I don’t remember the summer of 1985 as a crucial moment in my filmic development. The previous year’s glut of money-spinning classics had raised the bar so high that a letdown was inevitable: as I recall, there was a big dropoff in attendance and a series of titles that failed to define an era. The monster hits were all pretty tame: Back to the Future is a comic riff on Speilbergian awe rather than a traumatic dirge on childhood loss, Rambo II boilerplate Reaganism without variation, A View to a Kill a pathetically lazy James Bond clunker, Cocoon a space film by Ron Howard. Love them or hate them (and I seriously dug every one), they didn’t incite long-term worship then and don’t cry out for exegesis now.
For me, the meagre significance of ’85 rests on its series of I-can’t-believe-I’m-the-only-one-who-likes-this movies, stuff that would click with a few like-minded individuals without whipping the turnstiles into a blur (while snowballing into cults on cable and VHS). It was the summer of such offside items as Joe Dante’s indefinable Explorers, Matthew Robbins’ weird rebel riff The Legend of Billie Jean (still waiting for that DVD), Dan O’Bannon’s sharply-written The Return of the Living Dead, Tobe Hooper’s camp howler Lifeforce, Martha Coolidge’s science prodigy exposé Real Genius and, of course, the immortal Better Off Dead, the mention of which still gets me more excited “oh yeah!” reactions than those of the year’s foregone conclusions.
Weird Science is one of those “oh yeah!” movies, and captured my imagination for obvious, sunken-chested reasons: it was an unabashedly nerds-rule affair.
Whereas the goofball dreamer kids of Spielberg et al. hedged on their status of normal or outcast, the better to let the audience write themselves into the plot, WS made no bones about the heroes’ misfit sorrows, thus slashing the prospective audience while winning my heart. Weird Science awkwardly captures the sexual frustration and compensatory hostility of nerdboys in heat like no other film at the time, and its dissection of the self-hating shortcuts many boys take to protect their egos is surprisingly evenhanded. John Hughes neither indulges its heroes’ need to hide in a fantasy of mastery nor chide them for dreaming it up in the first place: he recognizes that circumstance led them into a cul-de-sac that can only be escaped through self-reliance.
Wyatt (Anthony Michael Hall) is a would-be macho motormouth who is always signing verbal checks he can’t cash; his best friend Gary (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) is a sheepish boy who can’t raise the courage to open an account. Thus Gary is helpless when, on the eve of his parents’ fateful trip away from home, Wyatt decrees that they will build a virtual-reality sexpot. A combination of hacked military hardware and supernatural assistance helps to call forth Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), a bombshell goddess hot enough to be worshipped and smart enough to know that that’s a bad idea. LeBrock, who had previously starred in The Woman in Red as Gene Wilder’s own pointless fantasy girl, is a triumph: I can’t think of another actor, especially one stuck in male-wish-fulfillment roles, who could have played it with such serene confidence. This is one of the few overtly-sexualized pop characters who is not on the bottom rung of the movie, and it’s in large part due to LeBrock’s restraint and compassion. She needs all of it, as Lisa’s mission makes her the calm eye of a storm of male hostility unprecedented in the Hughes oeuvre.
The rest of the movie whirls around her grounded goddess as her creators do thoughtless things she’s forever correcting, hoping to wean them off of her necessity while fending off those who stupidly extend it. The boys’ master-tormentors are a couple of popular bullies named Max (Robert Rusler) and Ian (Robert Downey Jr.), who take pleasure in humilating them in underwear-and-slurpee oriented ways; an added bonus is Gary’s brother Chet (Bill Paxton, selling it), for whom the chief virtue of a military education is its enabling of cruelty and extortion. Lisa/LeBrock must shepherd the heroes out of the labyrinth of these punishing alpha male role models so that they might make their own way in the sexual world—one that might see them wooing Deb (Suzanne Snyder) and Hilly (Judie Aronson), who were similarly duped into buying into the machoness of boyfriends Max and Ian and are now looking to cash out. A lot of loud male braying ensues, but it’s mostly a veneer: the macho antics of all the male characters are either dissuaded or punctured by the film’s end. Though Wyatt can’t stop spewing cock-rocking braggadocio, it’s clearly to mask a wounded pride, and the timid Gary gets most of Lisa’s attention as confidence, not aggression, is the prize at the end of the testosterone gauntlet.
I would like to say revisiting Weird Science has been a sweet homecoming, but what I once hailed as the best movie in the history of the world (I was 13) is an uncomfortable thing that doesn’t rank with its creator’s best. Hughes’ other films have a clipped austerity that allows resentment and vulgarity to bubble from underneath: this is his one maximalist rip-snorter, the closest he ever came to Animal House territory, and the rambunctious tone never quite gibes with his otherwise cool sensibility. Whereas other films were a never-repeated match of boy and girl angst, the foreground of this is all boy and it’s bitter, unrestrained, and ugly in ways that now make me wince. It’s not that I disagree with the film’s dissection of male acting-out, just that it’s hard to watch from the vantage point of now. We boys like to forget how aggressive we could be in even our most introspective moments, but this film rips the lid off of our tendency to embarrass ourselves and intimidate others without any sense or consideration of others. Hughes was not the man to handle this delicately. He seems frightened and unsure of what to do with this material, and from the vantage point of now his discomfort only intensified mine.
But this is what made it ideal for the Travis Mackenzie Hoover of 1985. The epicene wonderboys that populated ’80s movies were too scrubbed clean for proper identification: their complications were so smoothed over that they could only register as fantasy figures. Weird Science was the real deal, and I can remember being a Wyatt-esque blabbermouth looking for attention that never came. If Hughes was flummoxed by that situation, he more than honored it. The character of Lisa at once gives Wyatt and Gary exactly what they want while helping them move to something better—entry into the adult world of empathy that is blocked by the gatekeepers of popular types more childish than they. Defined thus, she’s a double gift instead of a Twilight Zone-ish ironic trap, a trip beyond their wildest dreams rather than punishment for dreaming at all. The patriarchal threat of the powerful sexual woman finds its expression in Lisa, but only to show it up as a defense; the film takes her seriously as a character, and by film’s end—spoiler!—has her bidding tearful adieu only to confront the gym class with the same non-existent threat of their wet dreams. That the film is hostile is only to acknowledge what has to be relieved—the infinite regress of teenage frustration, which often finds temporary release in what also exacerbates it.
One sees the social conscience that Hughes wanted to have while never being able to commit. Chief amongst these is the Kit Kat Club, a black bar where Lisa challenges the boys’ suburban assumptions. What has been widely noted as a racist slap in the face (even by me) now registers as fumbled progressiveness, as oblivious Wyatt tries desperately to “relate” to the patrons instead of letting down his white boy terror and just being with them. (Alas, once he does, it’s as a stereotype). Hughes was always challenging limits he had never himself surpassed, so it’s interesting and frustrating to watch the black characters recur at the climactic party to sexually menace the less benevolent Ian and Max. (When preening over the way they take their hard liquor, the response is “You bend over, and I’ll shove it straight up your ass.”) They can only exist as lessons—they mark the prejudices of the white foreground characters without really making a dent. It reminds of Hughes half-assed class-consciousness, which showed heroic working class kids menaced by stereotypical Dads Who Shout (offscreen in The Breakfast Club, onscreen in Some Kind of Wonderful). One such individual is Wyatt’s plumber father Al (Britt Leach), given predictably lumpen-conservative mores to be zapped by Lisa’s tweaking: it overshadows Hughes’ implicit observation that Wyatt and the well-off Gary may have crossed the class barrier due to lacking appeal to people of their own.
More successful is the empowerment with which Hughes invests Lisa. Though stuck juggling madonna/whore archetypes, she’s resistant to both. The genuine affection shown Wyatt and Gary makes her efforts seem more out of personal interest than maternal self-sacrifice: she’s not wasting her own time but investing it in a manner of her choosing (as if stumblebums like Wyatt and Gary could induce her to do such a thing). The patriarchal threat of the powerful sexual woman finds its expression in Lisa only as a surface; she is the rare cinematic appearance of a woman sexualized by choice but aware of her own further dimensions even if others are not. She is similarly sympathetic to men without blinkers, going the distance for those who will (eventually) do the same for her and curtly letting down those who won’t. It’s rare to see someone like this in an American movie, and it’s gratifying to see that she isn’t disembodied by film’s end: she’s off scaring a gym class, enjoying the sexual threat she poses to timid boys without writing the little blighters off entirely. The collaboration here between Hughes and LeBrock is pretty remarkable, and the movie would be pretty hard to take without it.
Hughes may not have understood as much as he would have liked, but he still saw what the rest of Hollywood was denying. His awareness of nerd culture is best demonstrated in the film’s climax: an enormous party—the kind that parents leaving home fear most—that gets complicated when the bullies promise their girlfriends to our heroes in exchange for a computer goddess of their very own. The supernatural shenaningans that ensue seem the release of Wyatt and Gary’s pressures onto the world around them, including an all-blue kitchen, a boy trapped in a television, and a girl whisked topless, along with the piano she was playing, out the chimney and into the outdoor swimming pool. If the rest of the movie is a fight between Hughes and the old National Lampoon sensibility, this is his shaky acknowledgment of Monty Python and the rest of the comedy surrealists who were then only known to nerds and other outcasts. A smooth finale for our stifled heroes is out of the question: their fantasy life goes haywire the way Ferris Beuller’s comes off without a hitch, and it wreaks havoc. The return of their repression shows that Hughes paid attention to the vengeful id of the nerdy favorites who have only now become mainstream heroes, in clear defiance of popular taste.
To say that is to also note that Judd Apatow has made this kind of macho angst infinitely profitable: what was a minority sensiblility in 1985 is the bread and butter of the current tastemakers in youthful vulgarity. But what Hughes saw as a nightmare to be relieved is an endless playground for Apatow et al, who offer either lazy entries into clearer thinking or total rejections of same. However perfunctory the characters of Deb and Hilly, they are clearly smarter than any of the male characters and are waiting for the two of them to be honest and self-aware enough to be worthy of their time. The frat nerds of today now dominate the culture, and there is no reason for such humility. Hughes was always berserk in his politics, and he could signal through inattention the sentiments in which he was least invested. But his bet hedging looks practically anarcho-communitarian next to the smug hypocrisy which now blows off what Hughes would at least fearfully consider.
Hughes was implicated in the milieu of his characters, often making the same mistakes, and the same bad compromises to cover their mistakes, as those movies that would otherwise merely depict them. He was not perfect and didn’t present himself as perfect, showing an introspection and regret that was singular at the time and has never been equalled since. Watching this now is not exactly good times, as it reminds me of the director’s 1985 limitations as well as my own—he didn’t belong here as much as I didn’t belong anywhere. But if I’m poorly served by the film now, I was brilliantly served by it then. For all of the bad jokes, clumsy transitions and two-left-feet timing, Weird Science is a compassionate reckoning with a strata of high school with which Hughes was clearly an outsider (and thus usually pushed to the margins of his work). Junior high would have been far lonelier without this monument to the travails of the raging nerd, who needs to get himself out of hell but can’t be stuck with the tab for winding up there in the first place.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.