‘Millennium meltdown: How ‘Dream films’ shaped the world 1999 – 2001′

The possibilities of a dream world, or a tangent, secondary universe running parallel to our own, is one that has been explored thoroughly and widely in the medium of film.

These films are often about leaving the current world as we know it, or escaping a personality and expectations that have been put upon us modern humans. This is a concept which has been in existence since the beginning of the written word, but not in the surreal context of dreams and parallel universes. Before the late 1990’s, the concepts of the ‘angry young man’ and dream-like surrealism were as far apart as ‘Rebel without a Cause’ and ‘Star Wars’. So when I mention titles such as ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘The Matrix’, you may simply think I have thrown together a selection of films made between 1999 and early 2001, when in fact, they hold a special connection through the combination of rebelliousness and extra-terrestrialism* which would not be out of place at an early Pink Floyd gig. It is this time in the late 20th century that is often overlooked in film and culture, due to more important surrounding events.

Before we go any further, I think we should address the elephant in the room: 9/11. Yes, since September 11th 2001, film was shaped forever, from explicitly obvious films such as ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘Cloverfield’, to offbeat films such as ’28 Days Later’, world destruction was the thing and whether we liked it or not, it changed the way cinema was connecting with a worldwide audience.

My point is that, pre-9/11, films were much different. This time-period (1999 – 2001) was late enough to get that ‘Millennium Bug’ scare, but too early to be affected by the horrific events of 9/11: for it is in this time period that filmmakers were dreaming up their craziest, most revolutionary ideas yet.

'Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.'
‘Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.’

I’ve been trying to point my finger on what it was that was happening around this time. Using visual indicators such as leather trench coats, bleached hair, dark, surrealist gothic overtones and yet so far from gothic cinema and what it stood for. There’s that feeling of being at the end of an era, and discovering something: whether it be the tangent universes in ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Donnie Darko’** or the enlightenment in ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’. This was a feeling of fear amongst many people around the end of the millennium; what would happen if all of our computers crashed? Will aliens come down and reveal all of life’s secrets? And the fact that we realised how small we were – what with the population growth in the 1990s larger than ever before, and the fact that we were in the middle of a gigantic universe. This may explain the personal focus of these films; they aren’t about cities being wiped out, but about the personal lives and well-being of people being disrupted and uprooted by otherworldly and revolutionary experiences.

'Wake up, Donnie.'
‘Wake up, Donnie.’

Soon after 9/11, cinema and mass-media propaganda began to revert back to a more ‘western togetherness’ aura not seen since the Sci-Fi films being made in the midst of the Cold War to keep 1950s suburban America safe.

Nothing is what it seems in The Matrix.
Nothing is what it seems in The Matrix.

I’ve only listed and discussed a few films here, and only scratched the surface of the genre – if you’d call it that – and as with all things in cinema and popular culture, only time will tell if this era will be put in a box and labelled. For now, I hope it can be discussed and appreciated for what it really was: a unique experience of escapism and alternative ways of dealing with everyday issues and the uncertainty of the unexpected.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please share your views, and feel free to suggest any films you think may fit into this discussion. I’m always happy to reply!

*I made this word up.

**Donnie Darko, although made in 2001, was set in the 80’s, I do however feel this didn’t change the undertones of the then current contexts.

2 thoughts on “‘Millennium meltdown: How ‘Dream films’ shaped the world 1999 – 2001′

  1. What about Being John Malkovich?
    You’re right, we were all looking to the future, wondering what might be coming, starting in a new era and the film writers were obviously feeling it. Do you feel that the 9/11 influence has abated yet? Films like Avatar and Pandorum that have been going back to that ‘exploring new places, getting them in trouble because of their arrogance and the weakest sorting it all out again’ feel.
    Great review too..I hadn’t thought of that link!

    1. Hey scienerf, I’d have to say I think the ‘9/11 effect’ has kind of worn off, and you’re right, it’s been taken over by a lot of fantasy and exploration films. Avatar is an example of how people want a new escape – even though it had been an idea for quite some time now.

      The true 9/11 effect was people actually facing their fears on screen, now people are facing other fears, more indirect.

      Thanks for the reply and comment here, I’ve followed your blog and hope to share more ideas in the future!

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