In a time when we’re skittish about whether schools should be open or teach online to combat COVID-19, here’s a movie about the fear of school that has no relevance whatsoever.
This is Mark L. Lester’s “Class of 1999,” a nasty sci-fi pulp thriller from 1990 about a high school experience even scarier than surviving Hogwarts.
An announcer and computer graphics right out of “Escape from New York” inform us that, by 1997, gangs have taken control of Seattle. In the midst of a “Free Fire Zone” is Kennedy High School, where “there is no law.” The school has re-opened to control the gangs, with the assistance of a bizarre businessman named Dr. Bob Forrest (Stacey Keach).
Dr. Forrest has created three androids in the guise of literature, gym and history teachers, played by John Ryan, Patrick Kilpatrick and Pam Grier. This trio of robots ably mimic human behavior but, when the students turn on them, they retaliate with extreme violence.
Or, as the movie poster tagline perfectly explains: “A government experiment finally makes school safe for everyone… except the students.”
A group of fed up and rebellious high schoolers, who witness firsthand their classmates being murdered for talking in class (among other offenses), decides to strike back. Oh, and the principal is played by Malcolm McDowell.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to B-Movie Heaven.
While Lester previously directed “Class of 1984,” this is not a sequel but a thematically connected and equally brutal companion piece.
There are obvious plotlines, concepts and visuals lifted from “RoboCop,” “Escape from New York,” “The Terminator,” “The Warriors,” “Mad Max” and “Westworld.”
McDowell’s casting suggests a nod to the frivolity of fighting violence with violence that was a key element of “A Clockwork Orange.”
Lester hasn’t made a metaphor for what life in America is like now. However, he has crafted a parable about how the “good intentions” of grownups, made in the name of education, can sometimes lead to a youthful revolt or all-out disaster.
One of the first lines is one teen asking another, “Wanna get high?” Clearly this movie represented Nancy Reagan’s worst nightmare.
Playing the “hero” of the film is Bradley Gregg, whose “Cody” has a home life ready for Jerry Springer that makes him one of the few who aren’t completely rattled by a high school terrorized by robo-teachers. Gregg’s resemblance to Stephen Dorff extends to his unrelenting intensity (I don’t think Gregg smiles once during the movie).
Playing Cody’s closest ally is Traci Lind, a standout character actress (a scene stealer in Wim Wenders’ “The End of Violence” and Alan Parker’s “The Road to Wellville”) whose career never made it to the big leagues.
The young actors pout and shout but are no match for the gravity and commitment of their elder co-stars. The adults on hand give this a conviction that singlehandedly sells the premise. Keach manages not to come across as foolish, which couldn’t have been easy — his character has silver orbs and a white wig with a rat-tailed hair mullet.
Keach’s insane appearance is never commented on or explained. McDowell plays this completely straight, which was absolutely the correct approach.
The deadly teachers are scene stealers: Ryan, the “It’s Alive” veteran, genre veteran Kilpatrick (the bad guy in everything from “Remo Williams — The Adventure Begins…” to “Minority Report”) and the legendary Grier play this for satire, which is like trying to squeeze wit out of the screenplay to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.”
The three appear to be having fun and, while their work falls short of giving this a “Stepford Wives” angle, they inject fiendish glee every time they appear. Worth mentioning is the best visual joke in the movie: we discover that the three robot teachers share an apartment, and have cabinets loaded with WD-40.
It’s that kind of movie.
The decision to put a year in title, let alone the plot, of a sci-fi movie is always foolish. It dates the film and makes the developments of the “near future” seem silly. Here, the world of 1999 means advances in cyborg technology and bulkier cars.
This is the movie Robert Rodriguez’s enjoyable but extremely mainstream “The Faculty” could have been if he had been allowed to make an uncompromising drive-in movie and not a teen-friendly mall flick.
“Class of 1999” shoves hard against good taste and wants badly to dissect the problems of restoring etiquette in a school plagued with violence but can’t. It falls short as a sci-fi spoof or a proper social commentary. It wants really badly to be “Battle Royale” (2000), Kinji Fukasaku’s popular, controversial and extremely violent satire of the Japanese education system that made a giant splash when it premiered ten years after this movie.
“Battle Royale” never had a proper release in American theaters (aside from a few midnight screenings), due to post-Columbine sensibilities. With the rise of school shootings, films dealing with this subject are typically reflective dramas, like “Elephant” and “The Life Before Her Eyes,” not exploitative action movies like this one.
Lester’s film couldn’t be made today, not even as a satire. The metaphor of teachers literally going to war with their students is too discomforting, as are lines like “I’m goin’ in there to waste some teachers…you with me?”
Car chases, gun fights and violent altercations are always happening in this movie. We even get the robot teacher’s POV readouts, which offer these physical disciplines to choose from: “RAP KNUCKLES. PINCH NECK NERVES. TWIST EARS. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT.”
The teachers enforce their sadistic versions of discipline in amusingly cringe-inducing ways: a high heel to the foot looks painful but the real showstopper is a violent spanking. It’s something I’ve never seen before in an American movie and it’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds.
Despite previously directing “Commando,” Lester’s way of staging and filming action isn’t that great here. “Class of 1999” teeters back and forth from a sincere thriller to a campy carnage fest. It’s not quite a classic and, because it’s not as smart as it should have been, it seems like something of a missed opportunity.
This extends to the forgettable power ballad “Come the Day (Theme from ‘Class of 1999’),” that plays over the ends credits; Nine Inch Nail’s still-killer “Head Like a Hole” is barely used in the background of one scene and, since Trent Reznor was up and coming at that time, the song gets buried on the soundtrack.
Had the film been a hit instead of a quick blip at the box office, it would likely have been rounded up with the other 1990 films (like “Miami Blues,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Die Hard 2,” “Another 48 HRS” and “RoboCop 2,” to name a few) that were singled out for going “too far.”
Lester’s film, as gratuitous as it is, never generated the one thing that would likely have made it a hit: controversy.
Whereas the aforementioned titles were films that reached a mass audience, “Class of 1999” received a few good reviews and maintains a cult following (hence the Vestron Video Classics Blu-ray special edition) but was dismissed at large upon its initial unveiling.
The videocassette sales were enough to spawn a straight to video sequel, “Class of 1999 II: The Substitute,” starring Sascha Mitchell, best known as the dopey “Cody” on “Step by Step” (Mitchell’s lone killer robot is a poor substitute for the trio of the first film).
Whatever social implications were present in a 1990 sci-fi movie about an out of control education system now come across as a message buried in cinematic junk food. This isn’t even the best film of its kind from 1990. “Class of 1999” and the higher profile “RoboCop 2” both fell short of Richard Stanley’s “Hardware,” an artful and savage killer-robot-on-the-loose cult movie.
Still, the practical effects are great, with individual gags (like a robot teacher piercing a locker with his fingers) that are cleverly done and still look good.
The violence is rough but the whole thing is so ridiculous, it’s impossible to take seriously. Thankfully, by the third act, Lester abandons any attempt at pathos, throws his hands up and turns this into exactly the movie we wanted all along. He seems all too happy to just keep this a mean, brisk guilty pleasure and finally not be bothered with moral or political points surfacing.
It finally gives up being edgy and climaxes with a quip-heavy, gore and explosion-filled finale, loaded with clever robot hijinks and motorcycle wheelies. There’s a great one-liner for each villain that is dispatched (they’re all hilarious), solidifying this movie’s ability to entertain while being disreputable.
Finally, “Class of 1999” answers the timeless question: is there a better weapon to use against an evil robot teacher than a school bus?