Tuesday, May 31, 2016
The Films of 1985: My Science Project
If a movie-goer desires to seek out a perfect time capsule of the year 1985, he or she should be immediately directed to Jonathan R. Betuel’s My Science Project (1985), a science fiction film that very strongly reflects the age in which it was made...right down to a scene of high school typing class and electric typewriters.
Described broadly, My Science Project is a “teens meet science fiction” action-adventure from the same year that gave audiences Weird Science (1985) and Real Genius (1985). All these films combine raucous teen humor and juvenile characters with sf imagery and concepts.
My Science Project is also, specifically, a teenager time travel adventure that landed smack-dab in the age of Back to the Future (1985) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1988).
Again, young characters are suddenly faced with scenarios out of H.G. Wells, and must contend not only with denizens of other times, but, often, temporal paradoxes as well. At the same time, they are concerned about flunking their classes.
Beyond these touches, My Science Project is packed, wall-to-wall, frame-by-frame with self-reflexive jokes about pop culture, evidencing a protean trend that would fully come into its own in the 1990s, particularly in the horror genre.
In the mid-to-late eighties, however, some young filmmakers who had grown up with television and film as constant background noise began utilizing allusions to those media as “touch stones” for an aging generation. My Science Project is at the tip of that spear.
Finally, My Science Project even attempts -- in the Reagan Era, no less -- to grapple with the divisive legacy of the 1960s and, among other issues, the Vietnam War and the anti-war counter-culture.
Again, this was precisely where the culture soon headed in films such as Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (1989).
With all this happening during its 95 minute confines, My Science Project should be nothing less than wall-to-wall excitement and invention. And though it’s true that the film’s pace is generally frenetic, My Science Project -- a box office bomb -- never fully manages to fully succeed on its own creative terms.
The movie is loud, busy, and buoyed by occasionally effective imagery (especially for the 1980s), but no single scene or set-piece really stands out, and none of the characters are entirely memorable, either. Some scenes really fly, and other simply never take off.
But succeed or fail, this cult Betuel film will make you nostalgic for 1985.
“Do something special…do something original…”
At Kit Carson High School, grease monkey Michael Harlan (John Stockwell) meets with an ultimatum from his science teacher, Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper): If he doesn’t submit an amazing final science project, he will fail the class.
While out on a pseudo-date with nerdy school reporter Ellie (Danielle Von Zerneck), Michael visits a Department of Defense Disposal Depot.
There, in a subterranean storage facility, he discovers a strange unearthly "gizmo," an engine, or energy generator. Unbeknownst to Harlan, the instrument hails from an alien flying saucer that President Eisenhower ordered destroyed in 1957.
Michael, his wise-cracking friend, Vince (Fisher Stevens) and Ellie return to the high school with the device, which promptly absorbs energy from any technology nearby, including flashlights and car batteries. Mr. Roberts is fascinated by the device and hooks it up to a power outlet in his science lab, an act which gives the extra-terrestrial machine access to almost infinite power.
The machine creates a vortex or warp over the school and sucks Mr. Roberts inside of it. Then, epochs from the past appear inside the high school itself.
Michael and his friends soon encounter Neanderthals, Roman gladiators, the Viet Cong, and even a hungry T-Rex (in the school gym) in their efforts to shut down the alien generator.
“My ears are ringing like The Gong Show.”
Perhaps the biggest reason that My Science Project remains largely obscure today involves the characters.
Not one of them is particularly memorable, or played with a lot of color. Fisher Steven’s quipping Vincent is the obvious candidate for break-out status here, but his character quickly wears out his welcome with a constant stream of pop-culture allusions and wise cracks. He seems so determined to reference TV shows and movies that it is not clear he is ever a real "person."
John Stockwell -- a fine actor (and now, director…) in films such as Christine (1983) and Top Gun (1986) -- leads the cast ably, and does a good job, but the script does him no favors. The scenes between Michael and his father and new step-mother go nowhere and have no emotional pay-off. They may be important thematically (as we'll see later in this review) but they are given no punctuation.
Worse, the “romantic” angle with Von Zerneck is never compelling or convincing (see Joe Dante’s Explorers  for an innocent teen-romance that seems a bit more natural).
Additionally, the frenetic nature of the story requires the actors to run back and forth a lot, attempting to deal with surprises around every high school corridor. This approach leaves little time for character-based humor, or even a sense of a story arc. The overall feeling is of racing from one scene to the next, so that none carries any more weight than another.
The film also appears to have been heavily tampered with in the editing stage. The great Richard Masur is introduced as a Texas detective with great fanfare, and then has almost zero impact on the narrative.
Visually, the film is hampered -- and made to look ugly at times -- by the near constant use of fog machines and neon strobes.
Still, some moments are genuinely impressive in terms of imagery. The visual effects involving the vortex (and the dance of energy around Hopper’s character…) are really solid, and hold up nicely today.
And for a pre-CGI age film, the sequence with the T-Rex in the gymnasium is particularly well-rendered. In fact, it is well-rendered enough that it should be the highlight of the whole movie, except for the fact that the teenagers gun it down with Vietnam Era army rifles.
Sure, the dinosaur is dangerous, but the scene has no sense of awe, no sense of majesty, and doesn’t build to anything beyond a quick “high.”
The explicit fun of teen movies like Explorers or Back to the Future is their comical interludes with danger, but somehow the presence of grenades and machine guns here (used against -- let’s face it -- a confused dinosaur) isn’t fun in the slightest.
A better outcome would have been to see the T-Rex somehow trapped in the gym instead of gunned down. All sense of fun disappears, after all, when viewers are left to gape at a dinosaur's blown-up chest cavity for a sustained length of time.
This is a prime occasion when the movie needs a light touch, but settles for flashy pyrotechnics.
Certainly, My Science Project is ahead of its time in terms of its post-modern or meta-approach to its story.
Vince is a constant font of pop-culture information, referencing Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, The Gong Show, The Twilight Zone and even McCloud.
It’s possible that these allusions were meant to welcome viewers and let them know that the movie shares their language and cultural history. But the references don’t amount to much overall, except perhaps for the clip of the Morlocks from The Time Machine (1960).
That (great) film spearheaded time travel adventures in the cinema, and warned of the downfall of man in the distant future. Here, the preoccupied teenage kids learn about an impending (neon) apocalypse, replete with mutants, and yet can’t be bothered to think about it, or try to stop it, even.
The downfall of man has begun in earnest, perhaps.
My Science Project’s negotiation of 1960s issues is worthy of examination too. Good laughs are drawn from Hopper’s ‘hippie’ teacher who drives off, at one point, to “an anti-war alumni meeting.”
He goes on the greatest trip of all, thanks to the alien machine, reliving his days at Woodstock, and so forth. Hopper is a perfect casting choice, given his participation in Easy Rider (1969), not to mention The Last Movie (1971)
But implicit in these Hopper-based scenes is the sense of closure: the professor is an old guy living, resolutely, in the past, looking to relive past glories. He is not a person of the present, or dealing with present concerns. The conflicts of the sixties are behind us, My Science Project suggests.
My Science Project puts the Vietnam Era -- and the deep-seated psychological fear it spawned of America military adventurism overseas -- behind us by thoughtlessly arming its citizen protagonists, and having them gun-battle their way through hordes of future mutants, as well as the aforementioned T-Rex.
The under-the-surface message seems to be that it is okay for America to love guns and militarism again; that the diffidence that came with the Vietnam Era is gone in the Age of Reagan. We all know how well this so-called "New Patriotism" eventually turned out (see: The Iraq War).
Writing at Tor.com in 2010, critic Jacob Steingroot offers audiences another intriguing (and, I think, valid) way of reading this Betuel film.
He suggests that Harlan’s unsettled life (dealing with a break-up and a changing situation on the domestic front), is paralleled by the energy generator’s time/hopping alterations of reality.
“Betuel depicts the nebulous feeling of being a teen. Things that seem concrete one day change dramatically the next. Harlan’s relationship with his girlfriend ends for reasons he can’t understand. He comes home to find that his single dad has remarried and their house has been refurnished with pink pillows and drapery. Vince, because of his parents’ divorce, is forced to leave Brooklyn for New Mexico....The confusing uncertainty of being a teen, the feeling that the world is out of control is echoed and expanded through the notion of the space/time warp.”
I appreciate Steingroot’s explanation of the film's leitmotif or modus operandi, here, and feel that it holds up well. Space/time does seem to operate in strange ways when you’re a teenager. Life either moves too fast, or too slow, right? Friendships change, perceptions change, and even bodies change, day-to-day. Steingroot's thesis makes a re-watch of My Science Project much richer and much more thought-provoking.
Hailing from the age that brought us Back to the Future, Real Genius, and Explorers, to name just a few, My Science Project doesn’t earn an automatic “A,” perhaps, despite such a worthwhile (and thoughtful) attempt to fully rehabilitate the picture.
Why? Well, for much of its running time, My Science Project lacks the visual and narrative classicism of a Spielberg or Dante film, missing that mark by quite a margin.
But perhaps the movie deserves some extra credit all these years later for its self-reflexive approach to culture, and its (not-always-successful) attempt to put the sixties squarely in Harlan’s rear-view mirror.
And if we accept the time warp as a metaphor for turbulent adolescence, perhaps there’s even more to like and appreciate in My Science Project than meets the eye.
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