Soul-sucking jobs were a common presence in many 90s movies. Understandably so, as Generation X filmmakers entered Hollywood at a time of relative stability in America. 70s cinema trended towards violent and cynical stories that attacked the status quo. 80s movies tended to praise the establishment while longing for the post-war glory days. Without a counter-culture or Reagan revolution to motivate storytelling, what generational theme would 90s filmmakers focus on? For at least some of them, the answer was their profound disenchantment with soul-sucking jobs.

This soul-sucking jobs theme occurs repeatedly in 90s films such as American Beauty, Clerks, and Clockwatchers, among others. But some 90s films went further, wondering if there was any way to escape the confines of a 9 to 5. As we revisit the four best 90s films to explore this idea – The Matrix, Office Space, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich we’ll see what solutions they offer and what these solutions can teach us about our work lives.


‘The Matrix’ Will Free You From Your Soul-Sucking Job

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix
Image via Warner Bros.

At one time or another, everyone gets that weird feeling that they might be living in a simulation. In one of their best movies, the Wachowskis took this idea to its extreme with their groundbreaking 1999 film The Matrix. The red pill vs. blue pill question is an interesting thought experiment to pose. Would you prefer to live in a calm but dull fantasy or a fraught but exciting reality?

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The fact that so many people would be tempted to choose reality speaks to the feeling of despondency the modern world can make us feel. It’s also partly why post-apocalyptic stories have had such enduring cultural influence over the last couple decades. Sure, you might get eaten by a zombie or killed by bandits, but isn’t there something appealing about a return to pre-civilization? No more meetings or schedules or worksheets or health insurance headaches. Instead, you rely on your raw intelligence, survival skills, and physical strength. While hardly anyone would actually want to live in such a world, it is an appealing fantasy.

So too is the dystopia of The Matrix, in which Neo’s office job is traded for a battle for humanity. Perhaps a more practical application of The Matrix’s red pill is to go off the grid. Spend more time in the “real world” where social media doesn’t mean anything and you have to know how to start a fire to cook your food. The Matrix wonders if we can free ourselves from the drudgery of everyday life by living a more engaging “real” life, in which danger is more likely but we also feel every other emotion more potently.

‘Office Space’ Suggests the Key to Survival Is Hypnosis

Maybe the best way to deal with feeling trapped in a soul-sucking job is to simply not care. Are you even really a prisoner if you enjoy being in prison? This is the path presented in Office Space. In this Mike Judge comedy, the protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is hypnotized into no longer feeling stressed about his job. He spends more time fishing, asks out the waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) he has a crush on, and starts brushing off his supervisor. Peter eventually heads down a dark path of revenge which is obviously a bad idea. But perhaps finding some road to enlightenment, in which you regard your everyday concerns as petty and focus on the big picture, is the solution.

In the end, our hero in Office Space gets a construction job that he enjoys. He experiences fresh air on his skin and the warm sun on his face, works alongside people he likes, gets some exercise, makes enough money to enjoy his life, and doesn’t care that his friends find his lack of ambition odd. At the end of the film, he’s happier than he’s ever been. Perhaps Office Space is telling us to stop caring about the ratrace and do what makes us happy, regardless of what anyone else thinks of our choices.

Escape Into Celebrity Minds ala ‘Being John Malkovich’

Two John Malkovichs in Being John Malkovich
Image via USA Films

In Being John Malkovich, a rag tag group of hapless outcasts discover a secret portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. They become addicted to the feeling of being and controlling him. It’s an escape from their lives into a more interesting and glamorous one, almost like the feeling of being lost inside a video game with a different identity. The experience of being inside Malkovich irrevocably changes all of them in some way, both for better and worse.

For some, it alters their identity and helps them realize what they want in life. Others become damned to a life of misery. While the film seems to suggest that the fantasy of living someone else’s life is an appealing one that can help us learn things about ourselves, it also cautions against remaining permanently fixated on someone else’s life rather than our own. Perhaps the takeaway from this film is that stepping inside someone else’s consciousness can be enlightening but ultimately we can’t just run away from our own problems.

Release Job Frustrations with ‘Fight Club’

Sometimes you just want to hit someone. It’s not a great impulse, in fact it’s a criminal one. But it’s the visceral caveman feeling of release that the characters in Fight Club pursue in order to escape the drudgery of their lives and responsibilities. There is obviously something especially dark about Fight Club. Although The Matrix might support living in a dystopian society, there is still an effort by the film’s heroic characters to make the society better and to liberate it from high-tech authoritarianism.

In Fight Club, there is some vague political posturing but mostly the film’s characters are nihilists who want to see (quite literally) bombs go off. At the end of the film, the protagonist realizes the error of this, in part due to a romantic connection he develops. So despite the gloom and doom, there is a surprising sweetness to Fight Club. No matter how alienated you might feel, there’s always someone out there who can relate. There’s always someone you can connect with in a meaningful way. And when you find that connection, a lot of pain and anger tends to subside.

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