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Monday, April 11, 2016

My Science Project (1985) – Review

In the 50s science fiction movies featured pipe smoking scientist devising ways to get to other planets while square jawed heroes battled aliens and atomic enlarged insects but in the 80s teenagers took over the genre. High school kids were creating life with Weird Science, traveling Back to the Future with a borrowed DeLorean, and almost starting 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 as an alien spacecraft has crashed to Earth and the United States government has sequestered 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 scientist are currently studying the ship’s engine. Eisenhower’s immediate reaction is, “Get rid of it.” And the ship is destroyed by a laser canon 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.


And when did we get alien ship destroying laser technology?

The movie than 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-romanti-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, but unfortunately for her the date involves breaking into an Air Force salvage yard to find something for his science project.


Who says romance is dead?

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 hours into the future.


Is it just me or does that look like a Romulan cloaking device?

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 channeling 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 black out 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.


Does this make sense to anyone?

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 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 traveling?" 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.


"I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

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.


 Fisher Steven later charged with crimes against taste for his performance in Short Circuit.

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, all ready there.  Sherman has been harboring 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 this it’s time warp capabilities so he plugs it back into the outlet.
Wait what, how is 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 obnoxious nerd guy to do it. Irregardless this creates a massive time warp over the school and we can finally get to the good stuff.


It was stuff like this that got me kicked out of science class.

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.


“Is that the sound of thunder or me shitting in my pants?”

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?


“Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.”

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 televisionsshows; Vince is from Brooklyn and is clearly modeled 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 is worse ways to kill ninety minutes.

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