American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations


With the U.S. economy booming under President Bill Clinton and the cold war finally over, many Americans experienced peace and prosperity in the nineties. Digital technologies gained popularity, with nearly one billion people online by the end of the decade. The film industry wondered what the effect on cinema would be.

The essays in American Cinema of the 1990s examine the big-budget blockbusters and critically acclaimed independent films that defined the decade. The 1990s' most popular genre, action, channeled anxieties about global threats such as AIDS and foreign terrorist attacks into escapist entertainment movies. Horror films and thrillers were on the rise, but family-friendly pictures and feel-good romances netted big audiences too. Meanwhile, independent films captured hearts, engaged minds, and invaded Hollywood: by decade's end every studio boasted its own "art film" affiliate.


On the Verge of a New Millennium

The World Wide Web. The Internet. Cell phones. Palm pilots. Chat rooms. Spam. Computer viruses. Netscape. E-Bay. Google. Yahoo. E-mail. Blogs. Webcasts. CD-Rs. Digital cameras. DVDs. Netflix. Zip drives. Cyber space. iFilm. “See you online.” “The server’s down.” A flood of words and concepts linked to digital technologies changed our lives in the 1990s. A new communications revolution was under way that continues to alter daily life in both developed and developing countries. By 1994, three million people were online; by 1998, one hundred million. At the end of the decade, the number had leapt to almost one billion. Nonetheless, as the 1990s ended, a marked digital divide partitioned the world into those with access to computers and those without. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, rural areas and the urban poor were underserved.

How to assess a decade most of us remember? The movies and the moods of the 1990s depict a period that most Americans experienced as both peaceful and prosperous. Previously unimaginable technological advances in connectivity were promised everywhere we turned. But new dangers also threatened. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus reached American shores. AIDS and tuberculosis became global health threats. Domestic terrorism appeared more widespread, more frequent, and more deadly than ever before. Periodically there were foreign terrorist attacks on buildings and airplanes. Spam clogged our e-mail programs; computer viruses damaged desktop and laptop computers. On the verge of a new millennium, governments, banks, and businesses spent billions backing up the computer systems that now controlled electricity, water delivery, banking, and more—all for fear of a “Y2K” meltdown that never came.

Scores of big- and small-budget U.S. films testified to our fascination with, and fear of, these digital revolutions. Who can forget Total Recall . . .

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