Fight Club is still awesome…twenty years later

This year, CultOfWhatever is looking back on some of the most influential, transformative, genre-defining, and cult-favorite films of 1999. We began in January with a look at M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit: The Sixth Sense. It’s a horror-thriller that stands the test of time and works as a great movie that would have been great in any year of release. M. Night could have made this movie yesterday and he would have had a smash on his hands. He could have released it in 1989 and it would have been just as tremendous.

Fight Club ,on the other hand, is a movie bathed in 1999ness.

Sure, the book was released in 1996, but the movie isn’t remembered as an adaptation of a weird novel. It’s remembered, not for its story, or even for its twist ending, but for its aesthetic. The music, the gritty 35mm film, the frosted tips on Brad Pitt’s hair, the first and second rules about Fight Club, the “I want you to hit me as hard as you can” line. Basically, it’s a movie remembered for its trailer; everything in the trailer we remember and nothing not in the trailer do we remember…

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In a word, the movie is “visceral.”

For that reason, it would be antithetical to try and write a thousand words about a movie that’s (A) more about how it looked than what it said, and (B) a movie whose primary (and secondary) rule is “don’t talk about it.”

But let’s give it a shot…

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Fight Club was David Fincher’s fourth film and his career to that point had been frustrating. Alien 3 was a mess whose blame fell on the studio more than the director. Se7en was a masterpiece that made him an it-director. He followed it up with The Game, a movie that struggled to find an audience and which turned off as many viewers as it entertained. Fincher had a reputation, especially after Alien 3, for being a director who refused to compromise his vision for a movie and who never took a single shot off; there was always something to be wowed by in every scene of his movies.

But despite his obvious talent, other than Se7en Fincher had no big box office hits. Maybe if The Game had done better he wouldn’t have had to fight tooth and nail to make Fight Club the way he wanted to.

Fincher constantly butted heads with Fox 2000 President of Production, Laura Ziskin, who demanded multiple scenes and shots be cut. The director refused almost to a scene, insisting that the sometimes-disturbing and sometimes-disgusting moments of the movie made the movie. You can’t sanitize Fight Club; it’s supposed to make you squirm.

The above video is certainly uncomfortable to watch but look beyond the torture to the way Fincher builds the scene. We constantly cut into the narrator’s head as he tries to “go to a happy place” and ignore his hand burning. Tyler keeps slapping him back to reality, however, all the while spewing a word salad that no one would remember ten seconds after the scene ends. That’s Fight Club in a nutshell: it’s disturbing, preachy, seemingly “about something” but really more about the look and feel than anything else.

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It might seem like I’m doing the film a disservice saying it’s more about how it looked than what it said; after all the movie has a very stark message behind it…and a subversive message behind that. Tyler Durden is a crusader against capitalism. The movie highlights this, and sympathizes with it too, describing the narrator’s mundane life pre-Tyler as one who worked to define his life based on what he could purchase. Tyler’s mission is to show how pointless it is to chase after “the hot new things” in life.

The fact that Tyler was played by Brad Pitt—the posterchild for “pretty, rich, A-list, hot new thing-actor”—should not be lost on anyone.

As the above clip shows, the narrator finds a new purpose in life through the Fight Club. As he says, a pencil-pushing 9-to-5er is a nobody for most of his day but he can be “a god for ten minutes” by winning a fight in the club.

The subtext to all of this is the fact that the movie is making fun of the very testosterone-fueled “heroes” that it depicts. As a teenager in 1999 I loved the movie because Tyler looked cool and had a confident swagger that my tenth-grade self did not. The idea of a place where frustrated men-children could punch their way into respect seemed like an attractive prospect.

I’m thirty-five now and the movie is more easily seen as a mockery, poking fun at machoism and empty revolutionary rhetoric…

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The movie’s ending certainly couldn’t have been made just two years later, but without it, there’s no good way to end the movie; everything was building up to it. In contrast to a movie like The Sixth Sense, you couldn’t have the Tyler/Narrator twist-reveal happen seconds before the credits rolled. The movie wasn’t really about that twist; even the writer of the novel didn’t decide on it until he was two-thirds of the way through it.

No, a movie like this—visually arresting and thematically disturbing—needed a banger of a finale. As seen in the above video, Tyler recruiting a mini-army of anarchist-revolutionaries to blow up major capitalistic buildings just as he came to peace with his own brief spat with insanity was, balls or not, the suitable ending. Come to think of it, I’m surprised it was able to happen just a few years after the Oklahoma City Bombing.

The movie, unsurprisingly, stumbled at the box office, bringing in only 100mm on a 65mm budget. Fincher went all out, with a CG-heavy title sequence, some expensive practical effects-shots, and three times more film used than was usual for a movie this length (film costs money), and all he got for it was box office apathy and reviews that mostly missed the movie’s points entirely.

The film gained a cult following in the years that followed but now its reputation has circled back around to being considered a bit overrated. The movie’s not bad, not by a long shot, but it’s also not as revolutionary as its few fans were claiming it to be in 1999. That being said, if you choose to experience the movie as a visual feast, a twisted-take on anti-capitalism, and a tongue-in-cheek satire of late-20th-century machoism, then Fight Club—for all its faults and misappropriations—is still awesome, twenty-years later.

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