There’s a certain nostalgia which attends the viewing of such mid 1980s films as John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) or even Woody Allen's mellow-period Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – a nostalgia for that time when movies were in the literate and dramatic business of saying or doing one thing well. Because, like it or not, what defines the most contemporary style of popular movie blockbuster is the fact that it scrambles to say at least five things at once, often in a wildly contradictory way. Coherence, clarity, nuance, sureness of thematic purpose – mainstream cinema lost them as ideal goals somewhere around the late ‘70s.
Today, movies are calculated messes – trying to say everything possible to every imaginable audience member. Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance (1983) was probably the first film to perfect this method; but it has continued on through such seemingly diverse items as Purple Rain (1984), Ghostbusters (1984), Rocky IV (1985) and Weird Science. And while nostalgic critics – some of whose heads are still back in the Hollywood ‘50s – bemoan the fact that these movies don’t seem to make much old-fashioned sense, history pile-drives on regardless.
This is the popular cinema today: no longer classical narrative or realist, founded on a weird science of contriving films like all-purpose machines with interchangeable parts – a science that has its origins not in the fine traditions of literary or theatrically inspired film, but in the dirtier, freer, more dissociated spaces of the cheap, B grade movie genres going right back to at least the 1930s.
John Hughes’ Weird Science – a quantum leap beyond his already inventive but more determinedly sweet and charming teenpic classics like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) – is a mindboggling, belief-defying film that gives the impression of having done away altogether with the conventional need for a script respecting the unities of time, space and character motivation. It comes across as either microwave-heated (based on an all-in recipe of jokes, hooks, clichés and previous filmic successes), or computer-generated.
In fact, it’s a computer within the fiction that provides the magic carpet allowing both the two principal adolescent characters (Anthony Michael Hall as Gary and Ilan Mitchell Smith as Wyatt), and also the film itself, to leave reality well and truly behind – approximately one minute after the opening credits. A computer materialises the fantasy premise – an ideal woman, Kelly LeBrock as Lisa, who wants to do nothing more than eternally party – and from that point, Ms LeBrock herself can magically materialise anything else the movie feels it needs for second-to-second pep-ups.
Weird Science launches itself anew every few minutes. It’s the kind of contemporary film that has you shaking your head wondering what’s going to pop out next, and whether you’re going to survive it. Not only is Weird Science the ultimate teen movie – it’s got the wildest party, the stuffiest parents (and grandparents), two main guys (not just one) and hence two cute girlfriends, it outdoes all the classic scenes such as the after-party clean-up a split-second before the folks return home – but it also conjures up, at will, phantoms from various other youth genres as well: a space missile (sci-fi); a few colourful characters from Mad Max 2 (futuristic action road movie) and The Hills Have Eyes (cult gore horror film); not to mention dizzily surreal gags involving character transformations and time-space manipulations, claiming their inspiration somewhere between Saturday Night Live and Jerry Lewis. The amazing things that happen to Chet (Bill Paxton) are particularly memorable. It’s a garden-of-forking-paths movie with a cheeky trick ending and a host of loose ends it hopes you didn’t notice. (But what about the father with the bulk-erased brain, and the snap-frozen grandparents in the closet, and … ?)
So far, we might be watching a modern, youth-oriented, barf-out version of a classic anti-social B movie by Roger Corman, Edgar Ulmer, Samuel Fuller or Russ Meyer. Ah, but here’s where the balancing-act dexterity really shows itself, when we get into the tricky area of what this film might actually want to say, message-wise. Weird Science promises to be – and, on one level, actually is – the ultimate wish-fulfilment for teenage boys: the fantasy of an experienced woman who is a sex slave to two horny virgins. But … there’s no sex in it! It milks the fantasy and disavows it simultaneously (at the start, one guy falls asleep just before the big sex scene can happen; by the end, both guys have cute, normal and equally virginal girlfriends).
So it’s a dirty movie and a clean movie all at once – no mean feat. It’s even got a moral sense (the boys find themselves, grow up, learn responsibility), presumably to satisfy that sector of the audience demanding it (or assumed to exist, and assumed to be demanding it). At the end, we see this whole demented, yet consummately skilful, dissociative operation in a nutshell, when Kelly says: “I’m getting off just seeing you two guys straighten yourselves out!” – a somewhat strange but perfectly functioning mixture of unbridled sex-drive and civic-mindedness.
© Adrian Martin January 1986