The summer of 1985 saw a slew of science fiction comedies with teenage heroes. Back To The Future, Explorers, Weird Science and Real Genius were all released within a month of each other. Last out of the gate, and least remembered, is the little known gem My Science Project.
Our hero is Michael Harlan, a James Dean-ish high school senior with the mechanical skills of a young Fonzie. Within minutes of his girlfriend dumping him he finds that he can’t graduate without a passing grade on his science project. A surly Harlan gives a revealing interview to nerdly school reporter Ellie Sawyer. Asked about his interests he responds, “I like cars, I like Springsteen, I like my goat,” referring to his GTO. We also learn, to Ellie’s disbelief, that Harlan has never seen Return Of The Jedi.
Afraid of being voted “Senior Class Spinster,” Ellie, an obvious swan behind her ugly duckling glasses and retainer, asks Harlan on a date. He takes her to a military airplane graveyard searching for something to doctor up and submit as his science project. (Anyone who has seen Can’t Buy Me Love knows that there is nothing like an airplane graveyard to melt a girl’s heart.) Harlan falls down a hole (leading to many gratuitous, low angle, cleavage revealing shots of Ellie) and conveniently discovers a mysterious glowing device.
The device, called “The Gizmo” for the duration of the film (a reference to the previous year’s hit Gremlins), looks like a Van De Graaff generator soldered to a Ghostbusters proton pack. Salvaged from a crashed alien craft in the 1950’s, the gizmo now begins absorbing electricity, crackling with Spielbergian light effects and materializing strange objects from other times.
Harlan and his friend Vince hook the gizmo to a car battery and find themselves transported two hours into the future. “We’re talking about the flip side of reality here!” says Vince. The breakout character of the film, Vince is played to perfection by Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit, Hackers). Vince is from Brooklyn, relocated to New Mexico because of his parents divorce. Steven’s intense preparation for the role of a Brooklyn teen seems to have been watching re-runs of “Welcome Back Kotter.” Vince gets fantastic lines like “What’s the dish, Cousin Fish?” and “Sayonara, Dicknose!” His car is decked out in Christmas lights, has a retractable, glowing hand that flips off other drivers and a bumper sticker reading “My other car is a piece of shit too.” He reads X-Men comics during typing class and has a dreamy, Cyndi Lauper-esque girlfriend. At one point he nonchalantly lights a cigar while draped with dynamite.
At the school library Harlan and Vince find an informative and easy to read book on space/time warps. Looking for more information they bring the gizmo to their hippie science teacher played, in a bravura performance, by Dennis Hopper.
This role seems tailor made Hopper. He demands his students call him Bob as “Only the pigs call me Mister!” He gets a spacey look in his eyes as he reminisces about the 60’s and then huffs from a cylinder of oxygen and mutters to himself. (A year later, Hopper would huff amyl nitrite as sadistic villain Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Hopper could be intensely creepy or immensely charming and sometimes, as he does here, he could be both simultaneously.
After plugging the gizmo into a wall socket Bob is engulfed in special effects and has an ecstatic spiritual meltdown. “It’s a time space warp,” he says, “that’s created by this gizmo that can warp something into our dimension or we can travel through time and space.” I challenge any actor to say that line as brilliantly as Dennis Hopper. He then laughs maniacally, screams “I feel infinity!” and disappears into a void of crackling blue and pink energy.
At this point things spiral out of control. Harlan, Vince and Ellie engage in high speed car chases, explosions and battles with Neanderthals, the Viet Cong, and a Tyrannosaurus. Michael Berryman, the iconic cannibal from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes appears briefly as a laser gun wielding mutant. Berryman also appeared as a mutant biker in Weird Science the same year. There are also bullies wearing, for unexplained reasons, Star Wars Stormtrooper helmets.
What I love about My Science Project is that writer/director Johnathan R. Betuel parallels the idea of the time/space warp with the characters’ emotional experiences. For example, Bob, while physically living in the 1980’s, is mentally and spiritually still in 1969. No wonder that when he rematerializes at the end of the film we find the gizmo sent him to Woodstock and he returns dressed as Billy, Hopper’s character from Easy Rider.
But the metaphor hits deeper for the teenage characters. Betuel depicts the nebulous feeling of being a teen. Things that seem concrete one day change dramatically the next. Harlan’s relationship with his girlfriend ends for reasons he can’t understand. He comes home to find that his single dad has remarried and their house has been refurnished with pink pillows and drapery. Vince, because of his parents’ divorce, is forced to leave Brooklyn for New Mexico. Ellie, a shy bookworm at the start of the film, is a heartthrob heroine by the end. The confusing uncertainty of being a teen, the feeling that the world is out of control is echoed and expanded through the notion of the space/time warp.
Jacob Steingroot is a film editor, illustrator and trivia champion. He has an undeniable love for vinyl records and out of print VHS tapes. His artwork can be seen at www.catsaregrey.com.