Thursday, October 1, 2009

Class of 1999 (1990)

Any serious scholar of bad cinema or 1st year creative writing student can tell you that the technique known as 'naked exposition' is at best a cop-out, and at worst is a giant buzzing neon sign that spells out "bad writing" in cheerful, easily readable block letters. If you are not familiar with the term, dramatic 'exposition' is dialog that literally explains the story. It's a basic and essential tool for writing fiction, but quickly becomes a crutch when used clumsily or in excess. The 'naked' description refers to when it's deployed in a painfully obvious manner; the classic example being James Bond villains explaining their sinister schemes in great detail.Naked exposition doesn't get any naked-er than when it takes the form of voice over narration, and when accompanied by helpful diagrams and graphics, it might as well be showing of its bones and muscles. Hell, it might as well be reading you the synopsis from the back of the box. Low budget science fiction cinema is rife with this hackneyed approach, but ever since John Carpenter and his Escape from ____ films perfected it as a high art of trash, it's hard not to get a childish, low-fi thrill from the endless technobabble and cheesy world-building. Class of 1999, a spiritual sequel to the classic "teacher pushed too far" flick, Class of 1984, gets an automatic pass for its introductory plot dump power-point and epic flood of expository speechifying (complete with an "as you are well aware" line) over the opening credits. This is for two reasons: it is incredibly reminiscent of Escape from New York and the exposition is being delivered by the AAA voice talent tag team of Malcolm McDowell and Stacy Keach. While McDowell needs no introduction, Keach is a relatively obscure figure in spite of his vocal and dramatic ubiquity. He's the owner of the Duff Brewery and Springfield Isotopes on 'The Simpsons,' can often be found propping up entire B-movies Atlas style with his mere presence, and is a documentary and commercial narrator of Keith David/Morgan Freeman caliber. (Freeman even credits Keach as his #1 acting influence.) As demonstrated by his roles in 1999 and Escape from LA, Stacy Keach is the undisputed king of laying down the no-nonsense sci-fi ground rules of the high octane ultra-violence about to be inflicted on the audience.Mr. Keach could be explaining in great detail how he sneaks into your bedroom at night to drill holes in your pancreas while making love to your comely daughters and you would find it entertaining, but in Class of 1999, with the help of some milky lenses and a futuristic white rat-tail, he has something far more important to discuss. It seems that by the far off year of 1999, violent youth gangs have pushed law and order completely out of the areas surrounding their high schools. The Educational Defense Department has recently been formed to take back their domains and foist some learning onto the various '90s day-glo punks running amok. McDowell is the principle of Kennedy High, which is stuck in a particularly rough patch of Seattle, which looks disturbingly like an X-ray of a knee.
While an uneasy order has been established through the judicious use of barbed wire, metal detectors, and cyber-fascist storm troopers, having the Helghast on board does not guarantee the children will learn anything. Enter the Stacy Keach run Megatech, which makes some nifty RC vehicles when not moonlighting as an evil sci-fi defense contractor. Their incredibly well thought out solution to the epic discipline problem is to reprogram a trio of high-end battledroids for educational purposes. The robots are super strong, come pre-loaded with "1 Million Megabytes" of educational software, have the ability to learn and make their own decisions, and when worse comes to worse, can rip off their own hands to reveal exotic weaponry. Plus one of them is Pam Grier!(Note: If Pam Grier was my chemistry teacher, she would not need a flamethrower arm to get me to shut up. One hard look would cease all spit wad and paper airplane construction for the remainder of the semester.)If that doesn't sound like the most backfiring prone plan in moviedom, the masterminds have decided to simultaneously release a batch of extra violent youth criminals back into the student population to test the educational killbots' flesh covered mettle. Apparently they've never heard the axiom "You have to learn to crawl before you can walk." One of these super thugs is Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg from Nightmare on Elmstreet 3), a high ranking member of the Blackhearts gang (color: Magenta) who only wants to keep his head down, his nose clean, and his arse out of the clink. This doesn't sit well with his fellow gangbanger brothers, nor does it make a difference to the adversarial Razorheadz (color: Saffron), who promptly join the reunited siblings in a Road Warrior style car chase.When they finally get to school in their ultra futuristic Oldsmobile with plastic crap hanging off of it, Cody discovers both Kennedy High's totalitarian makeover and his gang's seething resentment at his newfound affinity for the straight life. Despite making fast friends with the principal's hot daughter, things quickly deteriorate in his first period class with cyber-Pam Grier. The leader of the Razorheadz, having recovered quickly from the morning's gun battle and car crash is caught being insolent. Grierbot uses her vast computational decision making powers to select from two 'choose your own adventure' options in her visual readout: educate and discipline. After 'educate' fails a couple times, she switches modes, bringing up a couple of sub menus before reaching this screen:History class fairs just as poorly. The elderly looking killbot with his scholarly pipe is every bit as vicious as badass Foxy Brown. After a slightly unhinged speech about discipline and homework, he is interrupted by a pair of fighting students. Unfazed, he hoists them up by their pants, drags them to the front of the room, and selects 'corporal punishment' from his Terminator-vision menu.
Keach goes nanners.
How come killer robots always have options written in English and plastered over their heads-up-displays? Why do they even have HUDs to begin with? They're robots; they can process that sort of information internally in a microsecond. It's not like Stacy Keach ever sees or displays any awareness of the information in these screens. He just keeps tabs on their body temperatures and looks at what they're doing over the security monitors in his robo-science command center.Hey, it turns out 'corporal punishment' means spanking, (I always thought it was a military themed professional wrestler) which just happens to be the perfect mix of pain and embarrassment to put the students in line when administered by a harmless looking history teacher.

The third killer cyborg, who is stuck teaching physical education, has fewer difficulties keeping the kids in line, possibly due to the frequent demonstrations of his robotic kung fu grip during wrestling practice, which the class immediately dives into. Robo-teachers are obviously too efficient to bother wasting the first day (or week) of class on niceties such as syllabi or playing "the name game." (I imagine a killbot instructor's idea of "movie day" would be watching three different movies at the same time; all played at quadruple speed.)
Future Bus!

The first fatality occurs before the kids have a chance to finish a single assignment, and as the teachers become more obsessed with their greatest enemy/most promising student, Cody (who looks like he might break into a rendition of "The Bartman" at any moment), he becomes suspicious of their odd behavior and decides to investigate. After discovering the ultra-violent trio live in the same townhouse, Cody and the principal's daughter sneak inside to find zero furniture, minimal wardrobes, and a kitchen fully stocked with WD-40 and other maintenance supplies. They're interrupted by the untimely arrival of the unit's mechanized tenants, who arrive in their ultra-futuristic 1990 Ford Taurus for yet another riveting chase scene, this time in one of the non-gang ridden, non-futuristic sections of Seattle. (Cheap Sci-Fi tip: Make sure you don't set the story too far into the future. That way you can still shoot chase scenes in one of the thousands of contemporary warehouse districts available to you. Of course that creates the risk of your DVD release occurring a full decade after the 'future' you depict.)
Cody and his straight laced gal-pal manage to escape, but besting the authoritarian automatons only pushes their unhinged CPUs further into HAL 9000 territory. Their conveniently color coded visual readouts permanently switch from the already violent 'education' mode to their default state: war.The 'enemy' is Cody Culp and his fellow Blackhearts, but the machines are too clever for a frontal assault. They begin systematically murdering key members of the Blackhearts and Razorheadz, including Cody's bug-eyed little brother, in order to instigate a full scale gang war. After hostilities break out, the teachers sneak onto the battlefield to pick off distracted thugs.

Cody ultimately escapes with enough members of both gangs for the requisite "lets team up against our real enemy" moment, and the film can finally get down to its true purposes: ripping off Terminator as shamelessly as possible and having teens ride dirt bikes through a high school. They also find a moment for the greatest line of dialog to ever grace the silver screen:

One of the key elements of Cyborgsploitation cinema is the surreptitious use of copious gore. Ever since cyber-Arnold cut out his own damaged eyeball with an x-acto knife, b-moviemakers have been wrapping their fictional killer robots in a thin layer of people skin with the intent of ripping said skin off in the most violent ways imaginable. It saves money and reduces audience snickering versus more traditional killbots, (Chopping Mall, anyone?) and it nets you some wiggle room with the censors as well. At the climax of Class of 1999, the mechanical educators messily rip off their own forearms (and boobs in the case of Ms. Grier) to reveal specialized anti-personnel weaponry. In a technical sense, the makeup effects are quite similar to a limb ripping zombie kill, but the green blood (hydraulic fluid?), occasional sparking, and surrounding context prevents the gore from pushing the film into the realm of horror. It could almost by considered a sub-genre of gore.The cast is eventually boiled down to the main characters and a single, ragged battledroid. (The Arnie-esque gym teacher played by Patrick Kilpatrick.) Right about here the film ceases being "inspired" by Terminator and resigns itself to be Terminator. After hitting him with an armored future-bus, the wounded survivors must scramble away from his mostly fleshless endoskeleton.The ping-pong ball eyes make it look a little goofy, but the imagery is still strong. There is a reason that partially revealed robotic endoskeletons pop up in science fiction with such frequency. (Surrogates is an excellent contemporary example) Turning a universal symbol of mortality into a shiny, metal killing machine, then surrounding it with a fake meat disguise which is inevitably ripped away is nothing if not a powerful abjection of the human form. The result is universally disturbing to the primitive lizard parts of the brain.The most shocking development in Class of 1999 is how damned likable it is. From the silly premise, to the mountains of exposition, to the dated special effects, nothing in the film should work on any practical level. Thanks to talented cast of scenery chewing genre staples, and a utilitarian screenplay that mostly avoids the second act lull so common in "bad" movies, it is irresistibly watchable and consistently amusing.. Obviously it will never be mistaken for quality cinema, but for anyone who likes to alternate between laughing with and laughing at the cheesy celluloid, it is a real crime that it has languished on VHS for so long.

Special mention must also be made to the second most uncalled for turban in cinematic history (the first is from the original Omen):

The Turban... the turban makes me feel


  1. Stacy Keach was also the phenomenally awesome abusive dad in Titus!

    It would have been great if one of the robots ended up being a really good teacher…like Dangerous Minds for robots. A robot that really turns these kids lives around, and makes a positive difference.

  2. I actually rode that school bus to my high school in Eden Prairie. Wasn't particularly dangerous or anything, I think they must have picked it up second hand.

  3. "Hello, I am a robot. I will teach you mathematics if you will teach me the feeling you call love. Beep-boop-beep."

  4. He was just a machine. They were the kids no one cared about. Together, they learned more than anyone though possible.

    "Lean on me. When you're not strong…and I'll be your friend…I'll help you carry on. For…it won't be long…till I'm gonna need…somebody to lean on!"

  5. Be a shame if I had to use Fight Combination #2. You don't want to see Fight Combination #2.

  6. "Uncalled For Turban" was the name of the Sikh punk rock band I wasn't a member of during my high school years.