Slaughterhouse-Five

This is not a horror film, much to the confusion of the staff at my local HMV, who put it in the horror section presumably based on the title alone. In actual fact it’s a time warping war film about a man who struggles to stay put in a single time period.

World War Two veteran Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) regularly jumps to different periods in his life, à la Time Traveller’s Wife. In various disconnected segments, we see Billy’s childhood, time serving in the military, later life, and….another period in in his life which is far more sci fi.

Most of the film feels like a simple non linear recounting of a person’s life. The time travelling aspect at first has so little apparent impact on Billy’s life that it could be that he is simply drifting into memories of his past. The film’s focal point is his time as a prisoner of war, and witnessing the bombing of Dresden, so the idea that he would continue to reflect on this throughout his life is not a particularly far fetched one.

In one scene, Billy is in a hospital next to an American man who is writing a history of the war and plans to skirt over Dresden to show the US in an unduly positive light. Dresden is something which is almost never mentioned in pro American war films, and the fact that it is the focus here shows a refreshing honesty akin to The Enemy Below or Das Boot. While the focus is on American veterans, the crimes of America in the war are not disguised. It’s particularly unusual for a character’s main trauma from the Second World War to be something committed by his own side.

It’s also about life and experience, bringing in determinism vs free will, and exploring the idea that life is just a series of moments put together in a random order. At times it’s surreal, but it’s a very interesting and original idea. It’s also a very well made film, with high production values and good performances, especially from Sacks who plays Billy convincingly across a wide range of ages.

This can’t have been an easy story to adapt for the screen, and it will be interesting to see Guillermo del Toro and Charlie Kaufman’s take on it in the remake. It’s a very odd film, because of its serious war elements, humorous moments and sci fi time travelling plot device, but oddly it all works.

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