By all accounts, 1999 was one of the best years in film history, featuring an amazing glut of debuts and career-defining follow-ups from a rich and varied roster of directors who are steadily working some ten years later. For example American Beauty, which was also released in '99, was one of the first films revisited in our "Shelf Life" series, and it seemed most likely to lose its luster, especially given its Oscar win and almost universal critical acclaim, but thankfully the film sustained most of its initial appeal and impact.
Fight Club, meanwhile, faced markedly more polarizing reactions from audiences and critics, although like Alan Ball and Sam Mendes' film it captured a moment in the zeitgeist that made it important almost regardless of how good it was. Ten years later, Fox Home Entertainment just released the film on Blu-ray in a gorgeous new set, and after a decade of conspicuous consumption and ironic detachment, it's time to see whether the weight of its message or meaning still holds relevance.
The Facts: Released on October 15, 1999, David Fincher's Fight Club is an adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name, adapted by screenwriter Jim Uhls. Its incendiary deconstruction of contemporary culture and the narcotizing effects of consumerism, particularly on men, was met with mixed reactions: some hailed it as a brilliant social commentary, while others condemned it as empty provocation, or worse, irresponsible.
Regardless, the film eventually earned $100 million collectively during its theatrical run against its $63 million budget (reportedly $17.5 million of which went to star Brad Pitt), and enjoys an 80 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for only one Academy Award, for Sound Effects Editing, but it was also nominated for several awards by different critics groups including the Online Film Critics Society, and subsequently netted several awards for its DVD release, which featured several commentaries and featurettes exploring the world within the film.
What Still Works: While during its original release the film was deliberately, perhaps even conventionally reactionary ("f*ck Martha Stewart!"), it really serves as a powerful reminder that contemporary consumer culture is still designed to satisfy us in superficial ways and ultimately distract us from the human connections and more visceral accomplishments that prove more meaningful. Particularly with the benefit of hindsight, the film's analysis of overmodulated consumption, broken down to the details and objects in our life that supposedly define us, is especially potent, and deserves to be revisited as a reminder to remain vigilant against that kind of complacency.
Meanwhile, I think especially now the film escapes being mere provocation or dangerous advocacy because it ultimately acknowledges that these characters are trading one oppressive structure for another, and that even the intentional absence of order eventually creates its own organized sense of routine, if not full-fledged cultural mores (hence Project Mayhem, the "space monkeys"' blind devotion to their anarchic causes, etc).
In terms of the performances, Pitt and Edward Norton are both really terrific as, essentially, the same guy, albeit in different iterations of his self-confidence, much less self-awareness. Fincher, coming off of the menacing polish of The Game, finds a gorgeously gritty aesthetic that really brings the narrator's oblivious self-examination to life, and creates a truly subversive and valuable portrait of what is essential schizophrenia, filtered through both movie-star sheen and the thematically-reinforced, exacting opposite of stardom's supposed "importance" – namely, that all of that beauty and truth is as illusory as anything else.
What Doesn't Work: Surprisingly little, although the unwieldy structure, oddball rhythms of the storytelling and its eventual descent into (self-) destruction seem more shocking in the context of real-life events like 9/11, not to mention our culture's subsequent escape even further into conventional, comfortable forms of entertainment. There's lingering resonance to the destruction of the banks at the end of the film, both in terms of domestic and international terrorism and the current state of our economic system, but it's subjective whether that's a virtue or a shortcoming for film, since it certainly isn't the film's fault.
Otherwise, there is a degree to which the idea of white guys bemoaning their pampered, IKEA-sustained existence feels, well, so 1999, and that their reaction feels like a more than slightly self-indulgent rebellion that people with constructive minds wouldn't act out. But as a parable and a perhaps necessary reminder of the complacency and boring blandness that can come from a life lived within the lines – and in light of the fact it's meant not to be taken literally - Fight Club still transcends such criticisms.
What's The Verdict: Fight Club is a really terrific movie and I am genuinely relieved to say that it holds up beautifully for the most part. Not only was it the first movie that I bought on DVD, but it was an important one in my adult, intellectual maturation, particularly in discovering that as conceptually appealing as such reckless behavior might be, it ultimately serves as much as a prison as any other philosophy or paradigm. I think I still prefer Fincher's previous film, The Game, if only because it was just so shocking and cathartic when I first saw it, but Fight Club is a wake-up call and a punch in the gut that needs to still be felt.