If the 1980s were all glamour, money and drugs, and people with shoulder pads dancing badly at parties that could only exist in a Hollywood film, the early 90s, by contrast, went dark with economic recession and a rethink about the merits of ‘greed is good’. Suddenly, films were exploring the mainstream perception of the system and corporate culture through a cynical lens. The system was exploitative, a brutal dog-eat-dog world where only psychopaths got to the top.
In ‘A Shock to the System’ (1990), a black comedy starring Michael Caine, a corporate executive discovers that he can have everything he wants simply by getting rid of the people who are in his way — by murdering them. This is a decade before the novel ‘American Psycho’ and its possible executive killer. In ‘Swimming With Sharks’ (1994), what could be better than torturing your boss and, in the process, seeing eye to eye with him as fellow psychopaths who can now understand one another?
The cult TV series, ‘Profit’ (1996 - 2002) also featured a dark protagonist whose amoral behaviour reflected the callousness of the corporate world. His need for power and his depraved behaviour was linked in with the corporate world, which he saw as a substitute ‘family’ as well as a place where he could play out his revenge. In a way, it was okay if he did bad things because the people he was doing those things to were all ‘guilty’ (at least within the moral framework of the storytelling universe). Whatever Jim Profit did, the audience could excuse his behaviour, because his victims were rotten.
While the economy bounced back by the mid 90s, negative perceptions of the system and the elite never fully recovered. ‘The Titanic’ (1997) sent out the message that we were all on a sinking ship, and by 1999 (perhaps also fused with pre-millennial tension) films were questioning the nature of reality itself — what was real and what was an illusion? In films like ‘The Matrix’ (1999) and the underrated ‘Dark City’ (1998) nothing was what it seemed — perhaps the oldest and best story worth telling.
The system was rigged and it required an outsider to set things right. You could argue that the popular resentment, the background criteria necessary for Trumpism to flourish many years later, originated back in the early 90s with its resolute disbelief in the system, before Obama, and 25 years before Trump’s election victory.
Fiction reflects contemporary fears and desires. Those perceptions mirror the health of the economy, the prevailing political consciousness, global power and fashions. There are actions and reactions, from economic boom to bust, from conservatism to liberalism, from flares to drain pipes, from McCarthyism to the counterculture.
One can only wonder, in today’s seemingly extraordinary world, what the films playing in the cinema are saying about us now (and about our future), films like: ‘1917’, ‘Parasite’ and ‘Joker’.