'Voyager' founders on the shoals of its pretensions

August 26, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Talk about banging the tin drum of art movie pretentiousness too slowly! Here comes Volker Schlondorff's "Voyager," one of those loony jihads of densely European existentialism that's as light as a potato pancake slathered in sour cream.

Destiny! Free will! Coincidence! Incest! Myth! Sam Shepard!

The movie, derived from a famous Swiss novel by Max Frisch, is really more a philosophic argument than a story; one feels its incidents being crudely stage-managed to spotlight this or that position rather than the organic and logical emergence of incident out of character. It's like listening to graduate students arguing in a coffeehouse. You want to say one word to them: "Plastics."

Anyway, Shepard plays Walter Faber, an American engineer (Swiss in the novel) working for UNESCO in the '50s. He's the ultimate rational man, fascinated with machinery, sure that human consciousness can understand all the mysteries of the universe and arrogantly uninterested in so-called "deeper" speculations about the nature of man and the world. Big mistake, Walter.

Shepard the icon is perfect for the part, with that lanky American diffidence, that raspy, laconic way of speaking. But Shepard the actor is no match at all. He's almost completely stiff, and his line readings have that amateur's vagrancy of breath control and strangely misplaced stresses. When he formally reads the ornate neo-noir voice-over, the result is ludicrous, like Clint Eastwood singing Gilbert and Sullivan. So the central illusion -- Shepard is Walter Faber -- never grabs hold.

That's a big problem; but so is the story. As Faber goes through his life, it seems to circle back on him, involving him in coincidences that are literally beyond belief. He worries about a "chain of circumstance," but of course the larger implication is that behind the screen of happenstance that is the universe there is indeed a master plan. Maybe so, but I doubt the master planner works quite this tidily. For example, in an airport in South America he just happens to sit next to someone who is the brother of the man who married the pregnant woman he abandoned back in the '30s in Switzerland. This seems to draw him back toward his youth, but a plane crash -- maybe the most poorly staged aviation disaster in film history -- breaks his chances of reconnecting.

The master planner, however, still has cards up his sleeve, and bumps Walter into meeting up and falling in love with a young woman who also is linked to that fateful troika back in the '30s. I won't tell you who she turns out to be, but if you don't guess it a good hour before he does, you ought to give up your movie-fan secret decoder ring.

So the big-twist ending doesn't work. It's a naive little import, somewhat amusing in its pretension.

'VOYAGER'

Starring Sam Shepard.

Directed by Volker Schlondorff.

Released by Castle Hill.

Unrated.

**

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