Fight Club remains a relevant piece of pop culture even 20 years later

Fight club is still as popular as it is polarizing and thought-provoking as it is preachy. Is this a critique of consumerism or an ode to toxic masculinity? Twenty years later, our brains are still trying to make sense of it all.

It’s September in 1999. We’d survived Nostradamus’ bold end-of-civilization predictions, but Y2K is around the corner, paranoia and premillennial dread has leached into the subculture — don’t believe the blissfully sanitized version of the 1990s that have been packaged and sold in nostalgia-inducing hallucinations of perfect euphoria.

It’s true, we weren’t at war, Al-Qaeda was a murmur, techies were blowing up the stock market and every person who could tie his shoe and walk to work had a job, but we were uneasy. Some of us were even miserable. This was the space that made 1999 perhaps the best year in film, this was the space that Fight Club occupied.

Fight Club premiered at the Venice film festival in Italy that same year and Brad Pitt recalls, “Literally the guy running the festival got up and left. Edward and I were still the only ones laughing. You could hear two idiots up in the balcony cackling through the whole thing.“

As the film draws to a close, the boos pour in as explosive as the buildings that pancake into black-grey smoke on the screen, drowning out the first few chords of The Pixies classic Where Is My Mind. It’s obvious that the critics hadn’t understood the vision and humor behind director David Fincher’s Fight Club during its Venice premiere, with Edward Norton stating: “The critical culture felt a little bit indicted by it. So they responded to it with a little bit more seriousness, and I think they missed the satirical edge of it.”

Indeed it could be easy to miss that edge and understand Fight Club’s naysayers who seem to take a literal approach to the work. After all, what exactly is this film? Men railing against being raised by women and having no authority figures–men never raised to be men. Gen X males spiritually awakened from there morbidly unsatisfying lives in bone-crunching, flesh-ripping combat. As Tyler Durdan (the antagonist and protagonist?) explains, “We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.” The true middle children of history.

But that read is superficial. After all, reflections on an unsatisfying life was the great theme in film in 1999. Look to critical darling American Beauty and even the whimsical Office Space. People were marketed happiness and security; they could find this in domesticity or a furniture set from IKEA. The narrator says as much to Tyler when he laments, “I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.”

In other words: ignore the shrinking paycheck, follow your marching orders to work, if you can’t afford it, credit will get you by, and at least your value as a person can be displayed in the living room. The narrator had it all, but the true price was existential dread. The first half of Fight Club challenges these notions in the most extreme ways, the narrator did everything he was supposed to. He became a copy of a copy of a copy.

Themes, however, aren’t in short supply when you look at the film viscerally. It’s meant to make you squirm and can be as preachy at times as it can be thought-provoking. The opening credits play at your senses like an acid trip gone very wrong, following a steep drop down a rabbit hole that sets the demented tone. There’s never a point where you feel emotionally secure while watching. Is this a critique of consumerism, an ode to toxic masculinity? Do we embrace death or fear it? Or are those narratives buried so deep in subversion it’s impossible to tell? Also, is IKEA really all that bad?

Harmony is non-existent from scene to scene, only perfectly imbalance. Watching Fight Club 20 years later lends a new perspective: balance. If the narrator was looking to break away from a society that eschews originality then Tyler has swung the pendulum the other way completely, creating nameless, faceless drones with no purpose other than the destruction of this construct. Maybe the true root to happiness is never tapping into those extremes — punk values or corporate mottos that seem so intoxicating. To never lose yourself and your individuality to some ideal because it’s been stamped into your brain by some enigmatic figure or glitzy campaign ad.

And, of course, there is the twist. Something that seemed to culminate in the ’90s with films like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, but never has it served the narrative as it does in Fight Club… because Fincher’s film is playing tricks with your mind long before the reveal. And through Norton’s portrayal of a man at wit’s end, we can see how Pitt’s Tyler — impossibly good looking, strong, eccentric and most importantly, “free in all the ways” our narrator is not, could spring from the depths of madness.

Twenty years later, it’s hard to call the film prophetic, but we are still grappling with a lot of these issues in a world that sells individualism through the deployment of social media and, now, that medium is slinging tailor-made advertisements on steroids.  It’s hard to know whether Tyler’s dystopic vision, one which we have to assume came to pass in the film, is the right one.

But about the only two things we can take at surface value, the truest words uttered in Fight Club, the ones not subject to interpretation are, “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.” And 20 years later, we’re still breaking the first and second rule of Fight Club.