Sleeper is a silly, smart, and enjoyable film. Its embrace of classic American silent comedy through ceaseless sight gags works remarkably well, with Woody Allen maximizing his minimalistic physical stature in imitation of a Keaton or Chaplin as few are capable of doing. Speeding up the film helps, along with ragtime music, to point the viewer back to comedy’s golden age. Put that together with Allen’s trademark punchline-driven dialogue, replete with constant mockery of the human condition in the 20th century, and you have the sort of humor that creates cultural and intellectual elitists out of its audience. A personal-favorite scene occurs when the analysts put Allen in front of various artifacts from ancient history (the 20th century) and ask him to describe them. While Allen is shown television footage of a sports commentator discussing a game that has ended, the doctor tells Allen, “We feel that when citizens in your society were guilty of a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this.” After a pause, Allen replies, “Yes, that’s exactly what that was.”
The film’s futuristic architecture is suspiciously reminiscent of the kind popular during the 60’s and early 70’s, which had that progressive, lesser-is-better look that put functionality in the back seat. It seems likely that Allen was conscious of this, foreseeing the inevitable retroactivity that ironically takes place when art’s first priority is to outdo itself. Though Allen himself is doing this, at least he builds upon the genre without merely imitating it. His single-sentence comedy-soliloquies verbally encapsulate the spirit of Chaplin’s Tramp, in what turns out to be Allen turning Chaplin on his head while perfectly maintaining the latter’s self-pitying routine.
Every time Allen is subjected to any form of technological artificiality, he is rendered silent, speechless. His initial wakeup from cryogenic sleep takes awhile, as he stumbles around a room without the control of his faculties. Later, while mimicking a servant robot at a party, he is given the task of passing around a drug orb, which makes him higher than anyone else. Later still, he hides out in the Orgasmatron, only to be discovered with the same look on his face: that of carefree bliss, and again verbally paralyzed. Allen’s complaint throughout the film is that he is being forced against his will to submit to all kinds of treatment, foremost of which is brain reprogramming. (“My brain? That’s my second-favorite organ!”) Clearly speech is Allen’s way of establishing personal identity. In a future run by a totalitarian regime (indeed, the dictator is a nose), subjectivity is removed through the effects of technology and its god, science. Allen’s view of science is low indeed, proclaiming it to be the death of the free, creative mind: “I don’t believe in science. It’s an intellectual dead-end.” Politics is no better, as he whines, “Political solutions don’t work; they’re all terrible!” It is not surprising that a character like Woody Allen, so renowned for his way with words, would see speech as the sine qua non of human freedom. Stating his disbelief in God, too, Keaton asks Allen what he does believe in: “Sex and death: two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death you’re not nauseous.”