This 1980s Sci-Fi Teen Comedy Mashup Isn’t Exactly “A” Material
DIRECTED BY JONATHAN R. BETUEL/1985
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 8, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Students, let this be a lesson: when you put off doing your homework, trouble awaits. Except in the case of grease monkey leading dude Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), who’s procrastination and automotive obsession end up granting him a most curious find.
Behold, a glowing alien techno-whatsit! It hums, it whirs, it has unlocking compartments and its own pulsating plasma globe… and it pulls an awful lot of electrical power. And oh yeah, it bends time and space and opens a massive swirling portal to another dimension. Just something that another date night in the local junkyard has netted him.
Despite Michael’s academically challenged inclinations, he’s a good, all-American guy: he loves Springsteen, cars, time spent in the garage, enunciating in a gravelly whisper, cars, pretty girls, his annoying pal Vince (Fisher Stevens), and cars. Somehow, the intensely whacko high school science teacher sympathizes with Michael’s nature, even though he’s a recently sobered-up Dennis Hopper who’s fixated on how groovy the 1960s were. (Because when you get Dennis Hopper in your contrived movie at this point in his career, of course that’s what you’re going to have him do). When the course of events leads to the glowing alien whatsit sitting on his desk after hours, it’s all he can do to get himself literally all caught up in its glowing, swirly, mid-1980s VFX emissions.
1985’s increasingly strange My Science Project is a mashup among mashups. A cursory untrained glance can deduce several of its key parts. Clearly it wants to operate as kind of a John Hughes teen movie, which were so popular when this was made. Also, there’s the supernatural stakes of Ghostbusters, which was huge the year before. Throw in the spatial darkness of E.T., Tom Cruise’s Ray Ban Wayfarers from Risky Business, a dose of American Graffiti John Milner motor ambling, and the boring list of references gets all the lengthier. And check out that Go-gos striped cross-top on the girl who dumps Michael at the beginning…! I bet she wants her MTV.
The girl (Danielle von Zerneck) starts as a bookish nerd but loses her ponytail and glasses by the end. Good thing, since the movie demonstrates a contempt for more bona fide bookish social outcasts, as demonstrated by the treatment of Raphael Sbarge’s total nerd-o toady.
The sewing up of the elements is not exactly Tarantino-esque, nor even John Carpenter or George Lucas-esque. Rather, it’s a dump-trucked barrage of what was hip in that moment. The barrage is supposed to be nullified by Fisher Stevens’s character’s unrelenting TV references. But wondering out loud what Magnum P.I. would do in this situation does not constitute comedic relief. It only makes things worse.
Predictably, enough time has passed to where this would-be summer blockbuster that wasn’t has assumed its position alongside other not-so-great Reagan-era relics. If this mostly-shoddily made (though the t-rex that appears is pretty nifty, as it was helped along by none other than Rick Baker) hodgepodge sounds swell to you, then good news- it’s recently released to Blu-ray by the fine folks at Kino Lorber Studio Classics. On the disc’s newly recorded commentary track, film historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden do a nice job of detailing why they feel the film is worthy of their own fondness. We also get an energized Fisher Stevens video remembrance of the making the film. And a pile of KLSC trailers.
So what’s the lesson here, really? Obviously, it’s this, poindexter: You do you, man. Because at the last minute, you can always turn in a crated up and stashed-away top-secret alien spiny-kabob that you stumble onto in a junkyard bomb shelter. From there, things might get kind of weird and even surprisingly dark (having to murder a displaced ancient gladiator is just part of it sometimes), but ultimately, you’ll get your A. Though it helps when your teacher is Dennis Hopper.