25 Years Ago, Brendan Fraser Kicked Off His Best Year with Blast from the Past

Movies Features Brendan Fraser
25 Years Ago, Brendan Fraser Kicked Off His Best Year with Blast from the Past

Brendan Fraser is a man out of time. That’s both a description of his star quality and the premise of Blast from the Past, a time-warped romantic comedy that’s now a quarter-century removed from its release. Fraser plays Adam, a well-preserved 35-year-old man who has been raised in an elaborate bomb shelter after his eccentric father (Christopher Walken) mistakenly believes California is under nuclear attack in 1962. Three and a half decades later, when the radiation has supposedly cleared, Adam ventures out into late-’90s Los Angeles with the chipper naiveté and innocent value system of his well-meaning parents. (Sissy Spacek plays his notably less eccentric mother.)

The obvious tactic in 1999, in the wake of The Brady Bunch Movie, is to form a stark contrast between the product of a 1962 not-quite-nuclear family and the cynicism of the ’90s. That’s not completely removed from what Blast from the Past does, but Fraser’s presence complicates matters (or possibly complements a witty yet slightly confused screenplay). Adam’s whole persona as illustrated by the movie should be a muddle. He’s born in the shelter in 1962, maintains a jeepers-golly affect that’s more broadly associated with a 1950s sitcom, and later cuts an impressive rug at a 1940s-themed dance club.

This is probably realistic – as far as lighthearted comedies about families stuck in bomb shelters go – in that Adam’s parents would have gone dancing in the ’40s, adopted the values of ’50s suburbia, and lived just far enough into the ’60s to get a little freaked out by encroaching cultural changes. Still, as a clean high concept, it invites confusion, especially for its actors: Which decade’s stereotypes are we supposed to be playing again? (For that matter, older first-time parents in 1962 might well, in a cultural vacuum, pass along 1930s values to their young son.) As a vehicle for Fraser, though, this amalgamation is ideal, because the actor doesn’t project a particular era. He seems like he should, right? It’s easy to picture him as a handsome lummox in a ’40s noir, and the scene shifts to a slapstick comedian in a ’60s comedy. In his actual career, he’s been a comfortable fit in plenty of modern productions, and he makes a fine 1920s-era adventurer in the Mummy series; his first big year as an actor had him playing a student in 1959, and also an unfrozen cave man. He is equally convincing in both. (Well, possibly slightly moreso as the latter.)

Adam, then, does not especially become a beacon of one decade’s values, shining upon the haplessly jaded then-modern shadows of another. In the early scenes of Adam scampering around 1997 or 1999 or whenever it’s supposed to be, Fraser plays up his childlike wonder and the superhuman politeness that’s never been tested or rejected, and it’s very funny to see him exclaim over bus rides, hotel service and the wary kindness of Eve (Alicia Silverstone), his eventual love interest. But the modest magic of Blast from the Past is that by the end, Adam’s displacement doesn’t feel like a gimmick, or even particularly displaced. His well-mannered optimism, his upright physical grace, gradually becomes his adult personality. Fraser takes control of a perfect nurture-and-nature symbiosis, and turns this goofy cartoon into a real boy-man. He dances, he punches; he’s comic and sincere. It’s like a curtain-call for the 20th-century leading man, just in time to ease tensions for the approaching Y2K, a more manageable, less violent potential apocalypse back in ’99, at least compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis that sets off the events of Blast from the Past.

Y2K-era Fraser was particularly busy, even if he wasn’t appearing in any of the canon-level 1999 projects that started coming out later in the spring and continued in abundance through December. He started the year co-starring in Gods and Monsters, a 1998 release that expanded into the following year and showed off some of his most affecting work to date; after Blast from the Past came and went in February, he kicked off his signature franchise with the first Mummy picture, and closed out the summer by reteaming with Blast from the Past director Hugh Wilson for Dudley Do-Right, an adaptation of the old Rocky & Bullwinkle character. It was a spiritual follow-up to his breakthrough George of the Jungle (similar bumbling formula, right down to the live-action reimagining of a Jay Ward/Bill Scott cartoon character), which makes it the most intuitive Fraser role of this quartet.

Yet Dudley Do-Right did even worse business than Blast from the Past, and is less fondly remembered – with good reason. Fraser is playing another naïf powered by his innate goodness, and while it doesn’t help that the movie around him is an absolute shambles that feels patched together from old shreds, there’s something off about the performance itself, too. His commitment gets flattened into practically nothing, without room for that animating soul. Perhaps the most telling point of comparison: Wilson stages another dance scene for him, and it’s somehow both too cartoonish and not broad enough for him to show off his physical dexterity. It’s a harbinger of Fraser’s lower moments over the decade-plus that would follow; if Wilson, who directed him through one of his best comic performances, can lose track of what makes him work as an actor, obviously plenty of other filmmakers could, too.

Now Fraser has come back, Oscar in hand, seemingly ready for more serious work. To that end, movies like No Sudden Move and Killers of the Flower Moon make clear that he can be just as wonderfully outsized assuming unsmiling character-actor parts as he is when playing goofballs who somehow transcend space and time. But Blast from the Past is a reminder that Fraser’s wide-eyed charm can’t be contained by a mere time capsule.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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