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“I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it's the government.” - Woody Allen
This dystopian flavored quote seems more in sync with Agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files or even whistleblowers Edward Snowden or Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. It wouldn’t routinely be attributed to one of America’s funniest comedians and creative film artists. Woody Allen is many things to many people. To Hollywood and the performing arts community, he’s a towering figure, but the Woodman as a sci-fi visionary? It’s indisputable how playful Allen can be with his movies, jokes, books and public persona, but on par with the clairvoyant visual musings and wondrous ideas of Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas? For his loyal fans, however, the notion he’s a science fiction aficionado, fantasist or futurist isn’t so far fetched.
Way before it was hip to toss off one liners skewering America’s NSA eavesdropping on its own populace or worrying over our own advanced tech transforming us negatively, comedian, author, actor and filmmaker Woody Allen focused his inimitable laser laugh track on notions of big brother and beyond.
The scope of his cinematic catalogue spans as broadly as his fantastic ideas and rib tickling jokes. It runs the gamut from his hilarious mockumentary, Take The Money And Run, on the perils of bank heists and brandishing guns carved out of soap on rainy days - years before Christopher Guest would perfect the comedy art form in films such as Best In Show, Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind - to poignant character studies like Allen’s Oscar winning Blue Jasmine with Cate Blanchett.
Woody Allen’s auteur film vision varies wildly, covering every subject imaginable, but his first foray into the speculative realm of science fiction came with a cautionary tale of a common, ordinary man who’s frozen in the past - to be defrosted years later to wake up to a singularly wacky future.
“I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now.” - Miles Monroe in Sleeper.
Sleeper marks Woody’s first and most straightforward science fiction film, as with nearly all his cinematic romps, it's never overly complicated. He plays Miles Monroe, a health food store owner, who’s cryogenically suspended, then revived 200 years later, and introduced to a world he barely recognizes or understands.
Co-starring the one and only Diane Keaton (Baby Boom) - also his film cohort in Annie Hall, Play It Again, Sam, Manhattan and other collaborations, Keaton plays Luna Schlosser, an artist socialite. After going on the run from totalitarian authorities, Miles disguises himself as a robotic butler - like C-3PO dressed up in a blinking tuxedo. When he forcibly enlists Keaton’s Luna to run with him, the wackiness quotient ramps up.
Woody birthed the premise for Sleeper while walking down the street and thinking how funny it would be to have him frozen, then wake up in the future. Originally conceived as a massive opus - a three hour flick in two parts - Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman decided to pare down the screenplay to only reflect the future and fantastic sci-fi elements of Miles Monroe’s experience. Allen and Brickman also considered something incredibly daring - a future Earth where nobody spoke, enabling the writers to craft a silent movie, sans dialogue.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes has Woody, in robot butler disguise, handing guests of Luna’s dinner party a seductive orb - an electronic device which apparently transmits narcotic like sensations to one who holds it. The orb is a silver gleaming ball - a kind of electronic bong, and it isn’t long before Miles begins taking more hits than Luna’s guests, getting stoned out of his mind.
Woody Allen attended Public School 99 in New York - also known as the Isaac Asimov School For Science & Literature. The name would later prove prophetic, as Woody sent his Sleeper screenplay to the famed sci-fi writer for review and suggestions. Amid the funny moments and frivolity of the flick, Woody is proud of using cloning as a plot point in Sleeper - well before the public was familiar with the genetic process of biological copying. Says Allen, “At the time, that’s why I explained it (cloning) in the movie, cause people didn’t know what cloning was then, they had no idea. Now, it’s you know, everybody clones. “
Framing the speculative and manic sci-fi power of Sleeper, an exasperated Woody as Miles, keenly feeling the dilemma of his fish out of water status, says to Diane Keaton’s Luna: “I’m a clarinet player in 1973, and go into the hospital for a lousy operation, I wake up 200 years later, and I’m Flash Gordon!”
Imitation, the sincerest form of flattery? For Woody as the title character in Zelig, it might mean a distinct psychopathology or even a unique super power. Like a tortured refugee from Professor Xavier’s School of Gifted Mutants, Zelig assumes the physicality or persona of another individual as good or better than Jennifer Lawrence's face and body swapping skills when she’s playing X-Man Mystique.
In this hilarious mockumentary, Leonard Zelig has no choice but to imitate people. He needs to feel included in the group - as if he’s fitting into expectations of those around him, and so he becomes a superstar of his age - as the human chameleon.
Woody’s direction balances a detailed Zelig character study with how his aberrant, yet fascinating behavior impacts the lives of those studying him. Mia Farrow plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who falls in love with the baffling mimic. These days, in our now superhero obsessed age - with every other movie encompassing comic book heroes, villains and those in between - Zelig would fit in perfectly as a mutant or metahuman superman - one who can never be himself, but excels when he copies the dynamic personalities of others.
The Purple Rose of Cairo
“All that we see and seem. Is but a dream within a dream.” - Edgar Allan Poe - A Dream Within A Dream
“What if nothing exists and we're all in somebody's dream? Or what's worse, what if only that fat guy in the third row exists?” - Woody Allen
The motion picture experience remains a stabilizing cultural constant. Despite the progress of improvements courtesy of technological advancements like 3D or digital projection, going to the movies is a simple and familiar attraction to us. Its allure? Dreaming while awake. Within a dreamlike realm of fantasy, movie projector technology and its companion silver screen get into the act here, they’re used as devices to fulfill a wish which every movie fan has made. Allen takes the fanciful notion of movies being unleashed into our real world and explores the concept with both joyous abandon and real world pathos.
Inspired by the play, Six Characters In Search Of An Author, the BAFTA winner for Best Film of 1985 explores the idea of a character jumping off the screen to play amongst us flesh and blood humans in our real world. Jeff Daniels (Dumb And Dumber) plays both the fictional Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd, the actor who fleshed him out to cinematic life. Mia Farrow is a helpless, hopeless and abused housewife seeking refuge in the darkened comfort of a film house. She’s the catalyst for movie hero Tom Baxter to enter into the drab backdrop of Farrow’s character’s life.
Shifting focus back and forth from the idealistic Baxter, wrought from celluloid and light, who although innocent, can do no wrong to the crafty though charismatic Shepherd, Woody’s film is a fan favorite and one the director himself feels is among his very best. What of a science or sci-fi connection which channels and reflects the heady storyline?
Three dimensions are accepted in modern physics with the fourth being time and space or spacetime. What about crossing over into other dimensions? Could inter-dimensional travel become an accepted reality one day? More and more physicists are telling us that the concept of other dimensions - even ones merging into our own - is not only possible, but most likely probable. Could an entity like Tom Baxter come not from a movie theater, but travel from another dimension to invade or visit our own?
One of the more entertaining and narratively tantalizing aspects of The Purple Rose of Cairo comes when characters in other copies of the film in other movie theaters try to flee from their fictional worlds. This isn’t an isolated incident - it seems the first Tom Baxter has set off a chain reaction of an impending mass exodus. Chaos reigns among fictional people whom fans admire up on that silver screen. When and where will it all end? Watch the movie to see its poignant resolution.
Invisibility - the cloaking of an object to visual senses or detection by cameras is still a dream being pursued by science. From Star Trek to Harry Potter, it’s a well worn story element in books and films. Tech strides have been made, and advancements in stealth tech which can effectively cloak jet fighters from radar is feasible. However, true invisibility lives on only in the realm of sci-fi. It’s liberally used as a potent science fiction plot device, and here, Woody once again employs actress Mia Farrow to explore his heady speculative ideas in Alice.
Alice is a married woman and after ingesting medicinal herbs, she has a romantic fling. The taking of still more ancient herbs next grant her invisibility powers. It allows her to move around her husband and lover undetected, and it opens up more than a can of worms for all interested parties. Despite the fun of the power, one must wonder: If and when invisibility becomes possible for the human race, how much chaos and trouble will outweigh its benefits?
Midnight in Paris
Will time travel ever be possible? For Woody’s purpose as a storyteller, the manner or machine to achieve this fabled feat isn’t important, the ability to do so is simply required for his lead character to interact with several of the most famous literary figures of the past in Midnight in Paris.
Owen Wilson is Gil Pender, a successful, though by his own admission, a hack Hollywood screenwriter. He finds himself at a career and personal crossroads. He’s struggling to complete his first novel, and his fiancee wants to live in Malibu, but Gil wants to live in Paris - especially in the rain. This along with others of his quaint personality quirks angers his future wife. As personal conflicts build, Gil stumbles upon a time traveling car from the 1920s. It whisks him off to a bar where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter are alive and well and they offer to introduce him to American literary giant, Ernest Hemingway.
Unlike other time travel tales, where a traveler merely sees a generic future or a past with little focus, here we have purpose and connection - a writer meets his idols. An overriding theme of Allen’s movie is how each generation feels their era isn’t worthy of their time. There’s always a feeling among those tired and bored of where they are now of wanting to go back to that golden era in the past. It also poses a lingering question for all with access to a time machine: Would you go to a specific time and place to accomplish a goal or live out a dream, or simply go whenever and wherever the time machine brought you to randomly explore?
Perhaps one quote above all perfectly sums up how Woody Allen’s cinematic persona balances the realism and payoff of science and technology over more spiritual and philosophical aspects of the human condition.
“Nothing’s wrong with science. Ya know, between air conditioning and the Pope, I’ll take air conditioning.” - Deconstructing Harry
Additional Woody Allen Sci-Fi Speculative Thoughts
“I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe when it's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown. “
“What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”