It was, of course, predestined that the top-grossing movie of 1999 would be Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which outstripped its closest competition by nearly $200 million to rack up a cool $431 million at the box office. Twenty-one years of mass-cult loyalty fueled the fires of the prequel’s success, which was further stoked by the marketing millions that Twentieth Century Fox sank into the movie. These days the film industry has eyes for one market only–little boys, including those housed in adult bodies. Star Wars, The Sixth Sense ($285 million), Toy Story 2 ($241 million), Austin Powers–The Spy Who Shagged Me ($205 million), The Matrix ($171 million), Tarzan ($171 million), Big Daddy ($164 million), The Mummy ($155 million), The Blair Witch Project ($140 million)–all were aimed at young males, especially the digitally literate. Which leaves only The Runaway Bride (languishing in ninth place with $152 million), a callow excuse for a “women’s movie,” which I shall scold more thoroughly anon.
Writing in these pages last year about the top-grossing movies of 1998, Carl Bromley noted a tendency in Hollywood movies, now that they no longer have Russia or China to kick around, to turn their rage inward and imagine the self-destruction of American political and cultural institutions. The view from 1999 suggests that this trend may quickly come to seem like the good old days. With few exceptions, last year’s blockbusters display diffuse anxieties about the collapse of the social structure itself. Politics, in the sense of a public arena animated by human intentions and leadership, elicits only the most languid interest. Heroism is ambiguous, the enemy more a figure of fun than a genuine threat to the social fabric. Reason and material reality give way to an obsessive concern with the supernatural and with cyberreality. Given the target audience, this unease about the boundaries of reality suggests that we should be even more worried about the psyches of the young than we currently are.
The odd man out is Star Wars Episode I, which despite its snazzy special effects registers as downright staid with its theme of a republic in decline and its unambiguous belief in heroism, personified in two strenuously homespun Jedi knights in ponchos, armed only with neon swords and humanist principles, who look as though they wandered in from Sherwood Forest. The movie’s archvillain, with his simian features and generically Asian accents, still bears the trappings of cold war xenophobia. With its big bad corporation, the Trade Federation, bearing down to eat a tiny peaceful planet alive, Episode I is in every sense a throwback, as much an excursion into the recent American past–when we still had foreign superpowers to soak up our paranoia–as it is into Darth Vader’s.
Compare and contrast the hipsterish cyberfantasy The Matrix, in which a rather indistinct young computer engineer and part-time hacker, aptly named Neo, wakes up to discover that the twentieth century is a simulation. Those of us who have seen enough of the last hundred years to know what we have to answer for may find a secret relief in that. To a generation of cyber-surfers, virtual reality is the place they call home. The Matrix is a computer-generated world dreamed up by faux-dastardly government agents, archly fitted with Tarantino shades and black suits, to enslave the human race. Though Neo bravely chooses to take a red pill that will enroll him in an undercover freedom training program rather than the blue pill that will maintain him in comfortable slavery, the movie strategically raises doubts about whether he is the One chosen to save mankind. The heroic figures in The Matrix–a leather-clad black dude who’s the epitome of urban chic, a chain-smoking black homemaker and a hard-bodied, gimlet-eyed, all but anorexic love interest with cropped hair–are designed as much for the jokey maximum cool that boys love as they are for doing good. The Matrix cleaves lethargically to a pro forma libertarian individualism and a love-conquers-all resolution, reserving its kinetic, adolescent energy for the cyberworld in which it revels, a world in which the human body is an infinitely mutable laboratory experiment. In The Matrix it’s not just the boundaries between public and private spheres that have gone fuzzy, but those between the body and its habitat, physical or virtual.