The film: My Science Project (1985)
The Principals: John Stockwell (pre-Cougar), Danielle von Zerneck (pre-Bamba), Fisher Stevens (pre-brownface), Richard Masur (pre-emptive clown avoidance), Dennis Hopper (pre-wrapped insanity). Written and directed by that guy Jonathan R. Betuel that you don’t know.
The Premise: That guy from Christine (no, the other guy) tries his hand at playing another high school student before going off to the Navy to crack under pressure for the sake of Tom Cruise. This time he plays Michael Harlan, a motorhead (not the band) who has a mild love affair with his souped-up muscle car and is about to be flunked by his crazy-hippie-cool science teacher (Hopper) if he doesn’t come up with a groovy science project for his final. In the meantime, Harlan manages to score a date with the trope-ular cute nerd girl named Ellie (von Zoidberg), whom he drags to an abandoned Air Field to find something he can pass off as his project. There, he discovers a plasma globe from Spencer’s left over from a UFO crash that occurred in the 1950s. Harlan quickly discovers that this device can create “time warps” which causes sections and people of the past and future to bleed over into 1985. And because randomly throwing in a New Jersey Italian stereotype (decades before Jersey Shore made it popular) was an approved story idea, Fischer Stevens teams up with Harlan as his best friend Vince, allowing Stevens the opportunity to practice offending other ethnicities before he landed his dream job in two Short Circuit films. When the “gizmo” (caca) becomes uncontrollable, the three team up with another nerd stereotype to stop it, all the while trying to evade the local sheriff (played by Masur doing his worst Clint Eastwood impression).
Is It Good? I originally had a completely different answer to this question all written out and in place like a responsible professional would. I mentioned how I loved it as a kid growing up and that as an adult it just doesn’t hold up. I was basically ready to just write this movie off as a piece of crap. I don’t know exactly what happened between then and now. Maybe it’s that I just turned thirty-eight two Wednesdays ago (thank you for the birthday wishes I know you’re bestowing upon me right now) and my perspective changed. Maybe I just had a lot of time to reflect on it more during this past week and a half while I was whisked away on a secret getaway to mourn the fact that I’m that much closer to forty. Or perhaps an eight year-old Spencer Breslin showed up on my doorstep claiming to be me as a kid to tell me I suck as an adult and then shoot me to close the loop? Who knows, but I’ll tell you that an eight year-old Breslin is an unholy terror to fight off. What I do know is that though I originally intended to say that this movie is really a pile of awful, I just didn’t feel right saying it. The reason for that is I realized that I will never be able to look at this film without seeing it from two different perspectives – the objective one, as well as the one rocking the eighties nostalgia-coloured glasses. Is this movie good? Probably not to anyone who didn’t come from the eighties. The whole film is dated, and not in a good way. Even the humour that peppers this light sci-fi adventure has an expired time-stamp on it. And while the “gizmo” itself probably looked super cool and futuristic back in the day, the fact that you can pick one of those up in any novelty store at the mall nowadays makes its role in the film a little less spectacular.
Then there’s the acting. Stockwell executes his standard cardboard delivery while von Zomethingerother doesn’t do much beyond what we’ve seen in the few other movies she’s been in. Meanwhile, Masur’s consistent groaning just mirrors what we’re all doing while watching him try to make everyone’s day. And of course the mandatory male nerd stereotype of the group is handled in that very eighties, stereotypical way. Unfortunately, it falls flat in comparison to far superior nerd films like Revenge of the Nerds. Really, the only two performances that are alive and entertaining are Hopper and Stevens. Both throw themselves completely into the fun zone when playing their characters, and both generally have the best lines. Hopper’s role is very limited, however. His character only shows up at the beginning to threaten to flunk the two leads before vanishing in a time warp. He then reappears at the end to be all the Hopper he can be for the camera. That leaves the bulk of the work to Stevens, who despite the fact that he’s technically offensive just being on camera, still manages to be amusing and worth his paycheck.
The effects actually aren’t too bad, either. Granted, most of the visuals don’t require much outside of rotoscoping electricity and some semi-elaborate setwork to showcase different periods of time bleeding into ours. Most of the budget probably went into the T-rex – both the stop motion live version as well as the model used for the dead one. Still, everything holds up pretty well for a thirty year old film.
But therein lies the rub. The movie, as a whole, is pretty hit and miss. And really, it’s more miss than hit. But the hits almost make it worth it. I still find Steven’s antics funny at the same time I know they’re pretty lame. And the overall concept is fantastic and creative enough that it feels like in better hands this movie could have been something great. So is this movie good? It depends on where you’re coming from. To most people, no. It’s right on the pile with the rest of the eighties flicks that try to latch on to the success of better films But I think it’s one of the better attempts. And I still find it to be a fun flick.
Is It Worth a Look? Children of the eighties and anyone else coming from that era who love eighties sci-fi cheese should definitely check it out if they haven’t already. But c’mon – most of us have already seen it at least once. Folks weaned on the nineties era of cinema should ignore it like they do everything else, and go right back to their flannel, floppy hats, and cynicism. Time travelers should definitely avoid it, as the movie will do nothing but anger them with all the inaccuracies and details the film got wrong. Most everyone else can give this one a pass as well, unless you’re into eighties nostalgia or the premise has your interest piqued a little. Otherwise, it’s a forgettable film – much like von Zoboomafoo.
Random Anecdotes: Stevens makes a reference to the film Christine to John Stockwell’s character, which the latter starred in before making Project. Another movie reference is made when Hopper’s character Bob comes back from the past in his outfit from Easy Rider. The movie also references the fact that Richard Masur used to be in movies.
Cinematic Soulmates: Weird Science, House 2, The Philadelphia Experiment, The movie that’s always playing inside Dennis Hopper’s head.