In the penultimate instalment of Buff’s ongoing series, we re-examine one of the coolest decades in movies, from indie success stories to superstar actors, via the birth of truly digital filmmaking.
Our decades series reaches one of the finest of all time, featuring CGI blockbusters and indie smashes.
f the 1970s was a golden era in American cinema and the 1980s a rather brash change in direction, what was the 1990s? It’s true that the tent-pole blockbuster became more prevalent, but it was also a time when independent cinema blossomed, with fresh young voices emerging from the fringes of Generation X. Cinema attendance went up during the decade, too, as new technologies revolutionised the film viewing experience. With the arrival of digital, things would never be the same again.
Though digital technology came of age in the 1990s, computer-generated effects had been around since the early 1980s. The Genesis Experiment sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) was 64 seconds of cuttingedge visuals, while Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) had thrown up the first photo-realistic digital “character”, when a stained glass knight came alive to do battle with a petrified vicar.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the technology had ripened to a point that movies previously considered unmakeable were suddenly, thrillingly, possible. CGI effects were previously a simple garnish, but now they were the spine of the picture. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) was talked about as much for its innovative morphing effects as it was for any individual performance, while 1993’s Jurassic Park would, in an age before CGI, surely have been made with stop-motion models. And as efficient as David Koepp’s screenplay was, would it have worked with Ray Harryhausenstyle effects? It was the eye-wowingly photo-realistic authenticity of Steven Spielberg’s $63m crowd-pleaser that helped it become the highest-grossing movie of all time to that date.
T2 and Jurassic Park confidently announced to the rest of Hollywood that, within reason, anything was now possible. Want a movie where two black-suited figures track down rogue aliens? No problem. Fancy seeing Tom Hanks meeting President Kennedy? Sure, we can rustle that up. Recreate the Titanic? You betcha.
The rise of the blockbuster meant that, while the average film budget towards the end of the decade was $53 million, an escalating number of movies were spilling over the $100 million mark. And increasingly, during the 1990s, a healthy chunk of that money was being divvied out to actors.
The 1980s had birthed the idea of the superstar actor, the man or woman whose name could draw in the punters on opening weekend. And by the 1990s, these thesps were commanding more and more power. For the massive stars of the era – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey et al – this could include script approval, a say over the director and other casting choices, restrictions on the filming schedule and copious on-set demands.
Demi Moore reportedly insisted on private jets to shepherd her and her entourage around the world for the movies Striptease and G.I. Jane, while Jack Nicholson’s star wattage was so blinding in the 1990s that he was able to negotiate a clause stating that he didn’t have to work when there was an LA Lakers game on.
Blockbuster movies and superstar actors may have defined the ’90s, but it didn’t start out that way. In 1990 the three top-grossing movies were Ghost, Home Alone and Pretty Woman
– modestly budgeted and charactercentric. But fast-forward seven years and the biggest earner was Titanic.
In 1998, it was Armageddon. And then, in 1999, George Lucas bagged the top spot with his long gestating Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace.
What the tech
Of all the movies to sign up to the CGI revolution, it was the film otherwise known as Episode I that was most eager. Lucas had always been uncontainably excited about new technologies. He’d founded ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) in the mid-1970s and the company found itself leading the way in computer-generated effects during the ’80s and ’90s. Having tested out
‘Movies were spilling over the $100 million mark and the idea of the superstar actor, commanding more power, was birthed’
the new tech when sprucing up his original Star Wars trilogy for the Special Edition re-releases in 1997, Lucas was determined to splash it all over his directorial return. Although shot on 35mm (he’d wanted to shoot it digitally, but the tech wasn’t yet where he needed it to be), The Phantom Menace featured more CG effects than any other motion picture before.
Its digital mascot was Jar-Jar Binks, a fully pixellated character who, while groundbreaking, was so poorly received that Lucas largely dumped him from the movie’s two sequels.
In 1995, Pixar, the digital effects house behind those eye-grabbing effects in Star Trek II and Young Sherlock Holmes, unleashed the world’s first CG-animated feature, Toy Story. It’s a strain to remember now just how shockingly revolutionary John Lasseter’s movie really was. Animated features had been hand-drawn since the earliest days of cinema; this was something bracingly new. Variety wrote of its “razzle-dazzle technique and unusual look”, though many still thought it was a passing fancy, like 3D or Smell-O-Vision. It is true, however, that Pixar didn’t change the animation landscape overnight. Of the feature ’toons released theatrically in 1999, the vast majority remained traditionally drawn. It would take another 10 years before CG movies dominated the animated release schedule.
Although blockbuster movies were in the ascendence during the ’90s, independent cinema was also embarking on its own gilded age. The aggressive corporatisation of the big summer event movie created a thirst for films with a more singular authorial voice, and cinema discovered its most original in years when Reservoir Dogs landed on screens in the autumn of 1992. Made on a budget of $1.2 million, Quentin Tarantino’s punky, lo-fi crime thriller was gloriously profane, deliriously violent and quite unlike anything else out there.
Though Reservoir Dogs’ box-office takings ($2.8 million) were modest by the standards of the decade’s biggest grossing movie (Titanic made a
whopping $2.2bn!), its success alerted the studios to the fact money could be made from modestly budgeted films distributed on the arthouse circuit. By the end of the 1990s, most of the big studios had formed independent film divisions, devoted to making movies that were never intended for mass consumption. By 1996, independent cinema’s punch was so great that four out of the five nominees for that year’s Best Picture Academy Award – Shine, The English Patient, Secrets & Lies and Fargo – were non-studio movies.
Kevin Smith was another fresh voice discovered in the early 1990s. His debut feature, Clerks, was low in budget and concept. Made in black and white (and not for artistic reasons either) and with no story to speak of, the movie made Smith the posterboy for the slacker generation. Essentially a series of often screamingly funny duologues, Clerks was scrappy and unpretty, making a virtue of its glossless finish.
Though both very different, Smith and Tarantino came to epitomise the independent cinema of the 1990s. Tarantino had an unbroken run of classics – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the underrated Jackie Brown – during the decade, while Smith has never matched his ’90s output. Other directors, later to transition into the studio mainstream, made their debuts with indie must-sees in the 1990s. Bryan Singer, several years before he became the main man of the X-Men franchise, made a splash with his devilishly twisty second feature, the neo-noir The Usual Suspects, while Steven Soderbergh, who spent much of the ’90s as a darling of the indie scene, later upped sticks to Warner Bros to make the box-office-busting Ocean’s Eleven series of films.
Other, more resolutely indie directors made their big-screen bows in the 1990s. Richard Linklater’s debut feature Slacker (1991) was so light on plot it made Clerks seem like a John Grisham movie. Meandering, with an almost stream-of-consciousness structure, this $23,000 quickie made $1.2m commercially. Linklater followed it up with the ’70s-set stoner dramedy Dazed And Confused, a film so beloved by Quentin Tarantino that he would later include it on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time.
Across the pond, British movies finally inched away from the heritage cinema of Merchant Ivory. Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings And A Funeral
‘Independent cinema was embarking on a gilded age, thanks to a new thirst for films with a more singular authorial voice’
was a gigantic hit, earning $245.7m worldwide on a slim $2.8m budget while making a star out of the relatively unknown Hugh Grant. Similarly, Neil Jordan’s gloriously unpredictable IRA drama The Crying Game became an unexpected US smash (though was only a modest success in the UK).
Perhaps the most exciting directorial discovery during the 1990s, in the UK, was Danny Boyle. Though already in his late thirties at the time of his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave, and with a string of TV credits behind him, he brought an electrifying freshness to his movies. His second feature, the zeitgeistseizing Trainspotting, was an instant classic, a fizzy, uncompromisingly Scottish celebration of youth on the grim backstreets of Edinburgh. The movie got Boyle noticed and Hollywood naturally came calling – for a while at least, he was the director of the planned Alien: Resurrection until he bailed on the project. He did, however, up sticks to LA to make the Ewan McGregor-headlining misfire
A Life Less Ordinary in 1997.
The Bond series finally emerged from hibernation in 1995, after legal issues kept the franchise dormant for five long years. Still, the rest did it good. Reappearing with a more audience-friendly Bond (Pierce Brosnan, replacing Timothy Dalton) and a reshuffle behind-the-scenes (with ailing long-time producer Cubby Broccoli handing over the reigns to his daughter and stepson), GoldenEye made $352m at the box office – a big jump from the previous film’s $156m. Bond was indeed back.
The 007 movies continued their onward march throughout the ’90s, providing the foundation for the Daniel Craig reboot in the following decade. But maybe that’s what ’90s cinema really was – a laying of the groundwork for the next decade’s movies and trends. While digital technology established itself in the ’90s, it was in the 20oos when it properly took root. Today, 20-odd years after the fact, ’90s cinema doesn’t look too different to our own, and we’re even now beginning to trade in 1990s nostalgia, from Independence Day: Resurgence to T2: Trainspotting to Jurassic World to – shudder – Dumb And Dumber To.
It’s easy to scoff at ’80s movies, but movies of the ’90s are somehow Teflon-coated. Look at T2 or Jurassic Park and they could have been made last week. The 1990s is the decade that gave us the cinema of today.
NEXT ISSUE: THE 2000S – THE RISE OF A NEW KIND OF EVENT MOVIE.