In the 50s science fiction movies featured pipe-smoking scientists devising ways to get to other planets, while square-jawed heroes battled aliens and atomic enlarged insects, but in the 80s it was teenagers who took over the genre. It was high school kids who were creating life with Weird Science, travelling Back to the Future with a borrowed DeLorean and they almost start World War III by playing Wargames on their computer. Those were great times to be a kid. Today we will look back at one of these 80s teen-sci-fi flicks that’s not as well-remembered as the others, and that film is…
Strangely enough, this 80s science fiction comedy begins in the late 50s with an alien spacecraft crash landing on Earth and the United States government sequestering the wreckage in, what I’m assuming, is Hanger 18 in Area 51. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robert Beer) is brought in to see the craft and is told that the alien crew had died in the crash and but a team of scientists is currently studying the ship’s engine. Eisenhower’s immediate reaction is, “Get rid of it!” and the ship is destroyed by a laser cannon that the scientists happened to have lying around. I know Eisenhower was afraid of the whole idea of the “military-industrial complex” but ordering the Air Force scientists to destroy proof of alien life, not to mention the possible advancement in technology, seems rather odd even by Cold War paranoia standards.
The movie then jumps to 1985 where we meet our hero Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), a high school senior who is more interested in cars than girls, which results in his current girlfriend breaking up with him. But being dumped by his girlfriend for failing the Cosmo-romantic-scope test is the least of his problems because if he doesn’t hand in an awesome science project he will not graduate. Enter Ellie Sawyer (Danielle von Zerneck), a bookworm who is afraid of graduating high school as the class spinster. She asks Harlan out on a date and he agrees, unfortunately for her, the date involves breaking into an Air Force salvage yard to find something for his science project.
While wandering around the junkyard Harlan falls into a government fallout shelter and discovers the film’s science MacGuffin. He finds what looks like one of those plasma globes you can buy at Spencer’s Gifts but of course, it’s the engine to the alien spacecraft from the film’s opening scene. With the help of his best friend and comic relief, Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens) he polishes up the device and powers it up. They are shocked, to say the least, when the gizmo turns out to generate a time warp field that not only makes an Egyptian suddenly vase materialize but moves the two of them a couple of hours into the future.
The two knuckleheads, along with Ellie, show the device to Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper), their science teacher and resident ex-hippie who is clearly Hopper just channelling his characters from Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider. When the gizmo drains the power from a battery Bob plugs it into an electrical outlet causing the device to go into high gear. Bob spouts a bunch of scientific gibberish and then in the midst of contemplating the wonders of the universe, he vanishes in a flash of purple light. Harlan is unable to disconnect the alien device from the outlet so their only option is to destroy a power line tower and blackout the town. Yeah, that sounds logical. They break into Harlan’s family hardware store to steal some dynamite, accidentally dropping Bob’s peace sign necklace that Vince had picked up for some reason, and they then race to get ahead of the alien energy before it can get out of town.
Why do they have to get ahead of the alien energy force? Destroying any of the electrical towers would cut the town off from the outside world thus robbing the device of any more power, so why do they have to get ahead of it? Now if we go with the idea that if the device can even momentarily gets access to the States energy grid it will reach “end of the world” capabilities just exactly how does our group of yahoos intend to stop it in time? They had to exit the high school, go to the hardware store, get the dynamite and then race out of town to get ahead of the energy. When they manage to get ahead of it one has to ask, “Just how slow is this alien energy travelling?” Did it stop for coffee while they were stealing the dynamite? We see that Harlan has to engage his cars “Blowers” to get the car going fast enough to get ahead of the energy but then they have time to duct tape several bundles of dynamite to an electrical tower when we clearly saw that they were no more than a few hundred feet ahead of the oncoming energy. I know continuity isn’t an important thing for teen comedies but the writer of this movie clearly didn’t care enough to make this scene even remotely plausible.
When Harlan gets home from their successful explosive venture he finds Detective Isadore Nulty (Richard Masur) in his bedroom waiting for him. Harlan and Vince are taken into police custody where we see them get printed and photographed. This shows that the writer of this movie is as familiar with police procedures as he is with science, as in not at all. The police believe the explosives were taken from the Harlan family hardware store, Bob’s peace sign necklace was found at the scene, and Bob is missing and witnesses place Harlan and Vince at the high school where Bob was last known to be. All good reasons for bringing them in for questioning but certainly not enough to book them, all they have is circumstantial evidence and most of that points at the missing Bob.
Before being carted off to jail Harlan was able to call Ellie and ask her to go to the school and get the device as that would somehow clear them of all charges, but unfortunately, when she gets to the school she finds Sherman (Raphael Sbarge), the chief nerd of the school, already there. Sherman has been harbouring a crush on Ellie, to the point of hiring jocks to harass Harlan, and he hopes the trouble Harlan is currently in will pave the way for his shot at Ellie. While studying the device Sherman is impressed with its time warp capabilities so he plugs it back into the outlet.
Wait, how was this thing unplugged? Our trio had to dynamite an electrical tower because they were unable to disconnect it, so why isn’t still plugged in? Once the local utility works got the power up and running the device should have kicked back into gear and then we wouldn’t have needed an obnoxious nerd guy to do it. Regardless this creates a massive time warp over the school and we can finally get to the good stuff.
Lucky for Harlan and Vince this causes a city-wide blackout allowing them to escape the incredibly inept police department and rush over to the high school. There they encounter Sherman and learn that Ellie is still inside. Now, this is the point of the movie that we’ve all been waiting for, three high school kids venturing into a building where time and space are in complete flux. Harlan, Vince, and Sherman must do battle with a Neanderthal, a Roman gladiator, the Viet Cong, and laser-toting post-apocalyptic mutants. Now as cool as those encounters are, and their ability to take on such foes in hand to hand combat is impressive, nothing tops what happens when they have to flee the mutants by cutting through the gym.
Eventually, they make it to the science class to rescue Ellie, and Harlan is able to turn off the device. Excuse me, he does what? What was the point of committing several major felonies to cut off the gizmo’s power supply if Harlan could have just flipped the off switch? Sure Harlan is momentarily sucked into the time warp but then he comes right back as does Bob who we learn was given a trip through the sixties and allowed to revisit Woodstock. So as endings go this was rather anti-climactic and puts our idiot heroes in an even worse light, and even worse is that they get off scot-free while poor Bob is taken into custody for blowing up the electrical tower. That’s your happy ending?
Sure Harlan learns that maybe hanging out with girls is more fun than working under a car but that’s a lot of death and destruction to learn that life lesson, a lesson that most guys figure out about the same time they learn that girls don’t have cooties.
Aside from the weak-ass ending, which includes Harlan returning the alien gizmo to the fallout shelter for possible sequels, this movie is rather fun with some nice nods to earlier science fiction films and television shows; Vince is from Brooklyn and is clearly modelled off of the “Brooklyn Guy” comic relief character that appears in countless space adventure films of the fifties, Harlan’s dad is seen watching the George Pal’s The Time Machine, and Vince refers to Sherman as “Boy Sherman” clearly a reference to the animated time-travelling duo of Mister Peabody and his Boy Sherman.
Though the film was critically panned it does hold enough entertainment value that I’m able to recommend it to fans of the genre, most of the characters are quite likable, even the nerdy Sherman is given a moment to shine, and if the low budget effects work is barely passable at times the stop-motion T-Rex fight is quite good and makes up for a lot. So if some night you are perusing Netflix and come across My Science Project check it out, there are worse ways to kill ninety minutes.
My Science Project (1985)
Writer/director Jonathan R. Betuel doesn’t seem to care if his story makes sense as long as the movie is carrying along at a good clip, and for the most part he’s right as no one is coming into a film called My Science Project looking for hard science, but a tighter hand on continuity certainly would have helped.