Filmsite Movie Review
Sleeper (1973)
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Sleeper (1973) is one of Woody Allen's funniest films - a science-fiction satirical comedy classic and screwball comedy about the dystopic future 200 years ahead during a totalitarian, police-state regime in the year 2173 - with Dixieland and swing music (from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra). The futuristic world in the 22nd century had magnified all of the worst traits of current society, including hedonism, materialism, and a complete reversal of common vices (i.e., organic foods were now considered unhealthy). Allen's sole sci-fi film was loosely based upon H.G. Wells' rewritten dystopian 1910 novel "The Sleeper Awakes" (based on Wells' own earlier serialization "When the Sleeper Wakes" from 1898-1899).

The madcap chase film portrayed a rebellion against "group-think" and Big-Brother authorities by the main protagonist and his love interest. It provided incisive comic commentary on contemporary politics, customs, styles, and fads along with the practice of cloning. The political and social backdrop of the US in the early 1970s included the Watergate Scandal, the dethronement of President Richard Nixon, the narcissistic "Me" Decade, and other cultural and commercialized obsessions such as health food, beauty contests and revolutionary politics. A variety of futuristic sci-fi gags included elaborate props such as gigantic hydroponic plants, robots, flight suits, and intimacy-free techno-gadgets (the Orb, videophone, and the automated Orgasmatron). In many ways, the sci-film comedy was a parody of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

The title "Sleeper" had a number of metaphoric contexts: it specified the 'sleeping' state of the citizens of the 'brave new world' society debased by machines, including the female protagonist. In a new poem written by the complacent socialite, she spoke about being transformed from a butterfly into a caterpillar - a reversed metamorphosis - although she often admitted she preferred being robotically mesmerized in life by her shallow pleasure-gadgets. The title also referred to the awakening of an uncommitted, 'sleeping' Rip Van Winkle (or Lazarus) character to a dystopic world 200 years into the future in the year 2173, who faced being 'woken up' emotionally and politically to aid in a revolutionary rebellion against authoritarianism (in the form of a lobotomized Leader). Significantly, when both characters met, they were both wearing masks - she had green-tea facial cream (to awaken her skin) while he was white-faced (and disguising himself as a non-feeling robot). And later, they both switched roles when she was converted to the rebel side, while he was brainwashed into the obedient society.

The taglines on the film's posters stated:


This film was from Allen's earlier period, when he was known for appearing in or directing lightweight comedies, such as Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again, Sam (1972), and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). This comedy was a transition film for the director since it was the earliest example of a Woody Allen film with a fairly distinct storyline - with a beginning, middle, and ending. All of his previous films were a stitched together series of gags, vignettes and one-liners.

Allen, who starred and portrayed his typically neurotic, obsessed, morbid, and sexually-frustrated nerdy Jewish New Yorker self, starred with his ex-girlfriend Diane Keaton - her second film with him following their appearance together in Play It Again, Sam (1972), although this was her first Allen-directed film. An alternate title for the film was: Woody and the Robots.

Filled with one-liners, Allen's wacky spoof both satirized the 1970's and parodied sci-fi books and past classics, such as Buck Rogers "Serial" (1939), Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), George Lucas' THX 1138 (1971), George Orwell's futuristic novel 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It also evoked such slapstick comedy classics as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, the Keystone Kops, Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933), and more recently the Bob Hope comedies of the 1940s. Like Chaplin in many of his films, Allen directed, wrote, starred in, and composed the soundtrack for this film. Mike Myers' Austin Powers series owed a considerable debt to this film.

The sets and costumes were slick and sterile, and in many cases selectively used primary colors:

  • RED and BLACK - security police uniforms
  • BLUE - simulated beauty pageant swim-suit contestants
  • GREEN - the computer's eyes and facial cosmetics
  • WHITE - doctors' uniforms, many backdrops

Its production budget of $2 million was offset by its strong reception at the domestic box office (revenue of $18.34 million), and became the 10th highest grossing film of 1973. As a zany comedy, it was unexpected that it would receive Academy Awards nominations, although it was a nominee for Best Original Comedy Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.

Plot Synopsis

Title Credits:

The title credits were typical for a Woody Allen film - tradmarked with plain white type spelling out the names on a black screen, accompanied by Dixieland jazz music.

Discovery and Opening of a Capsule From the Past Holding Cryogenic Patient Miles Monroe:

The film opened in a futuristic-type society with bubble cars. A cryptic conversation was occurring between two men about bringing up (awakening) a subject found in the woods in an intact capsule a week earlier. Two doctors, American Federation scientists, were supervising the discovery:

  • Dr. Orva (Bartlett Robinson), with a goatee and glasses, balding
  • Dr. Tryon (Don Keefer)

According to Dr. Orva, the individual was "frozen in 1973 which means he's been under for 200 years," thereby indicating that it was 200 years into the dystopian, post-nuclear future - in the year 2173. In a sterile laboratory, the capsule was opened to reveal a white-clothed body cryogenically 'frozen' (with liquid nitrogen), whose feet, hands and face were wrapped in cheap aluminum tin-foil. There was very little information about the subject except a data card and some personal artifacts:

"The subject was 35 years old at time of initial cryogenic emergent. His name Miles Monroe."

Miles Monroe was part-owner of a Greenwich Village (Bleecker St.) health food store (the "Happy Carrot Health Food Restaurant"). He was also a jazz clarinet musician with the Ragtime Rascals. The subject had been admitted to New York's St. Vincent's Hospital in 1973 for the "routine exploration of minor peptic ulcer" when complications arose. The "physical damage" was repaired but the patient never regained consciousness. As the patient began to awaken from his Rip Van Winkle phenomenon, there was worry that his brain might suffer "damaging trauma." As the tin-foil was peeled up and rolled back from the subject's face, the nose and face of nebbish, nerdy and stupefied-looking Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) still wearing thick black-rimmed glasses was slowly disclosed. He was assisted in sitting up - he took a drink of water and ate a glob of blue synthetic food, but like an infant just learning to drink, he dribbled out the water (due to a slowly-recovering swallow reflex). Although disoriented and not "ready" to be awakened, the doctors supported his first ambulatory steps.

[Note: There was mention of taking him to "the farm" - this revealed that the doctors were in fact, members of an anti-government, underground rebel cell, opposing the totalitarian and draconian state where records of the past had been destroyed and history was unknown.]

When first unwrapped, revived, and slowly defrosted and awakened from a long deep-freeze sleep after a botched surgery, Miles struggled to learn to walk. He staggered around for his first steps like a zombie-like Frankenstein (1931), although he stumbled backwards. Alarms sounded with the arrival of security forces, as many of the doctors fled. Ravenous, Miles chewed on a white latex surgical glove, regurgitated it, and blew it up like a balloon. A third medical specialist, Dr. Melik (Mary Gregory), entered to disguise Miles in a doctor's gown with assistance from Dr. Orva, and then misled suspicious black leather -clad SECURITY police who entered the lab and asked about an unusual increase in power consumption. Dr. Orva claimed that had been given authorized clearance to test a new ray, and work on their "Venus Project." As they talked, Miles was racing across the room while slumped in a motorized wheelchair, spinning in circles, bumping into everyone, and feared to be convulsing.

Miles Hidden in Dr. Melik's Futuristic Home in the Year 2173:

Dr. Melik and Dr. Agon (John McLiam) led their patient to an awaiting futuristic bubble car in the parking garage, and drove him to Dr. Melik's modernistic home in the woods to hide him. By the next morning, Miles had almost fully recovered and had requested organic foods for breakfast, but was chided for not choosing the health benefits of steak, deep-fried foods and hot fudge:

Dr. Melik: "This morning for breakfast he requested something called 'wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.'"
Dr. Agon: (chuckling] "Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties."
Dr. Melik: "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?"
Dr. Agon: "Those were thought to be unhealthy. Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true."
Dr. Melik: "Incredible."

When informed of his whereabouts and what had happened to him by Dr. Melik, filmed in silent-movie style (with no dialogue), Miles reacted with incredulity -- ragtime piano music played in the background. Miles collapsed and later expressed his amazement to the doctors: "I can't believe this! My doctor said I'd be up and on my feet in five days. He was off by 199 years!... To me, a miracle of science, is going to the hospital for a minor operation, I come out the next day, my rent isn't 2,000 months overdue. That's a miracle of science. This is what I call a cosmic screwing!" He asked about those he had left behind:

Miles: "And then where am I anyhow? What happened to everybody? Where are all my friends?"
Dr. Orva: "You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly two hundred years."
Miles: (aghast and staggered) "But they all ate organic rice."
Dr. Orva: "You are now in the year 2173."

Dr. Orva explained that they were in the "Central Parallel of the American Federation" - a district once known as the SW US. Miles learned that 20th-century civilization was destroyed by war over a 100 years earlier when Albert Shanker, an aggressive education reformer and controversial labor union activist "got a hold of a nuclear warhead." [Note: Shanker was President of New York's United Federation of Teachers at the time of the film.] Miles was going to be kept in hiding for two more weeks for additional testing. Miles was still overwhelmed: "I still can't believe this," and then was told that his awakening was highly illegal and "in strict opposition to government policy." If caught, the doctors and Miles would be destroyed: ("Your brain will be electronically simplified"). He reacted to news of the futuristic, totalitarian, reprogrammed society run by a police state:

"My brain? That's my second favorite organ."

Worried about the new world that he was awakened to, Miles asked about the current government: "What kind of government you guys got here? This is worse than California." Dr. Orva was hoping one day for a revolution that would change the conformist society that was ruled by the guidance of the state's 'Leader': "There is a growing underground, Miles. And some day the revolution will come and we can overthrow our Great Leader." Miles' first inclination, however, was to go back to sleep: "If I don't get at least 600 years, I'm grouchy all day" - and he appeared emotionally unstable. He began to rant as he kept reliving his fish-out-of-water nightmare:

"I can't believe this. I go into the hospital for a lousy ulcer operation. I lay around in a Birds-Eye wrapper for 200 years, I wake up, suddenly I'm on the Ten-Most-Wanted List....I knew it was too good to be true. I parked right near the hospital."

Miles was also encouraged to smoke by Dr. Orva to calm him down: "Here, you smoke this. And be sure you get the smoke deep down into your lungs...It's tobacco! It's one of the healthiest things for your body. Now go ahead." Miles took a puff and then mentioned his long-lost stock portfolio: "You know, I bought Polaroid at seven. It's probably up millions by now." He fearfully watched (and then fainted) as Dr. Agon brought in a gigantic hypodermic needle for injection, but then applied the needle to the stem of a plant.

Miles' Identification of Historical Relics and Artifacts:

As part of his further testing, Miles was shown unidentified "artifacts...from 1950 to 2000" - from his own 20th century past - and asked to provide important historical information on them ("very little exists"). He provided hilarious commentary about the enigmatic pictures and objects, including pictures of Stalin, Bela Lugosi, Charles DeGaulle, Billy Graham, and videos of Nixon, and more:

"This was Josef Stalin. He was a Communist, I was not too crazy about him, had a bad mustache, lot of bad habits. This is Bela Lugosi. He was, he was the mayor of New York City for a while, you can see what it did to him there, you know. This is, uhm, this is, uh, Charles DeGaulle. He, uhm, he was a very famous French chef, had his own television show, showed you how to make souffles and omelettes and everything. This is, uh, Scott Fitzgerald over here. A very romantic writer. Big with English majors, college girls, you know, nymphomaniacs. Uh, very well known.This is Chiang Kai-Shek, who I was not too crazy about either. This is Billy Graham. He was very big in the religion business, you know. He knew God personally. Got him his complete wardrobe. They used to go out on double dates together. It was a very big thing. They were romantically linked for awhile. This is some girls burning a brassiere. You notice it's a very small fire. Um, this I don't know what that is. It's a photograph of Norman Mailer. He was a very great writer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical school for study. And this - this I can tell you right away - this is a centerfold from a magazine they used to call Playboy. Which - um - these girls didn't exist in actual life, you know. They were rubberized. You had to blow them up and then you'd fasten it and you could spread ointment on them or anything else you. I'll just take this, you know, and study it later and give you a full report on it."

[Note: The Playboy centerfold shown to Miles Monroe was of Lena Sjööblom (Miss Playboy Playmate November 1972).]

He even had to identify the gag prop of a set of plastic chattering teeth (he exclaimed to the dour interrogator: "You see how funny it is?").

In addition two brief video-film clips were played:

  1. A brief excerpt of a black and white TV video was played of President Nixon's infamous "Checkers' speech (delivered on September 23, 1952), and then the historian theorized about Nixon, while Miles took the opportunity to criticize the current US president at the time:

    Historian: "Some of us have a theory that he might once have been a President of the United States of America, but that he did something horrendous so that all records, everything was wiped out about him. There's nothing in history books. There are no pictures on stamps or money."
    Miles: "Yes, he actually was President of the United States. But I know that whenever he used to leave the White House, the Secret Service used to count the silverware."

  2. An equally-brief video of ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports commentator Howard Cosell (as Himself) speaking about Muhammed Ali's career marred by controversy and retirement. The Historian noted: "At first, we didn't know exactly what this was, but we've developed a theory. We feel that when citizens in your society were guilty of a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this." Miles concurred that Cosell's video functioned as a torture device: "Yes, that's exactly what that was."

The Seizure of The Doctors by the Federation Police - Miles' Escape:

Miles was served a meal in Dr. Melik's house, complaining about its "awful" taste: "I could have made a fortune selling it in my health food store." Sophisticated labor-saving robots, one of the society's "biggest industries," served the meal. Miles joked with the alert and responsive domestic servant Robot (Whitney Rydbeck), a model named Janus 414: "I've gone out with girls that have less movement than that." Miles was curious and asked Dr. Melik: "Are there female robots? 'Cause the possibilities are limitless, you know."

Plans were in progress to take Miles to the Western District, the headquarters of the underground rebels, who were opposed to the Aries Project of the totalitarian society's government - the project was a "secret plot" designed to destroy the revolutionaries, led by their "Leader." He found out that he was considered both a subversive alien fugitive by the Big Brother-type totalitarian government (the American Federation) and a savior to the rebels wishing to overthrow it. The rebels described their rationale in having Miles join their side as a spy, to overthrow the Aries Project and 'The Leader.' He was told that he did not actually exist, because he could not be ID'd or surveilled due to having no biometric identifiers. He had not been scanned, computerized, finger-printed, photographed, voice-printed, or catalogued as a persona (Dr. Orva: "You have no number! You can be used to penetrate!"). However, he declined to participate in the rebellion and pleaded that even pacifist Quakers had roughed him up:

Dr. Melik: "And if you're captured, you don't know anything. Why, they could torture you for months. What could you tell them?"
Miles: "Only my name, rank, serial number - and YOUR name."
Dr. Orva: "Miles, you've got to help us!"
Miles: "I’m not the heroic type, really. I was beaten up by Quakers....I never get involved in anything where I could be tortured."

When Federation Security Police (wearing red-leather uniforms and motorbike helmets) surrounded the house and seized the doctors, Miles was told to take action - to flee to the Western District and join the rebels.

During a slapstick escape sequence (with ragtime music), the doctors were caught (and rendered unconscious before being taken away), while Miles evaded capture. He stepped into a bubble car but couldn't manage the controls. He grabbed a single jetpack gyro-copter that uncontrollably flew off. One of the film's running gags was the progressive failure of a bazooka-styled weapon (with a plunger device) by the police. In its first firing, part of the weapon was destroyed when it back-fired.

Miles donned a second single jet-pack gyro-copter onto his back and vainly attempted to fly away, and complained when it failed: "Fly, God damn it, fly! God damn cheap Japanese flying packs!" He became caught in tall tree branches, jumped down to the ground, and ran to a road where a commercial "Domesticon" van was parked. He escaped by hiding in the back of the vehicle, stocked with robots ready for delivery.

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