Tagline: The ultimate teaching machine…out of control.
Director: Mark L. Lester
Writers: Mark L. Lester (story) C. Courtney Joyner (screenplay)
Starring: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lind, Malcolm McDowell, Stacey Keach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Pam Grier, John P. Ryan, Darren E. Burrows, Joshua John Miller, Sharon Wyatt, James Medina, Jason Oliver, Brent David Fraser
18 | 99 min | Action/Sci-fi
By the mid-1980s, gang violence had become a serious problem for American society.
With the emergence of crack cocaine — a relatively cheap and highly addictive drug — street gangs were able to turn a tidy profit and become real players in the world of organised crime. By 1980, rival gangs the Crips and the Bloods had grown to have an estimated 15,000 members, the bulk of them kids aged between 14 and 24. Forced to defend their suburban territories, pistols were replaced by automatic weapons and drive-by shootings became commonplace.
In 1982, director Mark L. Lester tackled the issue in his movie Class of 1984, a no-nonsense revenge flick in the Charles Bronson vein, in which Republican America went eye-for-an-eye, thriving on the very violence it was supposed to be condemning. Almost a decade later, this time assuming writing duties over horror director Tom Holland, Lester turned sci-fi with a loose sequel entitled Class of 1999. This was an era when rap groups were promoting an entirely different viewpoint, one based on the notion of corrupt authority and racial prejudice. At its core, Class of 1999 is a dystopian allegory denouncing such behaviour. It is also utter garbage.
When I say garbage, I of course mean it in the most positive sense of the word. Class of 1999 presents the kind of hackneyed futurescapes that could be imagined by a bunch of rambunctious toddlers in their parents’ backyard. Even more ridiculous is the fact that a movie with such political aspirations takes such a whimpering road. Lester (or more likely his producers) are quick to distance themselves from any direct controversy. Black kids are almost non-existent in this movie, while runtish Bon Jovi fanboys try their utmost to appear intimidating. Cops are also notable by their absence, an Escape from New York-style opening making clear that the perilous schoolyard is out of bounds for law enforcement in a way that makes playground warfare fair game. But in a mutinous land of drugs and murder, would those troubled tykes continue to attend school in the first place? I mean, if they were so damned scary, would they really turn up to class with their notepads and packed lunches day after day? Something tells me not.
One youngster looking to turn his life around is former gang leader Cody Culp (Gregg). After a stint in the slammer he disappoints his younger siblings by refusing to get high on designer drug Edge ― a characteristic that the majority of the cast are severely lacking ― and after informing the rest of the Black Hearts that he is through with the thug life, he is ostracised on both sides and treading a narrow line.
Meanwhile, serpent-eyed scaremonger Dr. Forrest (Stacey Keach) has his own ideas about how to influence the scourge of the playground, convincing the school’s head Dr. Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell) to install military cyborgs in the classroom. Operating on a whopping one terabyte per unit, these machines are indistinguishable from your average human being, neither acting nor behaving like machines ― and to the movie’s detriment. With The Terminator, James Cameron nailed the concept by casting a wooden Arnold Schwarzenegger and creating a monster that was free from prejudice and relentless in the pursuit of its goal. These machines actually take pleasure in their work, a fact that makes them a) less terrifying and b) less effective as servants. The key to a successful army is to dehumanise its soldiers, not to spend billions creating autonomous machines full of pesky emotions, a fact that multibillion-dollar conglomerate Mega-tech singularly fails to understand.
That being said, Mega-tech does get the most out of its one-terabyte super machines. Not only are they proficient in the fundamentals of education, they are programmed to deliver very particular levels of punishment based on each student’s profile and behaviour, and according to their NES-style action screens are highly skilled in karate moves, punches, kicks and the dreaded fight combinations #1 and #2. Safe in that knowledge, the androids waste no time in stamping their authority, dishing out various forms of tolerable, although incredibly perverse corporal punishment, proving that a bit of hands-on-bondage is enough to bring out the submissive side in anyone, regardless of how crazy and armed-to-the-teeth.
Struggling to re-adapt to life on the outside, loner Cody soon finds solace in Christie (Lind), who is so out of place in this juvenile war zone that you wonder why her parents sent her there to begin with, particularly since her father is the headteacher. Sure enough, Christie is almost raped by members of rival gang the Razor Heads, and after Cody’s inner rage is once again unleashed, he gets to meet his girlfriend’s pops in the most awkward way imaginable. In light of Cody’s heroics, Langford is willing to forget the incident, as well as the attempted rape of his daughter, thus sparing our antihero from another stint in club FED. Unfortunately, Cody’s android Phys Ed teacher is not so forgiving. Keeping him back after wrestling practice, the mechanical beast beats him within an inch of his life, but could this act of extreme violence be deemed self-defence on the part of the musclebound Mr Bryles?
His fellow students seem to think so, even after Cody’s drug addict brother Sonny (Burrows) is escorted from the classroom by quintessential, pipe-smoking android Mr Hardin (Ryan), only to have his jaw melted after having a dozen vials of Edge rammed down his throat; for a gang of ruthless delinquents, the students of Kennedy High certainly are a trusting bunch. Unable to convince the supposed rebels of the blatantly obvious, Cody instead persuades Christie to break into the home of Sonny’s murderers (yes, cyborgs have homes like the rest of us) and the two of them immediately find a cupboard full of WD-40, the first of many subtle and intricately crafted clues.
As a sci-fi mystery the movie chugs along like an exposition express fuelled by nitrous oxide, but where the movie does excel is in its overblown action sequences. This is hardly surprising for a director who can add testosterone-pumped Arnie vehicle Commando to his back catalogue, although Stephen King adaptation Firestarter and the Dolph Lundgren led Showdown in Little Tokyo aside, that’s about where his mainstream run comes to an end. This is hardly surprising since, asides from an in-his-pomp Schwarzenegger and a shitload of money, Commando is little more than a B-movie masquerading as a Hollywood spectacular, one with more plot holes and cinematic faux pas that the rest of the Austrian oak’s back catalogue put together. The bottom line is, Lester is at home in the urban battlegrounds of schlock, and Class of 1999 is no exception.
Perhaps based on his former glories, Lester is able to recruit the kind of secondary cast that was once considered royalty. This alone is enough to elevate the movie’s entertainment value, the past-their-peak combination of A Clockwork Orange‘s Malcom McDowell and perennial bad guy Stacey Keach providing Class of 1999 with some much needed pedigree, regardless of the fact that they are clearly phoning-in their performances and are there solely for the pay cheque. In a move that foreshadows Tarrantino’s modus for returning former stars to past glories, we also get Blaxploitation bad ass Pam Grier as a flamethrower-wielding android daubed in the kind of second-rate practical effects that will leave you giddy with disbelief.
Like the majority of sci-fi schlock to come of out the late ’80s, the movie ultimately descends into a farcical intimation of The Terminator‘s climactic scene, one that sees our indestructible killers put out of commission with a forklift truck travelling at 2mph.
I can only assume that Mega-tech went into liquidation shortly afterwards.
After shedding his flesh to reveal a vice-like limb, Mr Hardin drills a hole through the cranium of a Black Heart member, turning his brains into chopped liver.
Most Absurd Moment
Attempting to create a diversion for the girl his gang almost raped only a few scenes earlier, born-again good guy Hector is pursued by Mr Bryles and his newly exposed rocket launcher, wisely and effectively taking cover… behind a rosebush.
Most Absurd Dialogue
As tensions between the Black Hearts and Razor Heads grow, honcho Hector gets heavy with the sarcasm.
Razor Head Member: Do you trust him?
Hector: Yeah, like a vampire giving me a blow job.