Woody Allen's Sleeper is a sci-fi comedy -- a small sub-genre. This United Artists film was co-written and directed by and stared in by Woody Allen. Normally, this much one-man-show-ness spells doom for a film, but Woody makes it work. His deadpan style of humor and witty one-liners are abundant. Diane Keaton co-stars as the hapless woman of the future and Allen's love intreats. The plot of Allen's story toys with elements of older sci-fi classics. His direction mingles all that with old style comedy from the 1920s (sight gags) and slapstick. Broadly speaking, Sleeper is a blend of 1984 and the Keystone Cops.
Quick Plot Synopsis
In the year 2173, a lost cryogenic capsule is found by some doctors sympathetic to a revolutionary underground. Since the frozen man will have no official ID, he can be used to infiltrate government facilities. The frozen man, however, is MIles Monroe (Allen), a nerdy former owner of a health food store in Greenwich Village. HIs reawakening does not go smoothly, with many comic moments. The doctors take him to a moderne home for reintegration into 22nd century reality. Police raid the home. The doctors tell him to flee west and find out about The Aries Project. He escapes via comic chases, eventually hiding in a van of domestic servant robots. He dresses up as robot from spare parts and gets dropped off at the home of Luna (Keaton). She takes him to the repair shop for a better head. Much hilarity ensues. Miles then kidnaps Luna, trying to enlist her help. She plays along until they get to another house. She calls the police. When they arrive, a chase ensues with Miles in an inflated rubber suit. The police take Luna, to erase her brain for having been in contact with the alien. Miles rescues her via his inflated suit as rubber raft. They get back to the house Miles was first at. The police raid it. Miles hides Luna so she can find the Underground. MIles is captured and taken back for reprogramming. More absurdity follows. (Miles as Miss Montana) Meanwhile, Luna tries to become the forest denizen with comedic results. She is captured by Erdo, leader of the Underground. She becomes a guerilla fighter, eventually recapturing MIles. Luna and Erdo try to break Miles reprogramming via staged Jewish suppers. This leads Miles into acting as Blanche du Bois. Miles wakes up cured. He and Luna then sneak into a government hospital, posing as doctors. They are mistaken for a pair of famous doctors and attend a briefing. The totalitarian Leader actually died 10 months ago from a rebel bomb. All that was saved was his nose. Miles and Luna are expected to clone from the nose, a new Leader. More silliness results. They escape yet again, and discover that they both love each other. Kiss. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
It's a comedy. Allen's one-liners are fun. The slapstick and sight gags are fun too. Also fun for sci-fi fans are the many tie-ins to some classics. More on those below.
Period Humor: Many of Woody Allen's zippy one-liners depended on his audience being steeped in early 70s American culture. Those born after that period would likely not find them so funny. For instance: in the "History Lesson" skit, Allen identifies (or misidentifies) several photos of celebrities. Of Charles DeGall he says he was a famous french chef. Of Norman Mailer, he says he donated his ego to science. Of Richard Nixon, he says the secret service had to count the white house silverware. Shown a video clip of a Howard Cosell commentary, Allen says watching it was a state torture for dissidents. Someone who did not know these people (beyond name and face) would not get the jokes. It's hard for humor not to be zeitgeist-centric. Consider the sci-fi comedy Just Imagine ('31) with its references to Henry Ford, Prohibition, etc. There's much humor in the moment, even if the moment is fleeting.
Sci-fi References -- The overall plot of Sleeper roughly parallels that of H.G.Wells' novel "The Sleeper Awakes," (1897) except that MIles does not wake up rich. At one point, Miles says he feels like Flash Gordon, though his situation is more like that of Buck Rogers -- awakened into a new age with tyrants to fight. The heavy-handed police state and reprogramming of dissidents, there are strong allusions to Orwell's 1984. Allen included a nod to Kubrick's 2001 with the surgical assistant robot. Allen hired the same voice talent (Douglas Rain) who was the voice of HAL. Allen also included close-ups of the robot's green glowing eye. With the nose of the Leader to be cloned to make a new Leader, these is even an homage to such silly films as They Saved Hitler's Brain. All these are touches a sci-fi fan could enjoy.
Selected One-Liners -- Allen is famous for his one-liners. Here are a few.
Rebel Doctor:"If they catch you, they'll simplify your brain!"
Miles: "My brain? That's my second favorite organ."
Rebel Doctor: "Haven't you ever taken a political stand?"
Miles: "Yes. Once, I refused to eat grapes for 24 hours."
Luna: "What does it feel like to be dead for over 200 years?"
Miles:"It's like spending the weekend in Beverly Hills."
Luna: "Do you believe in God?"
Miles: "I believe there is an intelligence in the universe, except for certain parts of New Jersey.
Luna:"I believe there's someone out there who watches over us."
Miles:"There is. Unfortunately, it's the government."
Miles finds Luna completely wrapped in tangled magnetic tape. "For a minute there, I didn't think you knew how to work the machine."
Luna: "Do you want to perform sex with me?"
Miles: "I don't know if I'm up to performing, but I'll practice with you."
Luna: "What do you believe in? (Not God, science or politics)
Miles: "Sex and Death. Both come to you once in a lifetime. But after death you're not nauseous."
Sight Gags -- Allen paid great homage to the early comedy films of Charlie Chaplain, The Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy, even the Three Stooges. Watch for the giant banana peel that Miles and the guard keep slipping on. Watch for the police bazooka which keeps failing spectacularly. Watch for the silly chase scenes (there are many) The bickering Jewish tailor robots (with large noses) are a treat.
Future Home Of… -- The film was shot in and around Denver. Several local landmarks show up, such as the NOAA Research Center in Boulder (the radar dome) and the Mile High Church of Religious Science's swooping arched entry as a future McDonalds. The "Sculpted House" on Mount Genessee is the place Miles is taken to after he wakes up. This futuristic house was built in 1963, but the designer (Charles Deaton) never got to live in it. Due to financial troubles, the house remained unfinished inside and unoccupied for decades. It is during this period that Allen used it for his movie. In 1991, a buyer bought the house from Deaton, but did nothing with it. In 1999, a new buyer purchased the house and spent millions finishing the interior. In 2006, he sold it. This owner actually lived in the house, but then sold it to a Denver real estate investor for $1.5 million at a foreclosure sale. A futuristic house with a troubled past and bleak future.
Bottom line? Woody Allen's humor isn't for everyone. His period humor will likely elude younger viewers. The slapstick, however, can be enjoyed by kids of all ages. The many allusions to other sci-fi movies are like "easter eggs" for the serious sci-fi fan, but not seeing them does not detract from the film. Sci-fi comedy is rare enough to make Sleeper worth seeking out.