Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopian Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Common

On August 11, 1992, the writer Dou­glas Cou­p­land made an appear­ance at the grand open­ing of Min­neapo­lis’ Mall of Amer­i­ca, the largest shop­ping mall on Earth. Against his inter­view­er’s expec­ta­tions, Cou­p­land deliv­ered a paean to the osten­si­bly hyper­con­sumeris­tic scene around him, claim­ing that “future gen­er­a­tions are going to look at images of today here in Min­neso­ta and see them as a sort of gold­en age of Amer­i­can cul­ture. The peace. The calm. The abun­dance. The bot­tom­less good­will of every­one here. I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appre­ci­ate it while it’s here.”

What made the 90s the 90s? “Mon­ey still gen­er­at­ed mon­ey. Com­put­ers were becom­ing fast easy and cheap, and with them came a sense of equal­i­ty for every­one. Things were pal­pa­bly get­ting bet­ter every­where. His­to­ry was over and it felt great.” From the end of the Cold War until the fall of the Twin Tow­ers, North Amer­i­ca and Europe enjoyed a sta­bil­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty that, to many of us in the 2010s, now seems some­how implau­si­ble. But cin­e­ma remem­bers the 90s, espe­cial­ly the cin­e­ma of the decade’s final year, dif­fer­ent­ly. Unlike “mon­ster movies show­ing cold war anx­i­eties and 21st-cen­tu­ry hor­ror movies con­vey­ing fears of acts of ter­ror,” the films of 1999 “were not about sur­viv­ing the present, because the present was actu­al­ly going well. They were about being tired of that sta­ble present and look­ing for a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent future.”

Those words come from “Why All Movies From 1999 Are the Same,” the video essay from Now You See It above. Those of us who were moviego­ing that year remem­ber The MatrixOffice SpaceFight ClubAmer­i­can Beau­tyBeing John Malkovich, and all of the oth­er major Hol­ly­wood releas­es fea­tur­ing “a main char­ac­ter tired of the sta­bil­i­ty, monot­o­ny, and unevent­ful­ness of their life,” almost always involv­ing a steady, dull cor­po­rate job. That era, recall, was also when Scott Adams’ com­ic Dil­bert reached the top of the zeit­geist by sat­i­riz­ing the ele­ments of office exis­tence: incom­pe­tent boss­es, slack­ing co-work­ers, and above all, cubi­cles.

Call­ing 1999 “the year of the cubi­cle movie,” this video essay describes its cin­e­mat­ic por­tray­al of office-work­er frus­tra­tions as “a per­fect mir­ror of what Amer­i­ca was like in the late 90s.” Not that those por­tray­als were lit­er­al­ly “the same”: the ter­mi­nal­ly bored men of Fight Club “go to great lengths to man­u­fac­ture con­flict and chaos”; Office Space makes com­e­dy out of sus­penders and paper jams; Being John Malkovich “exag­ger­ates the oppres­sive cor­po­rate imagery in films like Office Space by cre­at­ing an absurd office with low ceil­ings” that “lit­er­al­ly bears down on its employ­ees”; Amer­i­can Beau­ty “crit­i­cizes the per­ceived sta­bil­i­ty of the era, sug­gest­ing that it’s sim­ply a mask that hides the true self.”

And in The Matrix, of course, that veneer of sta­bil­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty exist only to con­ceal the total enslave­ment of human­i­ty. Mod­ern human­i­ty may nev­er cast off its dystopias, but it’s fair to say the dystopi­an visions we enter­tain today look quite a bit dif­fer­ent than the ones we enter­tained twen­ty years ago, and it’s also fair to say that many of us enter­tain them while dream­ing of the rel­a­tive safe­ty, sta­bil­i­ty, and pros­per­i­ty — real or imag­ined — that we enjoyed back then, not to men­tion the secure desk jobs. But as the films of 1999 remind us, those very qual­i­ties could also dri­ve us into a kind of mad­ness. Cou­p­land may right­ly call the 90s “the good decade,” but even if we could return to that time, we’ve got good rea­sons not to want to.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Cringe-Induc­ing Humor of The Office Explained with Philo­soph­i­cal The­o­ries of Mind

The Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix: From Pla­to and Descartes, to East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

How to Rec­og­nize a Dystopia: Watch an Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dystopi­an Fic­tion

Char­lie Chap­lin Gets Strapped into a Dystopi­an “Rube Gold­berg Machine,” a Fright­ful Com­men­tary on Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

How Char­lie Kauf­man Goes Deep into the Human Con­di­tion in Being John Malkovich, Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind, and Oth­er Movies

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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