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.
For all its cocksure poise, The Matrix is powered by a queasy unease about the viability of the manifest world. So, too, with last year’s horror movies, in which the supernatural offers an escape from a present perceived as vapid, oppressive or irrelevant. “You don’t believe in curses?” legionnaire Brendan Fraser asks the Egyptologist played by Rachel Weisz in the genially silly remake of The Mummy. “No, I don’t,” she retorts. “If I can see it and touch it, I believe it.” Which makes her a sitting duck for the ancient mummified undead who try to take up residence in her fair body. The low-budget surprise hit The Blair Witch Project–also created by a bunch of young cyberfreaks–juggles the hyperrealism of an ersatz documentary with eerie intimations of paranormality. The movie tells a tale of three bickering student filmmakers lost in the woods as they film their own pursuit of the truth behind the legends surrounding the disappearance of some local children. When one member of the team, unhinged as much by the incessant presence of the camera as by the mounting evidence of a hidden hand impeding their progress, complains, “I can see why you like this video camera so much. It’s not quite reality–you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is,” he’s not just expressing mistrust of the techno-toys his generation is so obsessed with but a profound malaise with an unstructured world that offers him no guidance or passion.
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Perhaps the biggest (and pleasantest) surprise of 1999 was the stunning success of The Sixth Sense. It, too, dabbles in the beyond: A troubled little boy is haunted by the ghosts of those who return from the dead with unfinished business to transact. To him they’ve become more substantial than the young thugs who daily torment him at school, and in the end he befriends and helps them so they can rest in peace. For all its traffic with the supernatural, this soulful movie’s finest achievement is its unsentimental yet compassionate portrayal of the fluid borders of the modern family. Deeply loved by his brave, brassy, imperfect single mother, the boy takes his fathering wherever he can, finding relief in the company of an equally troubled child psychologist who may or may not be dead himself. The Sixth Sense was one of the few big films of 1999 with anything–or anything halfway intelligent–to say about the domestic sphere. That is, unless you count Big Daddy, a movie so thuddingly awful and so riddled with bad faith that one can only assume it coasted into the top ten on the strength of Adam Sandler’s 1998 hit, The Waterboy. Dolled up in transgressive attitude–Sandler’s unhero is a slacker with gay friends, a limitless supply of hooter jokes and a belligerently unorthodox approach to parenting the 5-year-old boy who lands on his doorstep–the movie soon unravels into a cloying adoption yarn in which biological parentage triumphs and Sandler, having renounced his claim to fatherhood, gets hitched to a go-getting lawyer and becomes a dad through “legit” channels.
That the list boasts one lonely romantic comedy (The Runaway Bride) in part reflects the studios’ unwillingness to entertain movies for audiences old enough to be interested in matrimony. It also hints at public anxiety about the fragility of love and marriage. Resting all too comfortably on the enormous (and enormously undeserved) success of Pretty Woman, the movie reunites Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, this time as a smugly sexist New York journalist and a small-town hardware saleswoman who has charmed hordes of men into proposing, only to bolt at the altar every time. It’s hardly cheering that this premise, presumably director Garry Marshall’s idea of a feminist reversal, resonated with enough female moviegoers, and the dates they dragged with them, to make the top ten. Divorced because, in the psychobabbling argot that clogs the movie’s screenplay, he failed to “see” his first wife, Gere remedies the situation by “seeing” Roberts clearly enough to set her straight about who she is and what she wants. Under his smirking tutelage, Roberts’s liberation will be achieved when she, not her prospective spouses, decides how she likes her eggs done. If there’s anything at all intriguing about The Runaway Bride, it’s the way the movie ties itself in knots trying to reconcile hard-pressed ideals of love for love’s sake, culled from that vanishing breed, the romantic comedy, with the psychotherapeutic bromides about sober maturity that are the preachy trademarks of the TV movie.
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Gere’s conversion to wedded bliss is about as convincing as the gaga, Rockwellian small-town community his bride inhabits. Indeed, only two of the top-ten movies boast anything resembling a credibly working Gemeinschaft. One is the solidary, cooperative society of apes in Tarzan, for which the good humans abandon civilization, a Hobbesian world filled with predators bent on raping nature for profit. The other, in the delightful Toy Story 2, falls into place when Andy’s old-fashioned toys band together to rescue one of their number–cowboy Woody–from an avaricious Collector. Woody must choose between a comfortable but frozen immortality as an objet d’art in a Japanese museum and the real-life dangers of remaining dependent on a child who may one day grow up and forget him. Naturally the toys decide that “life’s only worth living if you’re loved by a kid,” but the affirmation of their final cry that
“We’re part of a family again” is undercut by a nightmarish earlier scene straight out of Walter Benjamin, in which Buzz Lightyear enters a hellish building cloned from Toys ‘R’ Us and finds himself marooned on a shelf amid hundreds of shiny replicas of himself, one of whom tries to usurp him and so derail the effort to rescue Woody. Thus does Toy Story 2 emerge as a work of art fashioned by the agents of mechanical reproduction. And now I suppose you’ll be expecting me to extract nuggets of potent social meaning from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Get away with you. Even a film critic has her dignity.