It’s 1991, and Bigelow has made a nominal name for herself in the cutthroat world of the American film industry. Point Break, Bigelow’s high-octane action thriller about a band of surfing bank robbers and the youngblood FBI agent in desperate pursuit of them, drops in July with a major splash, garnering her greatest receipts to date and continued cultural acclaim as a high point in ‘90s action thanks to Bigelow’s peerless direction and the tense charisma between leads Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. Cut to 1995: James Cameron has written the script for her next film, Strange Days, an exceedingly ‘90s sci-fi gem infused with the tense racial politics of the day, inflating the pandemonium of the post-Rodney King LA Riots into a dystopian cyberpunk setting on the cusp of the new millennium. Strange Days was Bigelow’s biggest and most expensive film so far, and her biggest bomb too, kicking off a wave of financial flops that continued into the next decade.
Bigelow would shift gears with her next project, producing a mashup of erotic thriller and historical fiction with an adaptation of Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water. If she had hoped her move from adrenaline-driven genre films to sensual murder-mystery melodrama would be fruitful, she would be gravely disappointed, as The Weight of Water garnered universally harsh reviews and even more abysmal box office receipts. The same year The Weight of Water limped into theaters, Bigelow had another film making the rounds: a submarine thriller depicting the calamitous maiden voyage of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered submarine. K-19: The Widowmaker was a project well-suited to Bigelow’s dynamic sense for drama and action. Unfortunately, even with the star power of Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson at the helm, K-19 also sank at the box office, perhaps due to American audience’s disinterest in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the nationalistic fervor which swept the country in its aftermath. Little did we know, however, that this national tragedy would open the door for Bigelow’s next directorial phase, and the most significant triumph of her entire career.
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