Entry #19: Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

Welcome to the fifth entry of six in my mini sequel marathon. This entry is really a cheat, since it’s not the fifth film in a series. But that’s okay. It’s not really a time travel film either!
Based on a book by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come unstuck in time. The character leaps from an old man living in America, to a young chaplains assistant during World War II. Written during the 1960’s, the book has been hailed as a seminal work; using a non-linear narrative to tell Billy’s story. Unfortunately, the film seems to be as much a time travel film as say, Pulp Fiction, with its non-linear narrative.

Other than the author typing a letter to the local newspaper, saying he’s “unstuck in time,” there’s really nothing in the narrative that indicates he’s aware of the “leaps.” Billy is typing at his typewriter, looks into the camera, and the next shot is 30 years prior in the snow during World War II. The character does not say to anyone that he’s time traveled. There’s no sound effect or other indication filmicly that he’s done so either. It’s just a simple non-linear edit to similar actions in another location.

And that’s how the story proceeds for about 85 of it’s 104 minutes. The story transitions between Billy’s home life, getting married, raising his dog, and then having children and the time he spent as a POW in Germany during World War II which climaxes with the bombing of Dresden. Then, apropos of nothing, a ball of light invades his room and transports him to the planet of Trafalmadore.

There he is greeted by the voices of the Trafalmadorians, fourth-dimensional beings that keep him like a specimen in a zoo. They admit to knowing all that has ever happened, and all that will. They, however, refuse to change events since that’s what has always been. They confide in Billy that since changing events are impossible, he should ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.

The film continues between Trafalmadore and his later years, with little or no “flashbacks” to harrowing and hurtful events of the War. It concludes some years in the future with Billy giving a speech in front of a crowd, and admitting that he will be killed that very day. His advice to the crowd is the same advice the Trafalmadorians gave him, to always focus on good times. He then provide the Trafalmadorian greeting of “Hello. Farewell.”

It’s hard to say how this was received at the time. It seems like it might have been relatively cutting edge in terms of story structure and editing for 1972. But today, without any cues, it just a jumbled up chronological story. The ending barely admits that there’s any real time travel involved. Perhaps it’s just Billy’s memories. He does visit an alien planet and is apparently returned to Earth after a time, but time travel? I say not so much.

Look for one final entry in the sequel marathon coming soon!


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