Can We Talk About How ‘Disclosure’ Has the Single Silliest Scene of Any ’90s Movie?
The following post contains SPOILERS for the 1994 movie Disclosure. If you worried about spoilers for Disclosure, do not read further. Also, if you’re worried about spoilers for Disclosure, you should reassess your life priorities.
To the extent that Disclosure is remembered at all these days, it’s for its gender-swapped sexual-harassment storyline, and the related sex scene between Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. (As we all know, the true victims of sexual harassment are middle-aged married men.) The marketing for the film focused entirely on the erotic tension between the two glamorous stars. One poster featured Moore whispering something alluringly in Douglas’ ear. The other was less subtle. Neither stars’ face is visible, but Moore’s butt is front and center as she straddles Douglas on a desk.
The posters worked. Disclosure went on to gross some $85 million and another $129 million worldwide, the equivalent of $382 million in today’s dollars. That’s a solid total for any movie, but it’s especially impressive given Disclosure’s true subject matter. As it turned out, the sex scene (and there really is just one in the entire movie) serves as the window dressing on a story about corporate infighting at a Seattle computer company. And it all climaxes in what really must be one of the goofiest scenes in any Hollywood movie of the 1990s, when Michael Douglas solves a mystery with... virtual reality.
It does not make much more sense in context, but let’s at least try to set the stage. Douglas’ character, Tom Sanders, is a midlevel executive at a company called DigiCom which is in the process of merging with one of its rivals. Tom, who’s happily married to a supportive wife (Caroline Goodall), expects to be promoted to the head of his division, a move that will make him rich. Instead, on the day the announcement is to be made, he finds that the position he wants will instead be given to Meredith Johnson (Moore), a rising star from another office. Even worse, Meredith and Tom are former lovers. Now Meredith will be Tom’s boss.
Things get more awkward when Meredith invites Tom up to her office for a drink celebrating her first night in Seattle. She immediately forces herself on him. Tom pleads with her to stop but doesn’t exactly resist, at least until they’re about to have actual sex. Finally, he pushes her away and leaves. The next morning, Tom discovers that Meredith has preemptively accused him of sexual harassment and begun a legal proceeding that could cost him his stock options and his job. He lawyers up and accuses her right back, hoping that DigiCom’s fear of bad publicity will give him an advantage in mediation and a chance to salvage his life in Seattle.
That all makes sense, given Disclosure’s premise and basis in a high-profile novel from Michael Crichton. What does not make sense is that the the mediation surrounding the sexual harassment case is essentially resolved with more than 30 minutes left in the movie. In Disclosure’s final act, Tom discovers that Meredith’s harassment wasn’t sparked by her uncontrollable passion for his gorgeous mullet. As it turns out, Meredith’s attempt to seduce him was a calculated move. Under orders from shadowy forces within the executive ranks at DigiCom, Meredith deliberately set Tom up in order to fire him as a scapegoat for a persistent hardware problem that could ruin the proposed merger. The mysterious issues Tom’s division has had with their sluggish new CD-ROM drive? They were all secretly caused by Meredith, and a deal she made with the Malaysian government. Tom learns this vital information at the last possible moment when Meredith conveniently and very loudly explains her evil plan to her lawyer in the DigiCom office gym while Tom can eavesdrop on her.
Meredith, manipulative beauty that she is, has used the harassment suit to revoke Tom’s computer access, meaning he can’t find the evidence he needs to prove his innocence on his office’s computer. He realizes the files he needs can only be accessed using DigiCom’s prototype virtual reality helmet. He sneaks into the hotel room where the VR equipment is stored and fires it up.
And that’s when the fun begins. That’s when Michael Douglas becomes a hero of cyberspace looking like this:
Michael Douglas: Techno Warrior!
Once he has his mega-cool virtual glasses on, Tom is able to access DigiCom’s Malaysia files. The journey to the files is treacherous, though, as Tom nearly falls off the edge of a virtual-reality corridor and down a virtual-reality abyss.
The scene only gets more absurd from there. While Tom looks through the files in VR, Meredith is at her office computer, manually deleting the same materials from the system. And when she does that, a version of her shows up in virtual reality looking like, well, this...
To reiterate: This is the big climactic “action” scene of the entire movie. It all builds to Tom sneaking into a VR room and uncovering this easily-located virtual smoking gun he can use to clear his name and bring down Meredith. And it looks like this!
What’s most perplexing about all this is the way Disclosure, which is otherwise a very straight-faced movie, plays what should be its shocking twist for total comedy. It’s not just that the computer graphics are dated. (They were designed by Industrial Light and Magic and were fairly cutting edge for 1994.) Director Barry Levinson seems to have staged the whole sequence as a goof. He doesn’t just show Douglas’ digital avatar perched on the edge of a bottomless CGI pit, he cuts back to the real Douglas in that hotel room flopping around, making him look absolutely idiotic for being tricked by this feeble technology. Then, while Tom watches a recording of an incriminating phone call, a digital Demi Moore sneaks up behind him the least threatening, most hilarious way imaginable. It’s like Homer Simpson backing up into the bushes in reverse.
Levinson is a skilled director; his credits include Diner, Rain Man, and The Natural. The guy knows what he’s doing. He knows when he has that Demi Moore sneak up on that Michael Douglas, there is only one logical response, and that is laughter. Maybe he saw what even top-of-the-line CGI was giving him and realized there was no hope for this scene except as a camp-tastrophe. Maybe he sensed that the entire premise of this movie was ludicrous from the moment a woman spends her first night in her new job trying to bump uglies with Michael Douglas on a pile of old paint cans. At that point, the only way to get out alive was to slyly mock its “dramatic” conclusion from within.
No matter why he did it, he did it. And what he did is give us one of the true so-bad-it’s-good highlights of ’90s mainstream cinema. After Tom finds this evidence and escapes from the VR hotel room, he gives a speech at a DigiCom shareholders meeting where he saves his job and gets Meredith fired all at once. (Apparently, she deleted all the evidence, except an extremely incriminating network news broadcast. Whoops!) I have to believe that if more people knew about this ending Disclosure’s reputation as a forgettable erotic thriller would change very quickly. I will never forget the sight of Michael Douglas in futuristic CGI glasses running away from a wireframe with an 8x10 of Demi Moore’s face pasted on the head.