My Science Project
August 9, 1985
The thrilling conclusion to the teen science comedy trilogy of August 2-9, 1985 is the one I knew even less about than REAL GENIUS. I can say that because all I knew was the picture of aliens I saw in the one page article in my trusty July, 1985 Cinefantastique, but I forgot it said that scene was cut. So I had negative knowledge of what the movie was about.
Like REAL GENIUS, it has a cold open in a military facility to establish what the kids will be dealing with. But this scene is in 1957 when President Eisenhower (Robert Beer, who also played him THE RIGHT STUFF) is dragged out of bed to be shown the UFO the boys captured. He tells them to get rid of it. Cut to 1985.
From that point on it’s closer to WEIRD SCIENCE than REAL GENIUS, because it’s another one about high school kids accidentally unleashing sci-fi craziness in their small town (in Arizona, I think). A major difference from the other two is that the main character, Michael Harlan (John Stockwell, CHRISTINE) is by no means nerdy. I don’t think he’s a popular kid either, he’s just a broody, gruff, kind of dim but basically nice dude who’s not really interested in anything but working on cars. His favorite singer is Bruce Springsteen, he drives a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a huge blower, and when science fiction causes it to break down outside of town he refuses to walk home because he thinks someone will see him and question his mechanic skills.
He’s close to graduating, but it won’t happen if he doesn’t figure out what to do for his science project. His teacher Mr. Roberts (Dennis Hopper, who sucks on a gas tank pre-BLUE VELVET) is a laid back hippie who wants his students to call him “Bob,” but he expects more out of Michael than passing off a car engine as a project.
He also just got dumped by his girlfriend Crystal (Pat Simmons, “Woman at Babylon Club,” SCARFACE) so on a whim he accepts an audacious date request from nerdy Ellie Sawyer (Danielle von Zerneck, TUNNEL VISION). To her disappointment he brings her to break into the military junkyard to look for something other than a car he can restore for his project. He finds and takes something that came from the UFO, having no idea what it is. He just calls it “the gizmo.”
Of course he messes with it, it starts doing weird things, long story short it messes with the space-time continuum and the last act takes place at the school one night when the gizmo summons various historical figures, a Vietnam War battle (watch for Al Leong and Gerald Okamura), a t-rex, an ape man, some post-apocalyptic mutants, etc.
I like those two main characters. There are some way-too-on-the-nose, lifted-straight-from-the-character-bio type lines about Michael being able to relate to cars more than people, but I think Stockwell gives him a convincing guy-who’s-not-in-touch-with-his-emotions presence, and I like seeing the character who would usually be the troubled best friend as the lead. The appeal of Ellie is similar – though fitting some cliches of the nerd girl who lets her hair down, von Zerneck gives her a real humanity – it’s kind of like if Betty Finn from HEATHERS got to be the love interest. And it’s not a “the nerd girl dates the captain of the football team” type gimmick – it’s two very different type of outsiders who never would’ve guessed they would fit together, and find out they do. Kind of sweet.
I watched the movie with Mrs. Vern, who did not feel as positively about that aspect. She saw Ellie as one of those characters who meets a boy and takes her glasses off and becomes happy. We also interpreted one of the jokes differently. Michael asks her if she reads Cosmo, because a horoscope in Cosmo inspired Crystal to dump him. Ellie says “That rag?,” which impresses him, but later we see her at home reading it, wearing a mud mask and painting her toenails. I took it to mean that she had been lying, embarrassed of her girly side because she’s smart. My wife interpreted it as her now beginning to care about this stuff because of her date. Which I agree is not so good. I still like Ellie.
Unfortunately, she’s sidelined during much of the climax, and the two characters who join Michael on that adventure range from bad to the absolute worst. In the former category is Sherman (Raphael Sbarge, RISKY BUSINESS, VISION QUEST), Ellie’s friend from yearbook class who’s so jealously possessive of her that he hires some jocks to torment Michael. This is the cartoonish REVENGE OF THE NERDS archetype – embarrassing laugh, bad allergies, thick glasses, pocket protector (did any high school kids really wear those? It was such a signifier at the time and I don’t remember if I ever saw one in the wild). He works at the library and knows all about both sci-fi and science. In defense of the character, they allow some nuance to him and mostly acknowledge his toxic side as a bad thing (unlike in REVENGE OF THE NERDS). But after many years of school shootings the part where he shoots up the scoreboard for fun is a little creepy. Oh well.
By far the worst part of the movie, and likely the most annoying character I’ve encountered in this review series, is Michael’s unbearable best friend Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens, THE BURNING), who is arguably a two joke character, but seems more like a one joke character but they got bored at some point and decided to change what the one joke was.
First joke: He’s from Brooklyn. He mentions it seven or eight times. Michael calls him “Brooklyn Boy,” which he also has written on his boombox. His whole vibe is exaggerated goomba asshole – slicked back hair, sunglasses, loudly chewing gum or even a cigar, Adidas track jacket with bare chest exposed, gold chain, 100% of his brain power focused on trying to find reasons to mention that he’s from Brooklyn.
Second joke: He’s really into TV! So everything he knows is from TV! And he mentions TV shows! Can you believe it? He’s always saying stuff like “Good thing I watch TV, huh?” and “I just want to be home watching cartoons” or “I could be at home watching Magnum” or “17 years of TV down the drain!” (I have no clue what that means.) He hums the Mission: Impossible theme, sings the Speed Racer theme. He mentions Mannix, Mr. Spock, McCloud, Barney Rubble, The Gong Show. He says, “It ain’t The Brady Bunch!” A couple of these I can forgive but if it’s a guy’s entire shtick it really underlines how much naming a popular TV show doesn’t count as a joke.
I was very surprised not to see a sitcom writer credited on this, because this character talks so much like every asshole on a bad sitcom. (And then other characters have to talk in his voice too, like when Bob calls a cop “Kojak.”) So I would still hate this motherfucker even if he wasn’t introduced talking about how back in Brooklyn he would punch a girl in the face for breaking up with him, and if he didn’t have (by my count) four different bouts of homophobia. One of those is during the end credits! You think it’s over and he comes back for one more swipe at lesbians. What a cut up. He’s from Brooklyn.
Vinnie argues that he knows how to handle situations because of his unique quality of having watched TV before. But he gets shown up by Sherman, who knows how to load a rifle because he read it in a book. Sherman doesn’t constantly jibber-jabber like Vinnie, so we don’t get to hear him name drop famous book titles.
Despite all that shit, the movie’s not terrible. On a production level it seems modest at first, but the sort of BACK-TO-THE-FUTURE-esque orchestral score by Peter Bernstein (SILENT RAGE, THE EWOK ADVENTURE) keeps you feeling like epic shit is afoot. And there are some cool FX when the shit goes down, especially for the t-rex sequence. It looked to me like some stop motion and some animatronics, and I wasn’t always sure which was which. Cinefantastique talks about both a life-size t-rex and a two and a half foot tall “half-million dollar rod and cable puppet” built by Doug Beswick (THE TERMINATOR, GHOSTBUSTERS) with help from his friend Rick Baker (for some reason neither are credited).
Speaking of t-rexes, writer/director Jonathan R. Betuel went on to write and direct THEODORE REX (1995). He had previously written THE LAST STARFIGHTER.
I still like the Oingo Boingo title song for WEIRD SCIENCE, so when I watched REAL GENIUS I thought it would be funny if they just remade it… “Real genius / swimming pools and laser beams / bits and pieces…” To my amusement this one actually does have a song called “My Science Project” during the end credits, and (coincidentally, I have to assume) it comes across as a super square version of the Oingo Boingo song. It has weird-sciencey keyboards and drum machines but it’s The Tubes, so as soon as the vocals kick in it sounds like a training montage.
Maybe if the song had been catchier this would’ve been the breakout of the trilogy. Or not.
At the time of the Cinefantastique article, Disney was apparently considering releasing it with Tim Burton’s short Frankenweenie. The article also noted how risky all of the studio’s releases were. “With the lack of public response to BABY, MY SCIENCE PROJECT may shape up as Disney’s backstop to a summer that will see two expensive but commercially uncertain releases: THE BLACK CAULDRON, Disney’s artistically ambitious effort to reassert its legendary animation prowess, and OZ, a physically lavish but muted sequel to the storyline from THE WIZARD OF OZ. Should either release falter at the boxoffice, MY SCIENCE PROJECT is positioned to salvage the summer for the studio.”
Whoops. Whether or not it was because of confusion with the other two teen science comedies coming out in the week before it, MY SCIENCE PROJECT did not catch on. Reviews were pretty poor, and it opened at #14, below movies that were considered flops, like FOLLOW THAT BIRD (week 2) and THE BLACK CAULDRON (week 3). It ranked right below RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, which was in its 12th week and playing on 150 fewer screens.
That’s no injustice. It’s not a great movie. But bless Disney for trying a bunch of weird shit that summer. They may not have made enough money to rule the world yet, but they brought some interesting stuff into it, which is a much higher calling.
Summer of 1985 connections:
Holy shit, I can’t believe it, but there’s a part where Vinnie says, “Go ahead, make my semestuh!” – yet another “Go ahead, make my day!” reference like GOTCHA!, FLETCH, WEIRD SCIENCE and apparently PRIVATE RESORT (which I skipped).
Also, some guys wear Stormtrooper and Darth Vader masks – BACK TO THE FUTURE, EXPLORERS, REAL GENIUS and the script for RAMBO also referenced STAR WARS. None of this is a surprise to those of us who grew up in the ’80s playing with STAR WARS figures and wearing SUDDEN IMPACT pajamas.
This is crazy, though: the gizmo summons a mutant played by Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) just like the weird science did exactly one box office week ago! Do you think he was careful to not tell them, “Hey, I already filmed basically the same joke for a higher profile movie that’s gonna come out immediately before yours does?” Maybe he thought about it but they didn’t even give him a line so he said “Fuck ’em.”
Vinnie’s god awful references venture away from television shows to movies he watched on television when he says, “Somethin tells me we ain’t in Kansas no more, Toto.” I bet he was one of those people who didn’t like RETURN TO OZ because it was too different from the other movie.
This is another movie that connects 1985 high school drama to events in the late ’50s, but it doesn’t have the same interest in nostalgia or re-evaluation or investigating the young lives of parents. Bob does get to revisit his beloved ‘60s, attending Woodstock, Beatles concerts and anti-war protests, but that’s all off screen. I think all this amounts more to a different theme of the summer: mistrust of government, particularly the military (see: D.A.R.Y.L., DAY OF THE DEAD).
Ron Cobb, who designed the car in BACK TO THE FUTURE, designed the Gizmo. And I have now discovered that he did “laser technology” for REAL GENIUS.
In addition to all those dumb TV show lines we see Rin-Tin-Tin and Davy Crockett playing on TV, see Sherman reading a Dune book, and hear mention of Ozzy Osbourne and Boy George. There’s a character whose hair seems inspired by Cyndi Lauper.
Ellie asks Michael what his favorite video game is, so I was praying he’d say Pole Position, but he says World Series. I was leaning toward the joke being that he doesn’t know video games, but it turns out it was an actual arcade game from that year.
Yes, even MY SCIENCE PROJECT got a novelization. It was by Mike McQuay, who did the same for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
John Stockwell (Michael) played Cougar in TOP GUN a year later, and then graduated to director with UNDER COVER. His directorial works include CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL, BLUE CRUSH, TURISTAS, IN THE BLOOD and KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE.
Fisher Stevens (Vinnie) followed this with an equally broad and more racially offensive stereotype as the star of the hit movie SHORT CIRCUIT. He also became a director, mostly of Bon Jovi videos. In 2010 he won an Oscar as producer of the documentary THE COVE.
Raphael Sbarge (Sherman) was in CARNOSAUR and every cop show that exists, and directs documentaries.
Dennis Hopper and Fisher Stevens were both in SUPER MARIO BROS.
Doug Beswick, who did that awesome t-rex puppet, later did stop motion for EVIL DEAD II, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, BEETLEJUICE and CABIN BOY. That’s a hell of a résumé!
MY SCIENCE PROJECT itself is fairly forgotten and has not been kept accessible. To give you an idea of the respect it garners from the home video industry, at one point it was released as a double feature disc with JUST VISITING, previously-mentioned later John Hughes script remade from a French movie. Today MY SCIENCE PROJECT is completely unavailable digitally. It was released by Silver Screen Partners II, aka Disney, and it’s rated PG, but I think they’d have to edit it to put it on Disney+ – thanks alot Vinnie, you bigoted asshole. It’s also out of print on disc. Amazon lists the DVD from $54.15 and the blu-ray from $110.51. Thankfully Scarecrow Video had my back.