Shitty Movie Sundays: Slipstream

Slipstream, the 1989 movie from producer Gary Kurtz, is a rare film. It must be, since this is one of the few times I mention the producer of a film before I mention a director, screenwriter, or star. So, why the top billing for Mr. Kurtz?

It’s because this movie ruined him as a big time Hollywood producer. Kurtz produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He produced two of the most important films in blockbuster history, having an effect on studio films that still reverberates to this day. Then, creative conflicts with George Lucas led to a split, and Kurtz went his own way.

His next two films were The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz. The former was a moderate success that has become much-beloved, while the latter was a flop (both are creepy films). His situation became financially precarious with the production of Slipstream. He needed a hit about as badly as anyone in Hollywood ever did. But, he didn’t get one. Slipstream was so much of a failure in limited release overseas that it never premiered theatrically in the States, and quickly entered the public domain.

Kurtz’s woes mean little to us shitty movie fans, however. We got a decent watch out of the deal. The only drawback is that there is some spectacular location work in this film, shot in Turkey, Ireland, and North Yorkshire, but since this film is in the public domain, there is no incentive for a proper digital print to be made. The only prints one will find are transfers from the old VHS release, which was formatted for CRT televisions. All that beautiful scenery is low-res, with fading color, and cut off so it fits into a smaller box. For shame.

From screenwriter Tony Kayden and director Steven Lisberger (of Tron fame), Slipstream is a post-apocalyptic flick wherein a massive series of earthquakes has shoved all the continents together in an event called the Convergence. Viewers will notice there Slipstream movie posterisn’t a road in sight anywhere in this movie. Instead, humans travel from settlement to settlement aboard little prop planes, riding up and down the slipstream, which now operates sort of like a busy, navigable river in the sky.

The film opens with future cops Tasker and Balitski (Mark Hamill and Kitty Aldridge) on the trail of bespoke fugitive Byron (Bob Peck). They capture him, but while stopping at a seedy diner, black marketeer Matt Owens (Bill Paxton), learning that capturing Byron carries a reward, kidnaps him from Tasker and Belitski and flees into the slipstream.

It took a bit of work on the part of the plot, but once united, Owens and Byron become the main protagonists. Viewers spend the most time with these two, in a quasi road trip film that will be familiar to movie veterans. Their relationship begins as adversarial, but by the end, they are allies, if not inseparable friends. Slipstream is no Defiant Ones or Midnight Run, though. As far as I know, those films didn’t bankrupt their producers.

A well-worn and reliable story conceit was not enough to save this film. Nor was the ambitious screenplay, nor the high-falutin’ bombastic Hollywood score from Elmer Bernstein. This film just never gets out of the silly. A viewer will be hit in succession with moments of cheapness, bad lines, questionable effects, and general simpleness. This is clearly a b-movie, but it was never supposed to be. Sometime during the production, this film crossed a line and became something one would expect from Roger Corman. Only, he could have produced the exact same movie and made a profit.

Yes, this film failed as a moneymaker, but as is often the case, the bean-counters’ loss is our gain. Slipstream is a watchable movie. There may be bad lines, and some of the readings are a tad eye-rolling, but the performances are good. Paxton is an acquired taste, sure, but I left this film again wondering why Mark Hamill didn’t get more work in the ’80s and ’90s. And Bob Peck? No qualifiers. He was solid. Kitty Aldridge…not so much.

Slipstream is an adventure. Set piece after set piece is well-paced and mostly entertaining. The film has the right sheen of cheapness and ambition that we mutants love. It also has Ben Kingsley in one of the most overwrought death scenes in film history, and that guy once played Gandhi.

I didn’t think this movie would be as watchable as it is. I was expecting to cast it down into the lower depths with the frauds and the true incompetents. Slipstream makes it into the top 100 of the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, displacing John Carpenter’s Vampires at #74.

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