Sunday, October 18, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: M is for My Science Project (1985)

Sometime back in 1957, president Dwight D. Eisenhower is having a bad day. Seems his golfing retreat has been cut short by a call on the hotline, and he has since been escorted to a remote Air Force base in the Nevada desert over an urgent matter of national security. When the president arrives, he's quickly ushered into a larger hangar and debriefed on the situation; the situation being the wreckage of the Unidentified Flying Object currently ensconced inside that inexplicably crashed after running circles around all pursuit planes. 

Told the engine and the occupants have been removed for further study by the "big brains", the frightened president puts a cease and desist on everything and then orders the gathered Air Force brass to simply get rid of it. And then this prelude ends with the flying saucer being chopped into scrap by a portable laser that appears to be on loan from the Quest Institute.

Jump ahead to 1985, where high school senior Mike Harlan (Stockwell) is also having an extremely bad day. A total gear-head and a muscle car fanatic of the highest order, Harlan's just been told by Mr. Roberts (Hopper), his ex-hippie science teacher, that if his final class project isn't something really and truly special he will fail the class and be denied a diploma. To make matters worse, Harlan's girl dumps him after school because he cares more about his car than her. (In his defense, it is a 1970 Pontiac GTO.) And then this crappy cycle ends when Elle Sawyer (Zerneck), a perky but extremely nerdy bookworm, takes advantage of the break-up and tries to trick Harlan into asking her out on a date, much to the chagrin of resident science geek, Sherman (Sbarge), who has a huge crush on her.

Harlan agrees (only to make his old girlfriend jealous) but this date winds up being a trip into the surrounding desert to an old government aircraft graveyard, which they break into, where Harlan hopes to find something scientific he can pass-off to appease Mr. Roberts and get his needed D. While poking around, and listening to Elle complain, they stumble upon a hidden fall-out shelter. Inside, Harlan finds the Fisher-Price Plasma-Globe, which powered the UFO from that earlier interlude, which sucks all the juice from Harlan's flashlight and starts glowing. They also find a couple of rats, which cause Elle to scream, alerting the guards, and so they beat a hasty retreat with the unearthly "gizmo" tucked in the backseat of the GTO, which soon sucks the car's battery dry, too, leaving the couple stranded in the middle of nowhere, bringing an end to the worst date of ever.

The next day during shop class, Harlan accidentally activates the gizmo while trying to clean it, which quickly zaps and melts the batteries in the boombox of his best friend, a motor-mouthed expatriate Brooklynite by the name of Vince Latello (Stevens). Noticing the machine is now glowing brighter, the two decide to give it more juice, using jumper cables and a car battery. It quickly liquefies the power source but the initial surge causes a misty swirl of energy that quickly solidifies into an ancient Egyptian vase. (They fail to notice a high-tech battleaxe imbedded in the wall.) And on top of that, the two slowly realize in that short time frame they've also lost two hours. Or, more than likely, jumped into the future.

Seeking a second opinion, they first bully one out of Sherman, who opens their eyes to the dangerous world of space warps and black holes. Feeling they've stumbled onto something huge, Harlan calls Elle and orders her to bring her yearbook camera to the school later that night to document the gizmo's performance when they present it to Mr. Roberts. And after a brief demonstration with a limited power supply, an intrigued Roberts gives the engine some real juice by wiring it into an outlet. With that, the gizmo really gets to work, opening a swirling portal to another dimension. And while bathing in the eldritch energy of the warp, Roberts becomes a bit unhinged -- or is having one bodacious acid-flashback -- as he raves about becoming one with the cosmos until he is suddenly and violently sucked away in a flash of blue light, leaving his stunned students behind with no way to pull the plug on a terrestrial black hole that's only going to get bigger...

Ya know, sometimes a movie just sticks with you. And as a fanatical film viewer we sometimes latch onto said movie no one else seems to talk about, like, or have casually discarded as junk, and therefore consider it yours and yours alone. A film that you really dug but slipped through the cracks, or failed to light any nostalgia firestorms, while similar films from the same genre and time-frame have reached full conflagration. But that's okay, as you simply put the film in your pocket for safe-keeping, occasionally breaking it out to admire again, or maybe even show it off to someone else. Back in 1985, Jonathan Betuel's My Science Project (1985) kinda got lost in the summer sci-fi shuffle of Back to the Future, Real Genius, Explorers and Weird Science. But I found it, fell in love with it, and have been breaking it out at least once a year ever since catching it in the theater, multiple times, when I lied about going to school for a sporting event or non-existent rehearsal and then drove on past the school and illegally went into town on my school permit and hit the Imperial 3. (For those playing at home, a school permit was a restricted driver's license that allowed 14 and 15-year old rural teenagers, like me at the time, to drive from home to high school and from high school to home, which I took as a mere suggestion.)

At the dawn of the 1980s, Betuel worked on Madison Avenue in advertising but dabbled in screenwriting in his spare time. A huge science fiction fan Betuel leaned on premises where ordinary people wound up in extraordinary situations and anchored them on the notion that you must start with one foot in reality so you can take the next big step to somewhere else. And that's exactly what happens to Alex Rogan, a trailer-trash video game expert who winds up recruited as a space pilot to defend the galactic frontier in Betuel's script for Nick Castle's simply delightful, and not to mention groundbreaking, The Last Starfighter (1984). And when that film showed legs and became a sleeper hit, Betuel used that as leverage when he shopped around his next script but would only sign with a studio that would allow him to direct it and help him realize a proposed battle between his protagonists and a time-displaced T-Rex in a high school gymnasium. Somewhat serendipitously, producer Jonathan Taplin was a huge fan of Starfighter and was also working on the lost dinosaur film (and soon to be box-office boondoggle) Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) and agreed to let Betuel make My Science Project as part of his multi-picture deal with Walt Disney's brand new Touchstone Pictures.

Somewhat unfairly, I think it was the lack of a name director or star-wattage that still contributes to My Science Project being constantly over-looked in that aforementioned glut of teen-fueled sci-fi romps. But I think it is Betuel's steady hand and reality grounded footing, a desert setting and community that brings to mind the 1950s creature features of Jack Arnold, some well-executed F/X, his oddball characters, and the humor extracted from all of the above that really sets the film apart. 

Admittedly, John Stockwell is a little stiff as the slack-jawed hero but the chemistry between Harlan and Elle just crackles. The interlude where their romance finally sparks is awkward and clumsy but feels very real as the two realize they have a lot in common, just different outlets, and finally find a connection. I love the line where Harlan confesses that he relates better to cars than people because he trusts them more (-- and from what little we see of his home life, this is understandable), but then Elle counters, saying maybe he just hasn't trusted the right people yet.

Danielle von Zerneck is completely adorable as Elle and I, for one, am glad those nerd glasses stayed on for the whole film (-- well, at least until they were blown off in an explosion), because her character was endearing and wonderful, as is, and kicked the usual 'ugly-duckling just in need of a make-over montage' crap to the curb. Although it is too bad she’s basically unconscious for the final third of the film, serving as the goal of a needed rescue. 

Fisher Stevens, meanwhile, lays the Italian machismo on a little thick as the second banana and comedy relief, and may seem oddly miscast, but he sells the hell out of the scrawny, fast-talking Latello, who also presciently serves as a proto-laterday pop culture freak as every situation and line of dialogue circles back or is hijacked from a TV show or a movie he's obsessively seen again and again. (There's even a few meta-moments when he references films his co-stars have been in.) Sbarge turns a walking cliché into someone always full of surprises (-- loved the throwaway bit when Sherman gets his revenge on gym class). And as for Dennis Hopper, well, Hopper's ah-mazing performance and patented freak-out is worth a spin all on its own -- even after his character gets sucked through that wormhole.

Speaking of which, with the gizmo sucking in more energy and growing more unstable by the minute, all attempts to unplug it fail. Realizing this could mean the end of the world, Harlan hits upon another, more drastic solution and, with Latello and Elle's help, breaks into his father's hardware store, steals some dynamite, and then manages to outrace the gizmo's power surge and blow-up the power-lines, blacking out the town but cutting off the juice to the gizmo. But upon returning to town, Harlan and Latello are unable to retrieve the engine because the school is swarming with cops and they wind up arrested for the break-in, the downed power-lines, and are implicated in the disappearance of Mr. Roberts.

Using his one phone call to get a hold of Elle, Harlan tells her to get to the school, retrieve the gizmo and bring it to the station. There, she runs into Sherman, who’s been spying on them all night and ratted Harlan out to the cops, just as the lights come back on. Despite Elle's warnings, the obnoxious Sherman starts playing with gizmo and plugs it back in, which promptly discharges a huge amount of energy, destroying the lab with Elle and Sherman still in it!

With the gizmo reactivated and stronger than ever, it soon sucks the town dry, allowing Harlan and Latello to escape custody during the confusion. They return to the high school and see the gizmo has blown the roof off of the building and the space-warp currently tearing a hole in the sky like a rogue tornado. When a battered and bloodied Sherman stumbles out, he reveals Elle is still inside but refuses to go back in with the others to rescue her. But Harlan and Latello force him to go and then we find out why Sherman was so reluctant. The entire school is now caught in the space-warp, with overlapping bits of time and space shifting in and out of phase with our protagonists, meaning they'll have to fight their way through some Nazis, a Roman gladiator, a caveman, the Viet-Cong, some laser-packing post-apocalyptic mutants, and then, when they reach the gym, the trio find a Tyrannosaurus blocking their path, preventing them from getting to the gizmo, shutting it down, and saving Elle.

My Science Project barely made half of its $10-millioin budget back at the box office. A half-million of that was spent on the animated T-Rex sequence alone, which is an absolute hoot. Betuel had wanted Phil Tippett and ILM but they were all committed to The Ewok Adventure (1984). So instead of ILM the production got Available Light Productions (the same group who did the dino-FX for Baby), who did a fantastic job as the ever escalating space-warp and the high school invasion set-pieces look fantastic. Without the crutch of CGI, the special-effects were pulled off the old fashioned way, giving it a more immersive feel instead of being just a flat, first-person-shooter. An uncredited Rick Baker supervised the make-ups for all the time-displaced creatures that our heroes must fight their way through. And I suppose mention should also be made that like a lot of its like-minded genre film brethren of the day, My Science Project also had a theme song that included the title, performed by The Tubes.

After piecing the connection between The Last Starfighter and My Science Project together, I wondered what had happened to Betuel after such a promising start. A little research found Theodore Rex (1995) was his one and only follow up feature. So, asked and answered. Again, I cannot stress enough that I don't like this movie but love this movie. It's not often you have a film where the shop-jockeys and the A/V nerds team up to save the planet, but here ya go. The whole thing just feels fully realized and believable and lacks the usual dated suburban preppie blight that has long since ruined John Hughes and his ilk for me. And so remember, the next time someone is talking about a film from the 1980s where two witless goofballs must come up with a top-notch presentation or flunk out but stumble upon a time machine and go on some whacky adventures and save the world, they're not always talking about Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). And just like Harlan, when the smoke clears, the world is saved, and all is said and done, Betuel and My Science Project will always and forever get an A on their report card from me.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

My Science Project (1985) Silver Screen Partners II :: Touchstone Pictures :: Buena Vista Pictures / P: Jonathan T. Taplin / AP: E. Darrell Hallenbeck / D: Jonathan R. Betuel / W: Jonathan R. Betuel / C: David M. Walsh / E: Carroll Timothy O'Meara / M: Peter Bernstein / S: John Stockwell, Danielle von Zerneck, Fisher Stevens, Raphael Sbarge, Dennis Hopper

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