MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Elijah Wood (Casey Connor), Josh Hartnett (Zeke), Jordana Brewster (Delilah Proffit), Clea DuVall (Stokely), Laura Harris (Marybeth), Shawn Wayne Hatosy (Stan), Bebe Neuwirth (Principal Drake), Robert Patrick (Coach Willis), Piper Laurie (Mrs. Olson), Famke Janssen (Miss Burke), Salma Hayek (Nurse Harper), Jon Stewart (Mr. Furlong)
"The Faculty" makes both director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kevin Williamson look like one-trick ponies--hot Hollywood commodities who can't deliver the goods over the long-haul. "The Faculty" is basically a watered-down and disappointing version of what they do best: Williamson's ability to write believable teenage characters and subvert the horror genre, and Rodriguez's ability to choreograph frenetic, adrenalized action sequences. Built on an overworked plot and filled with clichés, strained pop culture references, and less-than-stellar special effects, the movie never gets going and never ends up going anywhere--it's a tired, sci-fi/horror flick in search of a reason to exist.
The story is another reworking of Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters," which was made into a movie of that title in 1994, but is best known as the inspiration for "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) and its two remakes, one in 1978 with the same title, and one in 1994 called simply "Body Snatchers." "The Faculty" also has elements of Howard Hawks' "The Thing" (1950) and its ultra-gory 1982 remake by John Carpenter, and at times it even feel like the forgettable "Disturbing Behavior," which opened earlier this year.
Williamson has certainly borrowed before, and one of his talents as a screenwriter has been his ability to subvert the audience's genre-induced expectations. Unfortunately, here it comes off like he's just stealing, and when his characters purposefully and articulately reference the sources of his material, it feels like a cheap cover-up--"Look, Ma, I'm not really stealing because I'm admitting it in carefully placed pop culture references."
Williamson re-envisions the alien invasion of human bodies at Harrington High, a small, dilapidated, football-enthusiastic Ohio high school. This is familiar territory for Williamson, as he is best know for the ironic teen slasher "Scream" films and his recent adolescent angst TV drama, "Dawson's Creek." Although it seems plausible that Williamson could somehow make the alien abduction story work in either satirical or metaphorical terms (as most of the previous "Body Snatcher" incarnations did), the story is surprisingly straightforward and dull. There's no real twist or surprise--what you see is what you get.
It all starts when several Harrington teens begin to notice that many of the faculty members aren't acting like themselves. The six major characters are a "Breakfast Club"-style mishmash from all levels of the popularity strata: there's geeky Casey (Elijah Wood), who gets beat up regularly before school; Zeke (Josh Hartnett), a slacker who sells homemade drugs and is repeating his senior year even though he's a closet science genius; Stan (Shawn Wayne Hatosy), the captain of the football team who suddenly quits because he wants to focus on academics; Delilah (Jordana Brewster), Stan's ultra-bitch girlfriend who's involved in literally every extracurricular activity the school can offer; Stokely (Clea DuVall), the rebellious loner with too much eye makeup who pretends to be a lesbian even though she has a crush on Stan; and Marybeth (Laura Harris), the recent transfer student from Atlanta with a cheery Southern draaaawwl that sets her apart from her Midwest counterparts.
One might think there would be some interesting interaction among this eclectic group of teenage social types, but there is little to speak of beyond four-lettered insults and cruel-hearted glares. Truth is, Williamson failed at what he usually does best: creating characters worth caring about. The six teenagers at the heart of this movie are so callous, rude, sniveling, or dumb, that one begins rooting for the marauding aliens to might take them over and turn them into more watchable characters.
Williamson also neglected to give logic and consistency to his plotline. Most importantly, the film never makes clear the effect on the person once the parasitic invader has taken over his or her body. In the case of Coach Willis (Robert Patrick, best known as the T-1000 from "Terminator 2"), he is turned from a foul-mouthed lout into a more sensitive, understanding soul. Once the aliens take over the mind of Miss Burke (Famke Janssen), on the other hand, she exchanges nerdy glasses and an awkward shuffle for a pose better associated with an experienced prostitute on "The Jerry Springer Show." Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie) just looks robotic, and Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) doesn't seem to change much at all.
The underlying problem with "The Faculty" is that it has no coherent vision of what is supposed to be scary. Abel Ferrara's 1994 version of "Body Snatchers" was a small masterpiece of shadowy paranoia and the fear of losing your human emotions. John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing" preyed best on the fear that the person standing next to you might not be who you think he is; some of its best shock tactics involved putting all the characters together and revealing the alien's true whereabouts. "The Faculty" is more like a grab-bag of tricks: a little jump-out-of-the-corner scare here, some paranoia there, none of which congeals. It is composed of elements from many better movies, and it comes across like a bad imitation--a blurry photocopy.
There is one scene where the six teens are one-by-one sniffing Zeke's homemade drug to determine if any of them have been taken over (apparently, this drug kills the alien parasites--how convenient). Although the scene is taken right out of "The Thing," for those few moments, the movie starts to work. You know--you just know--that one of the characters is going to burst out in spasms after sniffing Zeke's white powder, and Rodriguez creates real tension with the pacing and editing.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film comes nowhere close to this scene, especially the last 20 minutes, where the FX take over. As a director and editor, Rodriguez is best at putting together intense shoot-em-up's that escalate with each cut--just look at "Desperado" (1995) or "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996). "The Faculty," however, doesn't give him a grandiose setpiece to work with; instead, he is left with smaller bursts of violence that he tries to inflate beyond their capacity, and they end up bursting in his face. Much like the movie as a whole.
©1999 James Kendrick