ‘Han Solo’ charm but then out of the blue he starts thirsting for blood, so much so that I can’t help but wonder if the script was reworked at some point in the production process to ramp up the violence (or, at least, the potential for it).
Still, SLIPSTREAM remains a legitimate curiosity, at many times embracing the B-movie elements the way a good sleeper should.
I’ve done a bit of reading on the film (what little I could find), and what I’ve learned suggests that Kurtz – at one time a huge collaborator with George Lucas before their falling out sometime between THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI – was never quite pleased with finished product. Wikipedia suggests that the producer intended for the film to perhaps be a bit darker and with more violence, and it even admits that such changes might’ve strengthened the plot (which seemed disheveled, at best). Sadly, the film resides in the public domain, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever have any kind of special release with added features to tell us just what we missed.
I’ve written often of my love for B-movies, and I’d certainly consider SLIPSTREAM a B-movie but with grade-A talent. As a story, it works as often as it doesn’t; and as entertainment you’re likely to be as entertained as you are frustrated. But that’s one of the B-movies most endearing qualities: they force viewers to occasionally fill in a few blanks along the way, maybe even giving the audience the chance to connect in a way unlike major studio fare like STAR WARS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that are made and packaged to be experienced vicariously. Bill Paxton’s Owens may not always be noble, but he ends up that way; and Bob Peck’s android may not have a soul, but he finds one in spite of a few narrative contrivances. Anything else you find is just icing on the cake, and there are far worse baked goods out there than SLIPSTREAM.