Sunday, August 19, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: My Science Project (1985)

Once upon a time, back when video rental stores were pretty common instead of being retro rarities, there was a video store in the Parkaire shopping center in East Cobb where I (or rather, my parents) regularly rented movies when I was in elementary school. There (I'm pretty sure it was there) I got hold of a 1980s science fiction entitled My Science Project. Before I watched the movie for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, I remembered liking it but I didn't remember what happened in it that well. What I did remember I thought might actually be from the time-traveling section of House: The Second Story, which I saw on television.

So when Nick was looking for movies to do for Myopia, I suggested this one. We watched it as part of a whole month dedicated to "1990s precocious kids" films, although the cast seems a lot older than the denizens of a typical (as Nick would put it) "kid empowerment film" from that decade. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

It's two weeks before graduation and Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), who's more interested in cars than academics or his girlfriend Crystal (Pat Simmons), and his buddy Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens) don't have a science project. His old hippie science teacher Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper) tells them that without a science project they can't graduate high school. Furthermore, to encourage him to stretch himself, he's not allowed to do a project on cars.

So Michael sneaks into an Air Force boneyard along with nerdy Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) and salvages the engine of a fallen alien spacecraft. It sucks power from nearby sources of electricity and causes weird space-time anomalies to occur.

And then it gets plugged into the electrical grid and things really get weird...

(FYI, Jonathan R. Betuel wrote and directed this film. He's the brains behind The Last Starfighter, a previous Myopia adventure.)

The Good

*They managed to get Dennis Hopper--the Dennis Hopper--in the film. That's pretty impressive, given how the rest of the cast are no-names. I did how he portrayed his character--he's an ex-hippie who wants to encourage the kids to succeed and encourages them to not take the easy way out, even though he has to put his foot down when they're not getting their work done. Of course, he also gets waaay too into his subject matter.

*Although Michael is self-absorbed and not the most selfless and attentive boyfriend at the beginning of the film, he's more empathetic and has a much better attitude toward women than Vince. For example, when Vince says his father told him women will like him if he treats them like dirt, he asks Vince what his mother thinks about this and Vince is forced to admit his parents are divorced.

*Vince is a jerk with criminal inclinations (shaking down a student for pay-phone money, for example), but he's pretty funny. I liked how Fisher handled him.

*Vince for all his obnoxiousness is developed somewhat--even though he's just as much of a greaser as Michael, he's always got a sci-fi or monster movie reference available for whenever things get weird.

*It'd be easy to make the nerdy Sherman (Rafael Sbarge) a total put-upon victim of people with more friends and better social skills, but he's more complicated as well. He's abrasive, clearly looks down on people less intelligent than he is, and engages in some (admittedly more harmless and silly) stalking and psychological warfare toward Harlan and Ellie when they're on their kind-of date. And like Bob, he's clearly book smart but not totally up on common sense.

*At least some of the science has a basis in reality. The aliens in the film would have to be from outside our solar system (there's certainly not another technological civilization here) and in order for them to visit realistically they'd need faster-than-light travel. However, according to many Internet science types, the ability to travel faster than light implies the ability to time travel. That an alien engine presumably capable of faster-than-light travel, when fiddled with by people who don't know what they're doing, starts causing time warps as well makes sense.

*The film was clearly made in a time before angst about terrorism and school shootings and that's a good thing. I doubt the movie would be made today because plot points involving students blowing up power lines or going armed into a school to shut down a time warp wouldn't fly with the hoi polloi.

*The last part of the movie, in which all kinds of crazy time-warp stuff happens, is pretty fun.

The Bad

*When President Eisenhower is brought to see the captured flying saucer, he simply orders the Air Force to "get rid of it." That really doesn't ring true to his character. Even though he was skeptical of the military-industrial complex that began with WWII and continued into the Cold War, a captured extraterrestrial craft that "made a mockery of our interceptors" would be a treasure trove. It'd be more sensible if he ordered it taken somewhere more secure and something fell off, to be found nearly 30 years later by the protagonists of the film.

*The film jumps from Michael leaving to go on his "date" with Ellie to them sneaking into the Air Force base with no reason for it, even though he does try to explain later on. Throwing in some kind of urban legend about what went down back in the 1950s earlier in the film and have Michael decide to "impress" aspiring-journalist Ellie by investigating it would have been better. Foreshadowing and less need for after-the-fact explanations.

*A character getting sucked into an alien machine reminded me a lot of the original Ghostbusters, which came out a year before.

*The character's plan to stop the warping of reality could have been done without actually leaving the school building. Why black out the town if you can find the school's circuit breakers? They could be running around the school with all sorts of weird space-time stuff happening around them.

*One character reveals to another character their trust issues with people, trust issues that were not in evidence elsewhere in the film.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle.

*Some of the science is a bit outdated at best. For example, Neanderthals weren't Bigfoot.

*Nobody would need to be told some characters are Viet Cong. If they're 17 in 1985, they were born in 1968. The Vietnam War would have been their childhood, or something their parents or older brothers would have personally experienced.

The Verdict

It's not great, but it's not awful either. I'd say it's mediocre and only really worth seeing if you're feeling nostalgic. 6.5 out of 10.

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