Wilson: Blast from the Past (1999)

One of the biggest traits of 90s Hollywood was the trend towards hermetically sealed, slightly sci-fi visions of 50s domesticity. From Edward Scissorhands to Pleasantville, writers and directors suggested that the 50s suburban home, and its promises and dreams, were still the artistic horizon of even the most contemporaneous of Hollywood gestures. Released in 1999, Blast from the Past was the most adventurous and ambitious of all these films, even if it didn’t quite live up to its ambition, and in some ways regressed further than any of them in its third act. Written and directed by Hugh Wilson, Blast from the Past opens in suburban Los Angeles, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Calvin and Helen Webber, played by Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek, are having a party for their neighbours. Wilson immediately taps into the oscillation between suburbia and science fiction that drove so much mid-century cinema, cutting back and forth between this barbecue and a drone of supersonic planes that gradually converge on the Webber household. These two disparate sequences come together through television, as the Webbers send their friends home after Kennedy announces the Cuban Missile Crisis live to air, retreating to a backyard bomb shelter Calvin has constructed.

The first act of the film plays out entirely in this bomb shelter, since the entrance is demolished when one of the jets drops a bomb right on the Webber property. Assuming that the Cold War annihilation has finally come, Calvin and Helen stay underground for the next quarter century, during which time their son, Adam, played by Brendan Fraser, grows up in a perpetual 50s, never seeing the world outside as it continues to evolve and change. In many ways this first act is the most ambitious part of Blast from the Past, as Wilson lovingly elaborates Calvin’s simulation of 50s suburbia, replete with its own back garden, supermarket, and even prerecorded episodes of The Honeymooners, to create the illusion of ongoing television broadcasts. Adam is birthed out of this schism between mid-century suburbia and science-fiction – part alien, and part suburban ingénue, typifying the subconscious swathe of American culture that never moved beyond the Eisenhower years, or properly processed the possibility of nuclear annihilation, let alone the end of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, as the Webbers continue their 50s life below ground, Wilson condenses the world above ground to the nightclub built on their property, which segues into a different décor and clientele with each new decade that passes. Effectively playing as a montage sequence connecting the 50s to the 90s, this wonderful conceit suggests that each new shift in style, and the very idea of style as definable by decade, is a way of coming to terms with the aesthetic fantasia of the 50s – the 50s objects and styles that cemented suburban life as the dream that the American middle class has never quite traversed. Released in 1999, Blast from the Past imagines the 90s as the end of this stylistic evolution, and as both an exhaustion and culmination of the decade-by-decade by styles that preceded it. In its own way, Wilson’s film thus taps into the apocalyptic mentality that circulated through Hollywood at the end of the millennium, since what we are effectively witnessing in Blast from the Past is the end of style as we know it, as evinced in the state of the nightclub when Adam finally emerges – covered in graffiti, occupied by the former owners and clubbers, who have transformed from tenants to squatters, and littered with the decay and detritus of their former decade-defined decors.

This desuetude extends to the surrounding streets, which Adam explores as soon the shelter unlocks in 1997. Experiencing all the horror of white flight compressed into a few minutes, he shifts from the suburbia of the 50s to the inner city of the 90s, without any vocabulary to process how his former suburban neighbourhood has turned into a case study in urban blight. The first music he hears is hip-hop, the first person he sees is a black trans woman, who he immediately reads as a “multisexual cyborg,” and the first shop he enters is a sex store, forcing him to retreat to the bunker, where he asks Calvin to interpret this new world for him. However, Calvin is even more shocked by the 90s, and can only process 90s people as a new subspecies, especially when they’re black or homeless, since there are black homeless people everywhere, filling the streets and screen like a hallucination of white inner-city panic. Calvin and Adam are even more traumatised in that they are conspicuously out of place, and treated like aliens, experiencing a reverse culture shock in returning to a city they thought they knew.

No surprise, then, that this transition from the 50s to the 90s produces an acute crisis in white paternal authority, as Calvin instructs his family to remain underground, reiterates his status as the head of the family when they resist, and then has a near-fatal heart attack under the pressure of trying to retain his sense of fatherly control. No surprise, either, that Calvin’s tipping-point comes when he examines the various prostheses and sex toys at the adult store next door to his old house, since these literal phallic and paternal surrogates speak to a world in which his arrogation of authority and rationality has long since waned. Debilitated by his heart condition, Calvin thus sends Adam out to get supplies, and final medical help – and Adam responds by continually invoking his father as the source to all wisdom to anyone and everyone he meets. In the best twist of the film, however, Adam shacks up with a pair of 90s slackers – Eve Rustikoff, played by Alicia Silverstone, and her gay best friend Troy, played by Dave Foley,  who becomes his best friends, and effectively teach him to be a gay man, from dressing sharply, to roller-blading at a local muscle beach, to dancing to the Village People.

On the surface, Eve and Troy are helping Adam to fulfil his fifties-friendly goal of finding a wife in two weeks, but in reality this queer movement away from Calvin’s paternal authority drives Adam’s exhilaration at emerging from the bunker, compressing three decades of Los Angeles urban development into a couple of hyperactive days. We follow him through the thrill of the bus system, to the intensity of riding on the freeway for the first time, which causes him to scream and faint when he looks out to see the Los Angeles sprawl below him. As the film proceeds, the expanse of this most expansive of American cities grows wider and wider, from Adam’s first glimpse of the sky, to his first sight of the ocean, which occurs just after he roller-skates for the first time. While Adam and Eve aren’t really plausible as romantic partners, Alicia Silverstone brokers her role in Clueless to personify the beat and pace of Los Angeles here, which perhaps explains why most of the best scenes occur when they are driving. As Troy’s fifties assumptions gradually slip away, he naturally gravitates towards sexual fluidity, much as the film reserves its only prominent 90s straight man for Eve’s piggish ex-boyfriend.

Unfortunately, Blast from the Past doesn’t really make good on this amazing premise during its third act, which moves away from the vivid world of the bunker, but also doesn’t really know what to do with Adam above ground. More and more, Adam just feels like a man-child, rather than a transplanted 50s character, while Fraser’s acting style starts to crowd Silverstone a bit, not leaving her that all much room to relax into her role. Meanwhile, his parents are largely relegated to bit players, only occasionally emerging from underground, where they are greeted as saviours by impoverished inner-city dwellers, but bemused and frightened by the cultural cache their 50s lifestyle has gained since they entered the shelter – and by the ideological burden placed upon them by all the decades they they have missed.

Like Adam’s parents, Blast from the Past thus yearns to resolve the schism of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and reconcile the suburban and sci-fi legacies of the fifties during this third act, but can never quite do it, since this would involve situating the story in a broader vision of capitalism, communism and the Cold War that its Hollywood trappings can’t ultimately process. As a result, the screenplay itself regresses when we emerge from the bomb shelter, and Adam becomes more childish, as the the film can only finally frame this broader cultural shift as a personal narrative of arrested development. Watching it, I realised that the evolution of the man-child, from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to The 40 Year Old Virgin, was an effect of this waning 50s affect, this inability to make the 50s properly ramify in the present, even as the present can’t fully discard them either. Time and again, Blast from the Past seems prescient that cinema is the ideal forum to address this situation – Eve’s house is full of film books and Hollywood memorabilia, as if cinema itself is crying out for the lost object of the 50s, and the transitional object needed to properly arrive at the 90s, unable to understand itself as medium on the millennial cusp without traversing the 50s/90s threshold.

Yet Blast from the Past can’t quite commit to this project, playfully riffing on the Adam-and-Eve pairing of its two romantic leads, but also betraying a deep longing to return to the originary suburban couple of the 50s – and craft an alternative timeline that staves off the original sin of the 50s, and the fruit of the poisoned seed that has culminated with the late 90s. Starting off as quizzical and playful, but buying into the very 50s mythos it is critiquing despite itself, Blast from the Past ends in an amazingly ambivalent and ambiguous way for a mainstream film, as the Webber’s stocks finally allow them to construct an idyllic new suburban home, “like the Garden of Eden,” on the very outskirts of the Los Angeles sprawl. Wilson ends with this new house, the objective correlative to his film’s own uneasy project of connecting 50s affect with the apocalyptic end style of the 90s, but he’s understandably uncertain of how sentimental to be about this conclusion, right down to Randy Newman’s arch take on “The Big One” that accompanies the closing credits. Similarly, we’re left uncertain of how much Calvin and Helen are still buying into their suburban fantasy, since Calvin tells Adam to keep pretending they’re living in the fifties for the sake of his mother, even as he paces out his next bomb shelter as Wilson cranes up for the last shot of the film.

Perhaps the tipping-point between irony and sincerity comes with an earlier montage sequence, when Eve looks out the window of Adam’s car at a montage sequence of black trans characters, while lamenting the fact that “there used to be fruit orchards here.” As homeless, black, trans and sex worker folk are collapsed into the terrifying “mutants” of the inner city, the film descends into an ever more inane and infantile individualism that prioritises the white man-child as the source of all truth and sympathy. So solipsistic does Adam have to become to fit this role that he finally discards all incredulity about the slippage between the 50s or 90s, and all curiosity how about the world, and Los Angeles in particular, has changed – he’s just scared, fragile and nostalgic, keen to escape the inner-city and its mutant inhabitants as quickly and efficiently as possible, while bringing Eve along with him, as he retreats to yet another pastoral suburban fantasy where his paranoia about white fertility and fecundity can be nurtured and restored. And it’s that lack of intergenerational curiosity that ultimately sinks Blast from the Past in its third act, since it prohibits Wilson from the curiosity needed to bring this most adventurous and ambitious of premises to what it should have been – the best film about the 50s in the 90s, made at the turn of the millennium.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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