When the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was released, it received a one-star review from film critic Roger Ebert. It currently holds a “rotten” score of 49 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 41 percent on MetaCritic. It was a flop with both audiences and critics when it first premiered, but has achieved a cult following because of its enduring themes 20 years later, as every new generation rediscovers it.
Its wild characters, escapist style and relatable journey of chasing the American Dream transcend space and time to capture the mind of the current generation of moviegoers now two decades since its initial release. In this instance, it was hordes of college students and faculty who looked to the film to indulge their vices vicariously through the legendary picture.
Longtime fans and first-time viewers alike filled the Norris Theater on Saturday to screen this psychedelic trip of a film. The evening was filled with laughter, applause and the thrill of freedom the film exudes. As producer Laila Nabulsi mentioned in the Q&A following the film, these elements are what make “Fear and Loathing” appealing to so many college students gaining their first tastes of independence.
“It’s a time when you’re breaking free from constraints, and there is something about that that [‘Fear and Loathing’] speaks to: finding your own voice, finding your own way,” Nabulsi told the audience, later referring to experiencing the film as a “rite of passage for young people.”
The film is based on the 1971 novel by former Rolling Stone journalist Hunter Thompson. The story comes from the bizarre experiences of Thompson and his attorney Oscar Acosta — portrayed as Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), respectively — as they travel to Las Vegas with a trunk full of, as Duke puts it, “every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 A.D.” Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film gradually gained a massive cult following once its audience and critics slowly came to understand the hidden genius underlying the seemingly nonsensical depictions of Duke and Gonzo’s prolonged drug haze.
Gilliam, along with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who also participated in the Q&A, fashioned a psychedelic style and structure to transport audiences inside the trippy minds of these two men. With regard to the film’s cinematography, Pecorini said he and Gilliam worked hard to “visually transfer every drug,” even positioning the camera at different angles depending on the substance the characters were presently under the influence of. This style was executed carefully in order to create the exact visual perception that Gilliam intended to produce.
In writing, acting and cinematography, the film broke nearly every conventional filmmaking rule, most evidently in its lack of a clear structure. However, Nabulsi said, “You have an interior monologue that shows these people are smart and the pain they’re in is about the world they live in.” Lest the characters become little more than one-dimensional druggies, she commented that the voice-over narration combined with Depp and del Toro’s visceral performances give the characters the depth they deserve.
“I joke that I took two heartthrobs and made one bald and the other fat,” Nabulsi said of Depp and del Toro.
Nevertheless, she said they were perfect for the film. She recalled her first encounter with Depp when she immediately knew there was no one else who could play Thompson or Duke. She said she felt Thompson’s essence even as Depp approached the set from a distance.
“[Depp] had that depth that other actors might miss … There’s an essence of [Thompson] that comes through. I’ve never experienced that: getting the essence as opposed to just the physicality,” Nabulsi said of Depp’s performance.
Both Nabulsi and Pecorini lamented the loss of passion for the craft of filmmaking over the last 20 years.
“I’m not in love with making movies anymore as much as I was because it became a weird world,” Pecorini said. “Producers once used to come out of film schools, now they come out of business schools … they don’t know movies and they don’t love movies.”
As the screening ended, the filmmakers recalled how Gilliam constantly feared Thompson’s judgment as he was adapting the novel into a screenplay. Apparently, when Thompson saw the finished product for the first time, his response was, “I can’t believe you made a good movie out of my mess.”
Twenty years later, this alleged “mess” was enough to fill a theater once again, and it will undoubtedly fill theaters and midnight movie screenings for many years to come.