I didn’t notice it until this week’s Scream theme got me thinking, but self-reflexivity was one of the dominant themes of mainstream movies in the 90s. In addition to all the simulated realities we saw in the Matrix, the Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, et al, there also seemed to be a lot of flicks where characters spoke about the clichés and expectations of whatever genre they happened to be in. The Austin Powers flicks certainly got a lot of mileage out of breaking down spy movies' rules and you could make a whole list about all the smarter-than-your-average-slasher flicks that followed Scream’s success. Insider ball became in-game ball, so to speak.
When I started this feature, I said I wouldn't always be getting serious about sequels. "Series" could be grouped together by common themes, too. As such, I’m going to take a look at some of the more memorable self-aware, oft-metafictional genre romps that came out around the time of Scream...
Last Action Hero (1993) Dir. John McTiernan
It's scary to think that all the cop/action movies this spoofs may actually be as foreign and distant to a new generation of moviegoers as, say, grindhouse flicks or old school Westerns are. This was the big budget box office bomb du jour for insiders to get snarky about until Waterworld sailed in a couple years later. Of course, both films pulled in a healthy amount when all was said and done after international screenings and home video sales… and both are still quite entertaining in spite of all the derision.
Schwarzenegger later figured this didn’t hit with audiences because it was making fun of the very kind of entertainment they were expecting to get out of it. And there's probably some truth to that. It gives you the goods, but then raspberries at you for enjoying those goods. It’s a mess, to be sure, but hot damn is it a fun mess that visualizes a lot of idle curiosities any film fan has had. Do most movies take place in the same universe? Is there also a real life Arnold in worlds of the movies he acts in? You know, the big questions.
The message ends up being something a little muddle about how the grass is always greener, even when you're looking at he-man super cops. Bringing in references to the Seventh Seal and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet may have cast the net a little to wide, but I embrace that all with open arms. It allowed for absurd exchanges like Jack Slater and F. Murray Abraham’s character about killing "Moe Zart."
Pleasantville (1998) Dir. Gary Ross
Riffing on some of the same chords as the Brady Bunch movies, this takes its parody of classic sitcoms a few steps farther with a brilliant visual metaphor that illustrates the dangers of nostalgia. Lord help me, but I whittled away many a summer evening away as a kid watching block marathons of the Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith shows on Nick at Nite, so I probably had a better context for this than I ever should have (though not nearly as excessively as Tobey Maguire's character.) There are plenty of jokes about the old fashion standards like married couples sleeping in separate beds and teenagers treating the “pinning” double entendre literally but, as I mentioned, it gets past all of that to make meaningful allegorical points.
This also hits pretty deftly on how television of this era presented a much more sanitized vision of American life than what existed in reality. It even touches on how literature, theater and painting of the time were more alluring alternatives by virtue of the realer visions of life they offered over what was on the small screen. It's a universal aspect of the human condition to look back more fondly on the past and bemoan how much worse things are today than they were. Pleasantville hits on how the idealized small town America of the "good old days" never really existed except in the imaginations of those who choose to forget all the “unpleasant” stuff that happened, too.
Galaxy Quest (1999) Dir. Dean ParisotThe funniest thing about this is that a lot of Trekkies called it the best Star Trek movie in years--and it was a point-for-point, note-for-note goof on the whole series! Kirk's hammy tendency to take off his shirt and roll around, Nimoy's later embarrassment about Spock, the Red Shirts' cannon fodder role, the silly gadgets with their even sillier limitations...it's all accounted for here. They say no parody’s ever made without some degree of reverence, and this was certainly made by people with a deep and knowledgeable love for all things Trek. While Last Action Hero may have confused audiences and Pleasantville may not have caught on, this actually did pretty good business by delivering some thrills while still packing some chuckles on them.
Surprisingly, this ends up being a sweet, sincere love letter to fandom, with the eager, gullible, yet highly-creative Thermian aliens as quite obvious stand-ins for hard-core Trekkers. Considering how the actors turn to the same obsessed viewers they once spurned to save the day at the end, there may actually be an applicable lesson to be taken out of the hijinks. We can fixate on all the “Get a life!” jokes but, if you step back a little, there really is something wonderful about a little show touching so many people's lives in such a positive fashion. Trekkies may leave you a little disquited by the extremes of fandom; this will make you feel all warm and gooey inside about it.