“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” directed by Terry Gilliam and released in 1998, based on the story of the same name, is a film about a renegade journalist sent to cover a few events located in the popular town of Las Vegas, Nevada. Although a renowned journalist, Raoul Duke (this is a name the author, Hunter S. Thompson used for himself to blend fact and fiction into a story, i.e. Gonzo Journalism) spends the majority of his time in the fabulous Laz Vegas in a haze of all kinds of drugs. Indeed a disgusting view into the mind of the depraved, Duke, and his attorney—aptly named Dr. Gonzo—trawl around Vegas with almost no intention of doing anything at all.
The first event they were sent to cover was the Mint 400, which Duke says, “In some circles, the Mint 400 is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one.” After a failure to cover the race due to indulgence in an array of drugs from LSD to DMT, Duke and his attorney wind up across town after destroying their hotel room, covering a narcotics convention run by police officers (Duke carries his briefcase stash right through the crowd of power-hungry cops). Again, Duke and his attorney wind up on all sorts of drugs, missing the convention entirely, but with a rich story to tell instead.
At the surface, this film is seen as a staple “druggy” movie due to the, well, the rampant drug use. A flop at the time, it’s become a cult film in the last two decades. Looking deeper into the film (and thus the novel, if given a read) has a theme of the death of the American dream. In this sense, the American dream can be summed up as being financially stable, with the perfect wife and kids, white picket fences, a perfect lawn; a nuclear family if you will. It was the hope that you’d be in America and “win big” (especially in Vegas) and live comfortably with your material wealth. Gilliam—and by extension, Thompson—sought to show that this idea died in that era and that the hippie movement was a failure. The rampant drug use wasn’t just because—it was because that’s what the pair felt they needed to enjoy the concept of Vegas. For example, at one point in the film, Duke and Gonzo huff Ether—a dissociative drug causing you to lose control of your motor functions—and try to enter a casino, which they fail to do themselves. The bouncers see this and shove them through the gates, hoping the “drunks” would lose all their money in the casino. This shows that the society in Vegas was ugly; it was out to steal your money, not make you rich. The American Dream was dead.
Thompson (or Duke) was always out to show his readers that the world is ugly sometimes. He made himself ugly to really dig into that idea. That’s what Gilliam was trying to convey in his 1998 movie, which was possibly why the movie was seen as a failure at the time. By comparison, some of the highest grossing movies of 1998 were “Armageddon,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Godzilla,” all films of Americans coming together and stopping something larger than themselves, growing as people, and simply being patriotic. The late 90’s was a thriving time for the USA; people didn’t want to be told that they were ugly.
Media is a subjective view—which can be seen by the horrible reviews of Fear and Loathing at the time of its release, but the cult status it contains decades later—but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” remains a great movie. But sometimes you have to be just the right mindset for it.