The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Hollywood


The late 90s had a string of interesting movies that made one feel… strange. The Matrix, Magnolia, Being John Malkovitch, Fight Club, American Beauty. Hell, even the Truman Show fit this mold. I call ’em mind-fuck movies. They aren’t necessarily great movies, and those brought-up on a steady diet of weirdness probably wouldn’t be moved by them. But each one played with reality and identity, invoked paranoia in and interesting way, and/or made the mundane seem strange by zooming in a bit too close.

There was something about those movies, and the feeling that they transmitted, that’s been lost in the past decade. But I think it might be coming back.

It seemed at first in the early 00s that the mind-fucking would continue. There was Vanilla Sky (which was actually based on a late 90s Spanish movie), and Philip K. Dick was finally getting his due. But most of those Dick adaptations sucked. With few exceptions the 00s were dominated by realism, bromantic comedies, superheroes and sequels (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out, but it seems a little too sentimental to qualify as a mind-fuck movie) . My favorite movie of the decade, Children of Men, was hardly a mind-fucker.

Actually, the 00s will probably be more remembered for its TV series than for its movies. We’ll remember shows like Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Dexter and Mad Men. But great as these shows are, they are hardly mind-fuck material. Lost should have been the ultimate mind-fuck epic, but it ended instead in disappointment. (I haven’t watched all of Battle Start Gallactica, but I could see someone making the case that it should qualify for the mind-fuck category. If so, it’s the exception and not the rule.)

Maybe it was 9/11, Bush Administration and the wars. Maybe it was Hollywood’s risk-adversion. Whatever it was, that surrealist buzz fizzled.

But there’s a slew of new movies coming out of Hollywood that remind me of that 90s vibe. It may have started with Inception, and there are others coming up that look like they will break the 00s mold. Movies like
The Adjustment Bureau (yet another Dick adaptation), Limitless (which looks like a Scientology metaphor) and Sucker Punch. I’m not saying any of these will be good. In fact, I’d bet against it. But each one seems like it could be a story arc or plot line from The Invisibles. I’d say that’s a step in the right direction.

Mind-fuck might be too strong a word for this new crop of Hollywood movies. I’m thinking the term “neuro-film” might be a better fit.

Whatever you call it, here’s to hoping for a better decade.


  1. There has been mind-fuckers, but you’re right that they haven’t received a lot of the acclaim that stuff in the 90’s did. (Aside from maybe Shutter Island or Inception.)

    I Heart Huckabees practically is an Invisibles movie.
    A Simple Man definitely fucked with my mind.
    Memento is early 2000’s.

    But you’re right, the 90’s had more. It was also the best decade in movies since the 70’s.

  2. I liked I Heart Huckabees a lot, but I don’t think it had the je ne sais quoi of the 90s mind-fuck movies. Memento is a better example. I haven’t seen, or heard of, A Simple Man. As for Shutter Island, I don’t think all psychological thrillers count as mind-fuck movies. I personally wouldn’t count Shutter Island.

  3. I’ve given a bit of thought to that particular set of movies and I don’t think that it’s the “mind fuck” quality that makes them distinctive, though certainly that is there. The theme, I think, that ties these movies together is gnosticism. The basic message of all these movies is that the world most of us see is not the real world but its mask, but it is possible (if not desirable) to experience what is beneath. I’d also add Dark City to the list.

  4. mind-fuck lite = mind-massage? All the movies I can think about in this category are anime, but I saw very few movies last decade.

  5. Dude, check out Into the Void.

  6. I don’t know, I feel like there’s been kind of a lot of movies in the mindfuck genre from the 00s, though perhaps they haven’t had the commercial (or in some cases, artistic) success of those early examples. If anything, there’s been a lot more mindfuck movies since the start of the 2000s than in the decade preceding.

    In addition to the half dozen or so often-mediocre PKD adaptations, Kaufman has made at least four mindfuck movies since 2000, Aronofsky has made a couple, Lynch has made a couple, and there’s been quite a number of other directors that have taken a shot at the genre, even if Cronenburg has mostly gone in for violent dramas since 1999’s eXistenZ. There’s Primer and Moon and Waking Life and Cold Souls and Wristcutters and Solaris and Donnie Darko and Visioneers and Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Jacket and Timer and and The Machinist and so many, many more, all out before Inception.

    More to the point, all your examples of 90s mindfucks came out in 1999 except The Truman Show, which was 1998. Clearly, 1999 was one of the finest years in history when it comes to mindfuck, and as a fan of the genre, I like seeing attention paid to it, but I’d have to say you’d be hard pressed to think of the past 10-13 years as anything but a true renaissance for mind-fuckery in film, far surpassing any period preceding it. That said, both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Pi came out in 1998, as did Dark City and Sphere, and of course The Thirteenth Floor came out in 1999. What a couple of years! Truly a huge number of mindfuck movies, there’s no doubt, but there has been no shortage of others since then, even if no year has measured up to the high water mark of 1999. Mindfuck is a pretty darn popular genre now, and has been since 1998, maybe 1997. Sure, they’re often not anywhere near as good as what came before, but what genre is that not true of? I can hardly fault a movie for failing to measure up to Fight Club.

    In terms of sheer number of titles, there were a few slow years, but it’s still more than any year prior to 1998.

    Also, while I didn’t particularly like Shutter Island, and I didn’t think it was nearly ambiguous enough, I think you basically have to include it as a mindfuck movie if you’re gonna have any sort of solid definition. It’s a film of a paranoid guy having increasing difficulty determining what is real or not real. I thought Scorcese completely botched the ending and was not nearly noir enough, but it still counts. Note that I am not including M.Night Shymalon, since he basically just does straight thriller/horror with a twist ending. Shutter Island is legitimate, it’s just not great.

  7. When I saw the trailer to the Bradley Cooper movie Limitless in theaters a few months back I was the only person laughing in the crowd. If bizarro-Phil Dick and bizarro-Grant Morrison (each writing for the WSJ and Life Coach websites) they would have written a movie like that. fuckin-a…..

  8. Bill – I would say gnostic themes are a subcategory of the mind-fuck genre, but not necessarily the only possible.

    Bill and Grimnir – My list is by no means meant to be exhaustive.

    Grimnir – I think it’s hard to define the genre. Bruce Sterling’s description of slipstream fiction might be best: “This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

    Shutter Island didn’t make me feel strange. It made me feel bored. Same as that Stephen King adaptation with Johnny Depp from 2004 or so. Playing with paranoia, identity and reality isn’t enough – nor is a “twist ending.” Though I admit people’s mileage may vary.

    I loved Primer, but I’m talking about mainstream pictures here. That’s the same reason I didn’t mention Pi.

    Arronofsky’s Fountainhead may count as a neuro-film, even though I hated it. Requiem was close the vibe of the mind-fuck, but I think was an early warning sign of the shift towards realism.

    Mind-fuck was very much a late 90s phenomena, with an explosion in 99. That’s why it seemed so strange to me that it all died out within a couple years after that. I think 12 Monkeys, in 1995, is an early example of the trend (though the genre has been around at least Videodrome).

    Cronenberg’s shift from mind-fucking body horror to straight crime drama is a prime example of the trend away from mind-fuck.

    I have a hard time placing Lynch in this category, even though I generally like his films. He’s a little bit over the top.

  9. Does a movie have to be successful at fucking your mind up in order to be included in the genre, or shouldn’t the intention be enough? Seems a bit overly subjective to include or reject a film from the genre based on whether it works. Shutter Island has been included in several (rather unfortunate) top 10 lists of mindfuck movies, so I hardly think it’s a stretch to include it. I thought it was weak, but given its plot and what it seems to be trying to do, I think it’s clearly in the genre. Or are you suggesting that this is a category where overall film quality is one of the principle genre-defining characteristics?

    As far as Lynch goes, can you really not include his films in the genre for being overly focused on the very trait that defines the genre?

    Would you include Total Recall as one of the early examples, or is it too lacking in emotional content? Was the mindfuck aspect a less important part of the film than in The Matrix?

    What exactly is your definition of a mindfuck movie, if Magnolia is one but Shutter Island isn’t? And does it matter if it’s mainstream? There has been no shortage of films in the genre this decade, even if the major studios have been more focused on comic books and such, and only offered up a few good examples and a bunch of half-assed attempts. Up until recently you could still rent those movies at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, I think even Pi and Primer. Isn’t that mainstream enough? How big is enough? Given the 15-20 films that have at least attempted to play in this pool since 99, how do you come to the conclusion that it’s died out, when Hollywood has never stopped making these sorts of movies?

    Anyway, as well written as the article is, it just seems like the idea that we’re talking about a mostly late 90s phenomena is predicated on an essentially idiosyncratic description of the genre rather than any sort of meaningful definition.

  10. I’ll cop to not having a definition, or one that is overly subjective. But did Shutter Island really make you feel strange? Did it make anyone feel weird?

    Of course there can be non-mainstream mind-fuck movies – but the trend I’m talking about is their disappearance from the mainstream. Primer and Pi were indie films that eventually picked up big distribution deals. (The same can be said of Being John Malkovitch, but that was still playing in a much bigger field than Primer and Pi).

    I was actually going to mention Moon as another example of a mind-fuck film that may be signaling a shift back towards this sort of film, but I forgot about it. And I’d count Waking Life as an example of an attempt at continuing the tradition in the early 00s – and Scanner Darkly was one of the only good Dick adaptations.

    I guess what really happened is that there was a shift away from movies that were actually strange and interesting and were followed by movies like Secret Window and Shutter Island that just followed the same formula. “Let’s make a movie about a guy who goes crazy.”

    The newer crop – Moon, Inception, Limitless, Adjustment Bureau – feel quite different from Shining-wannabes.

  11. Is mind-fuck too broad a term? It’s catchy, but are you talking about movies that question reality?

  12. The Shining is a horror movie about a guy going crazy and trying to murder his family. Shutter Island is a mystery about a guy going crazy, wondering what reality is. Very different movies. I think the main reason why a good movie like Moon has more emotional impact is that you can really relate to the main character. How are we supposed to really relate to the anguish of not knowing what reality is when the main character is a WW2 vet/police officer and it’s set in a time when our parents were small children, in a creepy old insane asylum? Neither of his possible realities are anything like ours and their whole concept of this guy’s madness is poorly structured, revealing a profound lack of insight into the nature of every day madness. But just because it is by design a failure doesn’t mean it didn’t have aspirations for more.

    Is The Game a mindfuck movie? Didn’t make me feel weird, but some people seem to think it’s one.

    Oh, and if you want a good early example? Watch Seconds, starring Rock Hudson, you’ll be glad you did.

  13. I think The Game counts.

  14. What about Jacob’s ladder? Twisted? The prestige, early mind fuck i would include Rosemarys baby

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