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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.

It could be argued that that banner on the corner is a little desperate.

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.

From Cinefantastique

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.

NOTES:

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.

Pop Culture:

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.

Tie-ins:

Yes, even MY SCIENCE PROJECT got a novelization. It was by Mike McQuay, who did the same for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Legacy:

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 10th, 2020 at 2:49 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “My Science Project”

  1. Fischer Stevens’s performance in this one struck me as side-splittingly hilarious at the time, though I doubt I could tell you why today. The only scene of his I remember with any clarity involved him getting yelled at by the cops for refusing to take off his sunglasses during his mugshot, which I thought was pretty hardcore. I guess his schtick either works for you or it doesn’t.

    My Science Project is about as unremarkable as you claim, but I’m sad over your last paragraph on how it’s basically disappeared into the ether. The worst part is, I don’t think that the inaccessibility of the likes of MSP is a sinister new development, but rather the end of a weird cul-de-sac in movie history. For decades, a movie would be released, play theaters for several weeks, and then go away basically forever, maybe turning up on TV in the middle of the night in a Bowdlerized cut. The physical media era – where you could take something home, it was yours, you could watch it as much as you liked, show it to friends, maybe even make a copy – was just that, a period of time with a beginning, middle, and end. When we were in the middle of it, we assumed it was a permanent feature of the world. Now we’re at the end of it. Turns out it was just a weird interlude in a century-plus status quo, in which all mass art is branded content, and you get to pay each time you take a look (and who knows what version they’ll show you – more joys of art as asset).

  2. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    August 10th, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    My 9th grade Earth Sciences teacher definitely rocked the pocket protector. He was middle aged, but definitely a nerd when young. (Like knows like) I have a hunch the pocket protector really was a thing for nerds in the 50s and became a stereotype in the 80s because the middle-aged filmatists were recreating the signifiers of their youth.

  3. Okay, here is my story about this movie. Summer of 1985, I’m 12 years old. My mother decides that year that her kids aren’t just going to relax at home that summer, so she sends us to a crappy 4H day camp. I made a couple of friends at that camp and we became a trio, set a little bit apart from most of the other kids socially.

    One of the last days of camp is movie day. They bus us to the local mall movie theater and we get to pick whatever PG or G movie there we want to see. Back to the Future was still in theaters, I hadn’t seen it, and I really wanted to see it. I think like 90% of the kids chose to see that. But no, one of my two camp friends was all like, “Back to the Future is lame, it’s all about My Science Project.” I stupidly went along even though it sure didn’t LOOK like it was all about My Science Project. We were like the only three people in the theater, I was completely underwhelmed, and then on the bad back to Crappy Playground Park I got to hear undivided praise about Back to the Future. Good times.

  4. Doesn’t Dennis Hopper come back from his trip to the past or alternate dimension or whatever it was in his costume from EASY RIDER? That could go in your pop culture section.

  5. Hey Ben you got off easy…I was a little kid at the time and MY dumbass choice was to see The Black Cauldron instead of Back to the Future…since it had the skeletons and was animated and looked cool. My older sister went to see Back to the Future and was telling us about it afterward and I was like “shit I picked the WRONG horse.”

  6. Had never seen this but I like the asthetic of the old 80s special effect movies, so just watched the big ending stuff on Youtube. Seemed not bad. Not GREAT, but not bad.

    Vern FYI, that dinosaur is all puppet. There’s no stop motion in there at all, which I didn’t expect. That’s usually the way they go with this stuff, a lot of times not using a puppet at all (like the dinosaurs in House 2 or whatever).

  7. Not saying that this is a big cult classic in Germany, but at least it ran regularly on TV for a while! Tween CJ was really entertained by it, but also, despite being a bit of a Fisher Stevens fan, thanks to seeing him in a bunch of stuff already, hated Vinnie. The one think that made me laugh was when he juggled sticks of dynamite while humming the Mission Impossble theme, but what even I felt was too much, was when someone told him to take his sunglasses off (after all he was inside and it was deep in the night) and he said something like: “If you are cool, the sun even shines at night!” That really came across as trying too hard.

  8. I was really excited by the surprise appearance of Mrs. Vern in this review, it flashed me back to her (I believe) first appearance on this sight, when she got him to watch Felicity. Good times.

  9. This trilogy of sci-fi teenage movies is something I have no relation or connection to. It seems they were just never a thing around these parts. Come to think of it, that seems to be true of most of John Hughes’ teen cycle.

  10. Stumbled across this on youtube the other day. Was an 80s blind spot I always wanted to catch up with.

    Can’t say I loved it but it’s got a fun, goofy spirit to it and I loved the all out effects finale. It just feels a bit like three movies stitched together. You can tell they cut a bunch of stuff with the aliens at the start.

    Fisher Stevens I kind of enjoyed. I don’t think he’s any worse than other obnoxious sidekicks like Stiles in Teen Wolf. He was also one of the producers (exec?) on Tiger King. My favourite role of his is the pseudo Steven Spielberg in that 90s Columbo episode – Smoke, Magic and Mirrors.

    Anyway so disappointed to see this so highly priced on DVD and Bluray. I kind of wanted to put it in my collection alongside the House movies, The Monster Squad, Last Starfighter, etc

  11. Weird how the only Fisher Stevens role that isn’t total cringe by modern standards is the kid who gets his fingers chopped off in THE BURNING. Guy’s schtick had a very short shelf life.

  12. Oh yeah, and Vern is SO SO SO right about that Fischer Stevens character. Even the 20 minutes I saw it was obvious that this was one of the shittiest, lamest, most unfunny characters ever written.

  13. The Indian government put in place a travel ban in 1988 preventing Fisher Stevens from entering the country following the release of Short Circuit 2. It was lifted in 2009 apparently.

    Also, I saw this quite a few times when I was a kid. It was on repeat on whatever cable channel I was paying attention to at the time. I remember enjoying it but I’m sure it’s one of those that isn’t as good as I remember as a kid. Doesn’t sound like I’ll be finding out anytime soon.

  14. I saw this on home video in 85 or 86, and I kind of liked it. I only watched it because of Jonathan Betuel and THE LAST STARFIGHTER, but the hero is such a dullard character (and he’s never seen JEDI). I loved Dennis Hopper in it (‘The future is a GROOOVE, man!’) and I thought Ellie was cute. I even liked Fisher Stevens. I’m Scottish and this felt like the most American movie I had ever seen for some reason, possibly the GTO and the mention of Springsteen, plus it had that summery feel to the photography that so many US movies did back then. I liked that. What happened to that? Richard Linklater is good at it but I feel we need more of those summery movies again.

  15. I instituted a travel ban in 1988 against Fisher Stevens entering my house, both physically and in all forms of media. My ban remains in place.

  16. Aw, Johnny, but EARLY EDITION!

  17. Don’t worry, Fisher! Your (to me) iconic role as The Plague in HACKERS has earned you a forever spot in my guest bedroom if you need it!

  18. I was very much including his role in HACKERS in my assessment of his cringiness. That entire movie is nonstop cringe so he really had to step up his game to stand out.

  19. Hey I wasn’t offering up *your* guest bedroom.

  20. Don’t be dissin’t the HACKERS, aka the most 90s movie ever made. Ths soundtrack album for it is so great, it elevates the whole movie! (Seriously, shout out to whoever put it together for picking a bunch of electronic music artists and respective tracks that stand the test of time!)

  21. Hackers of the world unite!

  22. Isn’t Fisher Stevens in John Sayles’ BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET? That was a pretty good one – not that he was what made it good, but still.

    Oh, and I liked him as the critic in that 1 episode of IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY…

  23. Forgive my memory, but was this the movie where a dude (Stevens or Stockwell) pressed a button on his car and a middle finger came up from the back to flip off who was behind him?

    I do recall a theater on the Ocean City boardwalk playing all the sci-fi teen trifecta as well as Back to the Future, and saying in my own Smirnoff way “What a time to be alive!”

    Saw this on video and really loved the end with all the crazy shit happening in the school. I also loved the device had that globe in the middle. And I recall Hopper’s name being Robert Roberts, and thinking Tim Robbins stole that for Bob Roberts.

    Also, as I wrote this, I remember Raphael Sbarge was in The Hidden 2. I find this disturbing for myriad reasons.

  24. Yeah, HACKERS is a fun movie. I think it mostly works as a retro-artifact, though. I may have hated it if I saw it in 1995.

    I had a verbal mention of MY SCIENCE PROJECT in the first draft of DETENTION. It was deemed a little too obscure of a reference, which is probably fair, as I can’t remember anything specific about the movie.

  25. Yes, HACKERS gets better and better the further from release we get. One day I will show it to my children and tell them “yes, this is how it was.”

    Also Fisher Stevens played the weasely guy in the first UNDISPUTED, too! Is that not enough for you people???

  26. There was a moment where I almost gained respect for Fisher Stevens and that was during a guest shot on Law and Order. He plays the victim, a Howard Stern/Rush Limbaugh hybrid (shock jock with and pain killer addiction). Anyway, since he’s the guy who’s murdered he’s only seen in the opening three minutes. The rest is just audio tapes of his radio show, and he still overacts. That’s hard to do!

    And for a moment there I was sorta in awe that he was so dedicated to overacted that he would accomplish it n matter the restrictions placed upon him.

    Then I realized while that maybe true, he’s still fucking annoying.

  27. I got a job at a defense contractor around 1998 in the satellite division, and there was a guy there with really oily hair who wore a pocket protector. I was astonished, I thought they were a joke.

  28. I have no idea how true this is, but I always thought this movie was part of a wave of SF teen comedies that were maybe rushed into production after some studio execs saw the BACK TO THE FUTURE trailer. “The story’s involves time travel, you say? The hero’s a teenager, you say? No, the script’s fine as it is! Production started while we were talking! Fisher Stevens has already shot his scenes!”

  29. I didn’t see HACKERS until 2018 and it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life. I expected it to be corny and outdated and particularly obtuse about catching the vibe of a time that stridently refused capture, but I didn’t expect its audiovisual style to be literally nauseating. The best thing I can say about it is that its hideous production design and cinematography made Fisher Stevens’ standard nails-on-chalkboard performance seem like only the fifth or sixth most grating element. That’s an achievement.

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