Nostalgia is a strange beast as it has the wonderful capability of giving everything in your past a rose-colored tint and smoothing over a whole bunch of things that were problematic or just plainly sucked. In many ways 1997 is peak nostalgia for my movie watching days as it represents the year when I went to see movies in the theatres sans parents. And boy did I take advantage of that privilege.
Of course given that these were my early years of choosing films to watch for myself, chances are were that I wasn’t exactly going to choose wisely. Indeed a quick glance at movies that I saw that year include Batman & Robin, Bean: The Movie, Flubber, Anaconda, and Mouse Hunt which is a hall-of-fame lineup of turgid movies that at some point in time I thought were at least semi-decent. And it would be easy to make a post about those historically bad movies and rip them to shreds. But that would mean me having to sit through those movies again and I have no intention of doing that. Instead I picked a slate of movies that I hadn’t seen in a long time that I thought had a modicum of a chance of possibly holding up two decades later. I also decided to stick with the movies that were actually popular back in the day according to box-office returns (despite its box office “success” I still could not bring myself to re-watch Batman & Robin however. At least not yet). Toss in an opportunity to journey down memory lane and it turned into one of my more fun film binges in a while. Here are the results.
TITANIC (1997) dir. James Cameron
Let me get this out of the way and say for the record that I am not a Titanic-hater. What I am however is a hater of the enormous hype that was generated surrounding this movie. James Cameron, as will be evinced in the future with Avatar, has a habit of thinking that he is a film-directing genius and that his movies are not just good pieces of entertainment but historically significant pieces of cinema that belong in the hallowed halls of the very best films ever made. Under those conditions, Titanic falls extremely short. But taken on its own terms, Titanic is in fact a good film. The real-time sinking of the ship is both visually impressive and a heart-pounding showstopper. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio share an on-screen chemistry that is palpably real and give the story almost all of its emotional weight (even if their acting skills still have so much room for improvement as their later career would prove). These two major story elements are key to making the movie work the way it does. But, and this is important, the movie is surrounded by cheesy and clunky dialogue, card-board cutout caricatures of characters (outside of Rose and Jack), and a saccharine sentimentality that knocks the movie down a few pegs. It’s like Cameron doesn’t trust the sinking of the ship alone to be compelling enough drama so he has to veer the story into truly soap opera territory to keep us engaged.
Does it hold up? If it is being judged as one of the greatest movies ever made, then no. But on its own terms, yes.
FACE/OFF (1997) dir. John Woo
When I first watched the movie, I had only the vaguest idea who John Woo was. I watched it on a whim and was entertained even if I brushed it off mostly as nothing more than your run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up action movie. Of course in the intervening years I have since corrected my Philistinic lack of knowledge of Woo’s work which has had the odd effect of both enhancing and diminishing my view of this movie. It enhances the movie’s standing because the movie is a perfect example of Woo’s baroque and over-the-top aesthetic, punctuated by some truly dedicated campy performances by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage (where Cage goes “full-Cage” and Travolta channels whatever manic madness he tapped into with Pulp Fiction and amps it up to 11). Yet the movie’s standing also diminishes because it still does not match up with Woo’s Hong Kong movies starring Chow Yun-Fat (Hard Boiled and The Killer) and is just further evidence that despite his best efforts, his crossover to Hollywood lost something vital in translation. Still, this is easily his best North American effort.
Does it hold up? Yes, even if the over-the-top action represents a bygone (if still welcome) action movie aesthetic.
THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997) dir. Steven Spielberg
I have detailed before just how formative the original Jurassic Park was to my movie-watching experience. So it should come as no surprise that the news they were making a sequel naturally made me very excited. So excited in fact that I willingly broke one of my own movie-watching rules and settled for craning my neck in the front row just so I could see it opening weekend. And then I proceeded to watch it two more times after that (in some ways the movie was my Titanic). I even had the audacity, like some undiscerning fool, to declare it even better than the original. Twenty years later and I’m forced to admit that actually the movie just isn’t very good. It commits the cardinal sin of thinking that making everything bigger would instantly make the movie better (we have TWO T-Rexes, an entire HERD of Raptors, more people to be killed, and a whole host of other dinosaurs you’ve never seen before!) And then on top of that it commits the second biggest error of not trying to secure the services of the main protagonists who helped make the original a success (in this case, Sam Neill and Laura Dern) and instead forcing us to care about an entirely new cast. But most egregiously, they inexplicably changed Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm from a neurotic mathematician and sex icon in the original to just a neurotically controlling dad. And the less said about the King Kong-esque finale the better. All in all, the movie in every aspect is inferior to the original (and yet somehow still the second best movie in this franchise. Yikes.)
Does it hold up? Hecks no.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997) dir. Luc Besson
By some unintentional and illuminating coincidence, I found myself watching this movie and Besson’s latest Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets back-to-back and it just highlighted that, love it or hate it, Besson’s vision is incredibly loud and unique. Both feature his signature future-kitsch aesthetic. Both feature protagonists who are unhelpful conduits into his wonderfully weird worlds because they are jaded and unperturbed by its bizarreness. Both feature dense mythologies that are laughably huge for the kind of stories they want to tell. Indeed both of these movies are hyper-kinetic and near overwhelming romps through their respective universes that are equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. But what these movies are not however, is boring. Granted one might need to find oneself on the movie’s specific wavelength in order to fully appreciate it (and for me that wavelength seems to be “sleep-deprived dad who finds himself unable to fall asleep”), but if you find yourself connecting with these movies then they are a hoot. What is most interesting for me in revisiting The Fifth Element this time around is that human-CGI Chris Tucker has evolved over the years from being what I thought was the worst and most annoying part of the movie to becoming easily my favourite part of the movie.
Does it hold up? Yes, and it holds up even better than when it was first released.
MEN IN BLACK (1997) dir. Barry Sonnenfeld
While Independence Day in 1996 proved that Will Smith could crossover from TV to the movies, it was clearly Men in Black that launched his rising star into the stratosphere (Author’s note: Even though the movie does deal with aliens, there is no moment in which Will Smith actually boards any sort of air or space craft, therefore the reference to his rising star and the stratosphere in the above sentence should not be viewed as a pun. I repeat: IT IS NOT A PUN!). Men in Black proved that Smith had the star-power, comedic chops, and charisma to carry his own movie as Agent J. and fortunately he is aided in his task by Tommy Lee Jones who plays a “too-old-for-this-s***” type Agent K to pitch perfection, providing the ideal foil to Smith’s usual “aw-hell-no” type of zany humour. And fortunately for all of us, these two occupy pretty much all the runtime of the movie as the rest of the cast painfully fails to match the energy and passion of the two leads and the script frequently relies on the 90’s brand of topical humour which may have rendered it hilarious when it first came out but now contains too many references that are dated and lost most of its meaning (see also: Disney’s Aladdin). The end result is a film that remains watchable thanks to Smith and Jones, but little else.
Does it hold up: Yes, but barely.