I never thought of the 90s as a time for big social statements, but I was wrong. And the movies in this review are a great example of just how wrong I was.
As I mentioned in my 80s review, I love that decade! Obviously as an outside, I love to look back at the culture and media and enjoy what it had to offer. But you cannot deny that excess had taken over. And as the bombastic hair metal reached its peak, grunge showed up with a scowl and gave everyone the boot.
Tired of the materialism that had developed, we see the emergence of people questioning the meaning in everything around them. Postmodernism made its presence known in American culture. Even in politics, we see a swing that is all too familiar with people in the 21st century; the inauguration of President Bill Clinton based on a platform geared toward youth and promising change. Where have I heard that before? The debate continues as to whether the financial calm in the 90s was due to Clinton’s policies or the legacy of Reagan 80s. Interestingly, Clinton is beloved to this day despite having almost been impeached due to his infamous oval office exploits.
Social justice was a hot topic coming off of the AIDS scare in the 80s; benefits and concerts were held to spread awareness and find cures. Homosexual activism continued to grow and found a place in politics with the issue of gays in the military. Clinton exercised his now unthinkable policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Men and women with a homosexual orientation could join the military without anyone questioning their lifestyle as long as they didn’t make it known through word or deed.
Race relations in America were not great and looked almost as bad as…well, now. The Rodney King beating, which was a video released of police beating King seemingly for no good reason, was the catalyst for the L.A. riots which took place for six days in 1992. Tensions between blacks and the police were strained, just ask every Ice Cube album ever.
And of course, how could you not mention the O.J. Simpson trial. This was probably my earliest memory of something major happening on tv. It was the case of famed football player (though he was best in The Naked Gun) who allegedly murdered his ex-wife and her “friend” Ron Goldman. OJ was acquitted and much like the life of Michael Jackson, everyone knew he did it but many were happy to see him free.
Not much else happened in the 90s besides the internet being invented, cell phones becoming popular and Steve Jobs returning to Apple.
In this decade for movies we see an impressive mix of all the genres: dark, light, drama and fantasy. It was an eclectic decade in cinema and when you look at the message of the movies coming out of the 90s, you get a lot more depth than I expected. Here are three great examples:
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey and Gwyneth Paltrow. Directed by David Fincher
That last part is important, “Directed by David Fincher.” In case you didn’t know, that means really dark. He is the more mainstream but just as creepy Darren Aronofsky. And anyone who can take a movie about the origins of Facebook and make it an award winning drama must have a gift for digging deep. Seven proves that.
Seven is the “more than meets the eye” crime thriller about two detectives (Freeman and Pitt) who follow a series of murders that follow the pattern of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. The man behind the crimes, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is leading the detectives down his path to discovering who he is and why he is committing these crimes. In the end, the detectives find out that they place a role in this sinful tapestry John Doe is crafting.
What I find most interesting about this movie is how thoroughly it dissects the topic of “sin.” Better than any bible study you’ll every attend, this movie drags you through the darkness of mankind’s sinful nature. The common complaint I hear in modern Christianity is that people (pastors and the congregation) are too afraid to have an honest conversation about sin. This movie is the ultimate “be careful what you wish for.” It also is a prime example of what the gospel message is without Christ. It is purely about our fall and to a small degree God’s punishment. But how often do you get to see a major Hollywood movie starring A-list celebrities referencing Thomas Aquinas or Johnathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God?”
However I don’t want to depict this movie as the next great sermon tool. The imagery used is incredibly graphic and Brad Pitt has chosen to remove all punctuation from his dialogue and replace them with profanity. It is the hardest of R ratings.
The story is essentially simple with the old fashioned hard work detective (Morgan Freeman) shepherding the new, hot-headed and impatient detective (Brad Pitt). What makes this movie unique is 1) excellent acting from top to bottom, 2) the brutally honest depiction of evil and corruption and 3) what I will argue COULD be one of the greatest endings in all of cinema. I have seen this movie about five times so I am well aware of everything that happens. Despite that, I was on the edge of my seat to watch the ending plot come together, to see all the pieces fit into place and see that this certainly evil/deranged (but not entirely wrong) villain draw his plan to a close. As extreme as the content is, so the quality of this film is.
Here is a clip of John Doe summing up the thesis of this film. There is some strong language.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels. Directed by Gary Ross
You know that effect everyone uses for their senior photos, where everything is in black and white except one object (usually the person)? Well they made a social justice movie entirely from that effect. I can’t decide if it’s amazing because this movie did it before it was popular or boring because I have seen it in every aspiring photographer’s portfolio in the last 15 years.
I lean towards the former, because the rest of this movie earns it. Pleasantville is about a nerdy 90’s high school kid named David (Tobey Maguire) that obsessively watches a “Leave It To Beaver” type show called Pleasantville. It’s the image we all have of the perfect 1950s American household where nothing goes wrong and everyone is happy. One day a strange tv repairman shows up to fix their broken remote and gives them a magical remote. As David and his less-than-modest sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon,) fight over the remote, they are transported into the tv and into the world of Pleasantville.
The magical repairman/remote is a small price to pay to get them into this fun situation, so try to bear with it.
David and Jennifer try to navigate this foreign culture and blend in until they can figure out how to get back home. They discover quickly how hard it is for teenagers from Generation X to fit into this squeaky clean society. As they expose this world to new concepts and ideas, colors begin to appear. As time goes on, this is seen as a revolution to some and innocence is forgotten as color spreads. Along with the new vivid landscape comes a rebellion from the things once considered the norm. People that have become full color clash with those who are still black and white. The social unrest reaches its peak when David and the town soda jerk Bill (Jeff Daniels) paint a massive portrait on a public wall using “forbidden colors.” The town gathers to the city court as David and Bill are put on trial. David is able to demonstrate the becoming full color is inside everyone and changes the mayor from black and white to color. The town is excited to see what unknown future awaits them, Jennifer decides to stay and David is transported home to share his knew progressive wisdom.
Everyone has seen his movie at some point right? This, Remember the Titans and The Truman Show were played for us in High School constantly. And I always assumed it was a powerful tale of conquering bigotry and racism. The courtroom scene seems to drive that point home. But I think there is a lot more to this movie. And I also think I may have been crippled to seeing it because of my young Christian worldview. This movie brings in themes of racial segregation only in service of a larger point.
The Christian worldview sees innocence and a desire for the virtuous as a good thing. Not ignorance and childish understandings, but purity and humility in life. So when I saw this I completely missed the fact that they are caricaturing “old fashioned values” in its most ignorant form and saying that it is outdated and wrong. But this new, more progressive way of thinking that throws away traditions and barriers is good and righteous.
What bothers me about this message is that the modern progressive movement was shown as utterly fair and correct. They were just fighting the good fight. Moments of indiscretion were hurried by or seen as a good thing. The wife becoming sexually liberated thanks to a “birds and the bees” conversation with Jennifer, has an affair with Bill, and seemingly leaves her husband for him. The teens used to go out to Lover’s Lane to talk and hold hands, now they park their cars all in a row and have sex apparently 10 feet away from each other.
At the same time, some old values are demonized or distorted. All the books in Pleasantville are empty until David is able to fill them in. Now teens are going to the library to read and the adults look down on that. What parent would hate their kids spending the day in the library reading?
It’s a cynical look at the overly-romanticized view of the 1950s.
I’ve mentioned before that movies with worldviews I strongly disagree with are some of my favorite movies. You don’t have to agree with a movie to appreciate that it has an intelligent message that is communicated well. This movie fits that category. It’s a fun movie that will challenge you to think, dazzle you with visuals and most importantly- it will force you to understand the WHY’s of your beliefs and not just the WHAT’s.
There are two visual references to the
Garden of Eden so I’ll let you draw your own
conclusions from there. I think this movie’s worldview is best critiqued by G.K. Chesterton in his 1929 book, The Thing
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. Directed by Andrew Niccol
It feels good to get back to Sci-Fi. And this is HARD Sci-Fi, much more Star Trek than Star Wars. And as such, the philosophical implications are plentiful!
In the not-so-distant future, genetic engineering of embryos becomes a common occurrence. People can design the specifics of their children and weed out the potential imperfections. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is a rare natural birth without any genetic intervention. But in a world where most people are designed to be perfect, what used to be normal is now “less than.” Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut and seeing the stars, but is unable to compete for the job with near-genetically perfect humans, despite being smarter than most. Vincent opts to disguise his identity and pays for the use of another mans genetic tissue to get into Gattaca, where he can one day go into space. Jerome (Jude Law) is the man who Vincent will be buying his identity from. Vincent provides money while Jerome, a former swimming champion who was crippled in a car wreck, provides hair samples, urine samples, blood samples and any other sample necessary to keep up the daily con.
A murder is committed at Gattaca and the investigators find an eyebrow hair at the scene of the crime. This hair belongs to Vincent, who did not commit the crime but came to see the bloody scene like all other coworkers. A DNA analysis sends investigators looking for the true Vincent and now-Jerome tries to keep up his identity con and continue to prove he is not guilty. Coincidence ensues and Vincent, playing Jerome, is able to fly on his mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
I could spend days diving into the different sci-fi elements of this film so I’ll need to limit myself. The story of this movie is eugenics.
the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics)
This movie deals with a more scientific eugenics. Genetic manipulation of the zygote to create the “perfect” human. No people are discouraged from reproduction, though as the movie intelligently points out, society has a way of showing whom it favors. In this movie world, favoring the genetically altered (genoism) for things like jobs over natural births is illegal, but was commonly practiced. Somehow, those who were born naturally ended up with jobs usually in sanitation.
The heart of this movie is not unlike an old-fashioned war movie or a story where someone is trapped on an island. The raw human spirit, and the struggle with our imperfections is what makes us great. It’s man vs machine. Flesh vs metal. Spirit vs technology. Am I calling this a really smart version of Rocky IV? You bet I am.
The beginning of this movie is the strongest with its sci-fi elements and over all story. Seeing the lengths this smart but physically average man will go to in order to exist in the world of elites is impressive. Vicent cleans his work station hourly, he always has a blood and urine sample ready. Before bed he scrubs his body down and incinerates the tissue left behind. He is devoted.
The middle of the movie drags. The set up of the murder investigation that could lead people to poke around in Vincent/Jerome’s life has promise but gets weighed down a lot by a boring love plot with Uma Thurman’s character.
The third act of the film really drives home that message about the human spirit and determination to make your dreams come true despite the obstacles. It’s inspiring but also falls apart a bit. Sure Vincent escapes murder accusations and being found out… until we find out the main investigator is Vincent’s long lost brother. How convenient. And after keeping his identity safe he finally makes it to the mission launch and there is a surprise urine check. UH OH!
Thankfully the doctor testing his urine is an old friend AND someone with a son who isn’t genetically perfect and wants to go into space someday. As a father I tear up, as someone hoping for a well made story I roll my eyes.
This movie falls prey to a common Sci-Fi failure, it becomes dry and boring. Plus Ethan Hawke has always been a tough sell for me. He aspires to greatness with the movies he picks but he is just a bit too vanilla for me. And I think the excitement for the topic being discussed in the beginning sets you up for disappointment in the end as things stop being smart and start getting easy. It’s just barely recommendable because it deals with a subject that deserves discussion and takes an important stance against it. Eugenics as a philosophy has found ways to become mainstream, masked at times through subjects like Social Darwinism and the Holocaust. Its even made its way into America with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.
If you are looking for a conversation starter this movie has lots to say. If you like a story about the triumph of the human spirit this movie has at least two acts you’ll love! If you are looking for a fulfilling story line from start to finish you will be let down.
Thanks as always for checking out these reviews. You can take off the flannel and turn off that Ace of Base cassette because we are heading to the new Millenium. Suddenly partying like it’s 1999 seems less fun than it used to. Next time I’ll be looking at Avatar, X-Men and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If you have any questions about this review, want to discuss the vastness of 90s cinema, or want to fight over who is better- Nirvana or Pearl Jam, leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to follow us on twitter @World_Re_Views as we post mini-reviews on movies and literature.
Reviews by Ryan.
The correct answer is neither. Now go and listen to some AC/DC like an adult.