August 2, 2020 Weird Science – 35 Years of Fantasy
Written and directed by John Hughes, Weird Science did quite well when released on August 2nd in 1985 by Universal Pictures. Though it is overshadowed by Hughes’ other works, like The Breakfast Club (released in June of the same year) and 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In fact, even its reception at the time was a little cool. Roger Ebert said it was “funnier and a little deeper than the predictable story it might have been,” while Gene Siskel called it a “vulgar, mindless, special-effects-cluttered wasteland.” Which one is right? Well, they both are. Kind of.
The film is about two nerds- Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall: National Lampoon’s Vacation 1983, Sixteen Candles 1984) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Michael-Smith: Superboy series. The Chocolate War 1988). Tired of being ignored by the girls and bullied by the boys, they decide to run an experiment. Using the power of computer technology, they try to make their own woman. Shockingly, they succeed when their creation- the literally magical Lisa (Kelly LeBrock: Hard to Kill 1990, Wrongfully Accused 1998)- comes to life. However, instead of fulfilling their fantasies, she plans on helping them fulfill their potential instead.
The premise is a little seedier compared to Hughes’ other films, looking more like 1981’s Porky’s than from the guy behind the Beethoven and Home Alone series of films. Especially as its most lasting legacy came in Lisa’s skimpily attired debut, and Oingo Boingo’s catchy title-track. However, it has a charm to it that has kept it as a cult classic across the last 35 years.
That appeal, ironically, might lie in its innocence. The scenes flirt with kinks (“Chips, dips, chains, whips… You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing”), especially with LeBrock’s pinup outfits. Yet compared to 1999’s American Pie, with its nudity, masturbation, and improper food hygiene, Weird Science is rather twee. As Lisa tries daring ways to help the boys grow as people, complete with a sneaky house party, it comes off like a cheekier, live-action, ’80s spin on The Cat in the Hat.
It works out well too. Hall and Smith do well as awkward boys going in over their heads in trying to be big men. Despite their bravado, they are self-aware of their desperation, and know when they are in over their heads. It helps them remain sympathetic to the audience and garner their support as they become better people by the end. That, and they have bullies viewers want to see get their just desserts, played quite well by Bill Paxton (Aliens 1986, Apollo 13 1995) and a young Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 2008, Sherlock Holmes 2009).
Which they do thanks to some fairly nifty special effects for its time. They have a kitschy charm to them where, while they look aged in places, they have decent art design behind them that blends in well with the film’s look. It makes smart and strong uses of props, with enough camera tricks and additions that leave a convincing impression. For a wasteland, the effects make it look particularly verdant.
Still, it has its flaws, and it is not in the effects or vulgarity. Its biggest bugbears would be its focus and its age. Focus-wise, it feels more limited than The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller. Those films had a broad range of protagonists for people of many stripes to identify with. By comparison, Weird Science feels made for teen boys alone, as its plot, jokes and character interactions stick with that viewpoint. That does not make it bad per se. It just means it practically came in canisters marked ‘cult appeal only.’
Then there are the parts that have not aged well. The film is a bit more yikes-inducing in 2020 than in 1985. In reality, everyone was of age. But in context, it shows a 23-year-old computer genie woman introducing two teenagers to nudity, alcohol, kissing, and more. It could be said it shows how unprepared the boys are when their dreams come true, or that they can take a risk and survive. But it can feel awkward. Like when Lisa plays up the boys’ supposed sexual prowess to their school crushes. Sure, it is a bluff. That does not stop it being uncomfortable for at least some today.
That said, Weird Science’s best aspects make it a fun romp. It is a solid dose of Hughes-esque Comedy featuring some funny lines and inventive direction. Not to mention offering an interesting look back at some good, early performances from Paxton and Downey Jr. It even did well enough to get a TV series adaptation in the 1990s, which kept the film’s anarchic and often dark humor while avoiding some of its more aged elements. But as of this writing, the decade-long talks of a remake remain just talk. Until it comes to pass, there is plenty of weird science to go around as this ’80s classic turns 35 years old.