The ’90s

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.

Total Film - - Contents - Words Steve O’Brien

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.

In­de­pen­dents’ day

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).

lay­ing foun­da­tions

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.

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