Class Of 1999

Director: Mark L. Lester
Bradley Gregg, Traci Lind, Malcolm McDowell

As I have mentioned several times before in past movie reviews for this web site, school wasn't always easy for me. More so when I reached junior high, and especially when I reached high school. Sometimes I wonder how I managed to get through those last two years at high school. Homework and other assignments from my teachers were bad enough, but I also had to deal with peers who for the most part weren't very kind towards me, either ignoring me altogether or being bullies. It was certainly rough at times, but even when my situation at school was at its bleakest, I did realize that it could have been a whole lot worse for me. When I was not at school, and instead at home watching television programming from the United States, I repeatedly saw what the situation was like for a number of American high school students who went to schools in neighborhoods that were, to put it kindly, not very desirable. In these television programs (both fictional and non-fictional), the first thing that students would experience when entering school would be to go through metal detectors and be inspected by security guards. Despite that so-called protection, you would still have to deal with extremely rough fellow students, much more dangerous than ordinary bullies. The hallways and classrooms would be unkempt, covered with graffiti and other signs of destruction. Possibly because of this environment, the teachers at these schools didn't seem to care about the welfare of their students, whether it was if the students would graduate or not or even if they would survive to adulthood.

No doubt you have witnessed that portrayal of many American inner city high schools somewhere along the line, even if you never went to one as a teenager. Since so many of us know about it, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Hollywood has on a number of occasions made movies that use the subject of the dire state of a number of American high schools. What's interesting is that they tend to follow one of two possible paths. The first is with noble intentions. For example, there is the 1955 Glenn Ford movie Blackboard Jungle, and forty years later the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds came out. Personally, I thought both of these movies were kind of silly; Blackboard Jungle portrayed its troubled teenagers mostly as mischievous in a way that I think even audiences in 1955 thought was tame. And Dangerous Minds, based on a true story, had its teacher using the works of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas to encourage her students. (In real life, the teacher used rap music on her students.) Anyway, the other path that Hollywood has used with portraying inner city high schools is a more exploitive one. Some of these have certainly been silly. For example, years ago for this web site I reviewed High School Hellcats, which I thought was unintentionally funny and a camp classic waiting to be rediscovered. But there is one particular high school exploitation movie that I especially want to bring up, and that is the 1982 movie Class Of 1984. Directed and co-written by famed B-movie maker Mark L. Lester (Night Of The Running Man), it generated somewhat of a controversy when it was first released in part to its bleak vision of American youth and its R-rated content. But the movie did have its champions; believe it or not, famed film critic Roger Ebert gave the movie three and a half stars out of four.

I read Ebert's review of Class Of 1984 when I was a teenager, and that was one big reason why I soon after decided to rent the movie and watch it. I watched it with my parents - who were ironically both trained to teach in the public school system. I don't remember what my parents thought Class Of 1999of the movie, but I remember what I thought. While I thought it had some effective bits, ranging from violent moments to episodes of black humor, I thought overall it was kind of depressing and downbeat. It seemed to say that my generation was way down the wrong path, and things would only get worse in the years to come. But all the same, the movie was apparently successful enough that eight years later, Mark L. Lester made a sequel (well, actually more of a follow-up) - Class Of 1999. You may be wondering why I decided to watch it since the original movie made me uncomfortable. Well, there was a promised twist in this follow-up that made the movie sound so outlandish that it seemed unlikely I would be able to take the movie very seriously. Let me explain by telling you the plot. In the city of Seattle in the near future, violent crime has escalated to incredibly high levels, including at Kennedy High School. This has got the attention of the government, and they get into contact with Dr. Forrest (Stacy Keach, The Traveling Executioner), who is the head of Mega Tech industries. In short order, it is arranged that three individuals - Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick, Remo Williams), Connors (Pam Grier, The Arena), and Hardin (John P. Ryan, Cops & Robbers) - will go work at the high school to both educate and discipline the students. And in even shorter order, the three manage to get the students in order, though through some peculiar actions. As it turns out, there is a reason why the three teachers are unafraid of their students and manage to control them - the three are actually robots in disguise as humans. Actually, they are robots that were formally used in the military, but that shouldn't eventually bring in some serious problems... right?

I suppose that the premise for Class Of 1999 that I just described in the above paragraph could have been crafted into a movie that was completely serious in tone. But I think that would have taken a considerable amount of careful and hard work to pull off, so I can understand why director Lester (who also wrote the movie's story) made the movie in a way that was not to be taken completely seriously. Indeed, there are a number of moments in the movie that are clearly played for laughs. Here's one example: On the first day that the robot teachers are at the school, robot teacher Hardin observes two of his students in a scuffle in his classroom. To break up the scuffle and restore order in his classroom, Hardin walks up to the fighting students, grabs them, and drags them to the front of the classroom. Then he proceeds to heavily spank them on their buttocks. Yes, I know how that might sound heavy handed (ahem) and obvious, but I admit it - the sight of the spanking made me laugh out loud. No other attempt at humor in the movie made me laugh as loud as that particular scene, but I admit there were a few other attempts at humor that either made me smile or chuckle a little. Some of these revolved around actor Keach's portrayal of Dr. Forrest. Keach gives a pretty over the top portrayal of a truly mad scientist, and his enthusiastic performance does give the movie considerable comic energy whenever he makes an appearance. The fact that he was made up in the makeup room to have albino white hair (though with his trademark dark mustache) and strange contact lenses in his eyes further makes his contributions to the movie hard to take seriously.

But while Class Of 1999 can't be taken completely seriously as a whole, that is not to say there isn't seriousness to be found along the way. For example, instead of having its focus more on the three robot teachers, the movie instead generally follows one specific character, a teenager named Cody (Gregg, Fire In The Sky) who has just got out of prison and is determined to stay on the right path from now on. The following of his character does bring in some seriously handled plot, from his drug addicted mother and brothers, plus a budding romance with Christie (Traci Lind, Survival Quest), the daughter of the principal (Malcolm McDowell, Get Crazy). But such serious material that comes out of this isn't very well handled. A lot of it seems to be unfinished; Cody's drug addicted mother simply disappears and is never seen or referred to again, and an attempted rape of Christie that Cody manages to thwart is really glossed over and not thought of for very long, even by Christie's principal father. Another thing is that this serious material seems to clash very badly with the comic material, and as a result the viewer many times will find it hard to determine if he or she is supposed to laugh or express some other emotion towards what's happening. That may explain why many of the performances of the key players seem both uncertain and unenthusiastic. As the hero, actor Gregg is for the most part very unemotional, not even reacting at times to when people he's close to get into trouble or worse. It probably does not help that his character has a very murky background and reasoning process; we don't ever learn what he was in prison for, and why he is so determined to not get into trouble with the authorities again.

The movie has additional script problems beyond the character of Cody. The opening seems way too rushed in introducing both the situation and the robot teachers who are brought in to bring order to the school. And there are sequences that seemed to be missing, such as the unseen immediate aftermath when one student is given a fatal drug overdose from one robot, and what happens to a lot of gang members during the climactic battle at the high school. Maybe director Lester for the latter unclear detail thought that the action and destruction would mask and compensate for that. I will admit that the climax is filled with some really exciting and surprisingly large scale action for what was not a high budget. And the movie as a whole also looks pretty good, with a lot of detail and care in almost every shot that gives the movie considerable "oomph". Lester also puts in some impressive visuals at times, my favorite being when a gang member is punishingly pulled through a hole in a wall. But at the same time, there is often a sloppy feel to the movie's direction. Quite often when something exciting is happening, you feel the camera is not quite in the right place or the right angle to really capture the mayhem. It also doesn't help that the editing of the action also rushes the action so quickly that not only is it hard to follow what exactly is happening, often the action is over before you know it. I can only imagine that the "R" rated version of the movie (I saw the unrated version) would be cut down in a way to make things even worse. Clearly Lester needed a refresher course in film school before he directed this movie that, while as it is definitely wouldn't get him chewed out in front of the class, would still even in its unrated version not make him the teacher's pet.

(Posted August 12, 2022)

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See also: The Bang Bang Kid, High School Hellcats, 3:15