Movie of the Month: Class of 1999 (1989)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon and Erin watch Class of 1999 (1989).

Boomer: Class of 1999 is a strange little movie. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure, the film is set in the titular year, less than a full decade after its release date. In this “distant” future, inter-gang violence has become so overwhelming that the areas around high schools have become dystopian free fire zones, but these violent, Mad Maxian teenagers still submit to going to campus every day for some reason. The movie’s protagonist, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), is a former gangmember paroled and returned to school. Unbeknownst to the student body, the principal (Malcolm McDowell) has agreed to allow an obviously mad roboticist (Stacy Keach) to install three former military androids (Patrick Kilpatrick, John P. Ryan, and goddess on this earth Pam Grier), “reprogrammed” as educators, as new instructors. Culp tries to stay out of trouble, but his narrative arc is complicated by his romance with the principal’s daughter (Tracy Lind). The androids decide that the best way to create a stable educational environment is to rid the school of violence by creating a war between the two rival gangs, even drawing in Culp due to the false flag death of his brother (Joshua John Miller, who was also the annoying kid brother in Teen Witch). As you would expect, this culminates in the two gangs putting aside their differences to defeat the Terminator. I mean the teachers.

I love this movie. It’s a perfect encapsulation of worst case, slippery slope thinking with regards to teen violence, a misplaced jeremiad warning of dark days to come–won’t someone please, please think of the children? Bradley Gregg, star of many of my adolescent fantasies (and one of the dream warriors from Nightmare on Elm Street 3), parades around in an outfit that manages to be both utterly ridiculous and strangely sexy, featuring skin-tight leather pants emblazoned with the word “war” over and over again and a form-fitting tee under an oversized babydoll jacket. He has nothing on Keach, of course, who struts around in this film with a platinum ponytail and matching (painful looking) contact lenses, while still somehow managing to play this ludicrous role as straight as possible. Throw in the other stars in the cast, like Grier and McDowell, and it’s a surprise that this Terminator ripoff made barely half of its relatively low budget back in ticket sales.

The Keach/Culp dichotomy of seriousness and campiness is one of my favorite things about Class. On the one hand, the film features ridiculous gang warfare with oversized vehicles in one scene, followed by dark domestic trouble in the form of Angel and Cody’s mother’s truly frightening drug addiction in the next (before she completely disappears from the film). Somehow, this intermix works for me, although I can admit it probably shouldn’t. What do you think, Britnee? Is this tonal inconsistency a drawback, or a feature?

Britnee: I think the mix of the film’s outlandish features and serious moments made Class the unique and unforgettable film that it is. If anything, the serious moments of the film, such as the mother and son drug brawl, amplified the film’s campiness, and that’s always a good thing. When serious, dramatic situations are placed in such a ridiculous setting (post-apocalyptic 1999), they bring out this sick and twisted type of humor that makes us all think, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” Being able to successfully pull off this type of humor and create such an uncomfortable mix of emotions is the greatest achievement that a film can accomplish. Unfortunately, Class did not have as many of those wonderful Lifetime movie-like moments as I hoped for, but I think that may be the only complaint I have about the film. It was that good.

Something that I just can’t stop thinking about from Class is the gang warfare between the Blackhearts and the Razorheads. The film’s street gangs are made out to seem like these awful groups of mixed-up teens who will never escape their miserable, violent lifestyle, but under their rough and tough exterior, they’re just a bunch of kids searching for a little bit of love and understanding. This really comes through when the Blackhearts and Razorheads stop killing each other and team up to fight the evil robotic teachers. The bad guys (Razorheads) join the not-as-bad guys (Blackhearts) and ultimately become the good guys. At this point, the gang lifestyle actually seems more acceptable and becomes a little appealing. I mean, if I was stuck in some crazy life-or-death situation where I was forced to join a gang, I would definitely let the Blackhearts jump me in. 80’s new wave couture, Nine Inch Nails dance parties with machine guns, and a gnarly black heart tattoo are enough to win me over.

Erin, what are your thoughts on the two opposing gangs joining forces to fight the evil robotic teachers? Was this one of the few heartwarming parts of the film? Or is it just another cheesy moment to add to the list?

Erin: I thoroughly enjoyed the Class of 1999 experience . . . but I’m not sure that I found the gangs joining forces to be terribly heartwarming.  I think that if they hadn’t been in an automatic-weapon fueled fire-fight, I might be with you.  Had they been engaged in an old fashioned fist-fight-style rumble, I think that I would be more sympathetic to their situation.  As it was, it seemed like the gang side of The Warriors and the terrorist robot side of The Terminator got together and forgot to bring a side helping of the humanity from The Outsiders (I’ll take 1980s movie title conventions for $500, Alex).

I think that Class of 1999 is trying to communicate a series of relationships to the viewers: the difference between the viewers and the post-apocalyptic kids,  the difference between the rival gangs, and the difference between all of the kids and the inhuman robots.  I think that the movie does a great job showing us the first relationship, but stumbles with the second two.  The gangland teens are pretty reprehensible, truly living up to the premise of the movie that youth gangs have turned American urban centers into warzones.  The movie makes a very clear break from reality with its set up and presentation of the its own world.

Cody is really the best glimmer of humanity out of the entire movie, in my opinion.  He’s the only example of a multi-dimensional character, with his dark side trying to survive in a gangland and his sweet side of falling in love with a certified Nice Girl.  We don’t get that multi-dimensionality from other members of the Blackhearts, much less from the punks in the Razorheads.  It’s really hard to root for any of them.  Perhaps Cody is supposed to stand out as the Last Sane Man?

In any case, it’s hard for me to see myself in the gang members as they make a stand against the Teachernators.  Yes, they’re scrappy kids coming together to take on psychotic military robots, but minutes earlier they were trying to kill each other with machine guns! On the other hand, the Roboteachers are out-of-their-minds inhuman, which is made evident early in the movie by their behaviors and later in the movie by their physical transformations into walking weapons.

What do you think, Brandon, does Class of 1999 struggle to humanize the human characters?  Is there a clear enough difference between the terrible actions taken by the gangs and the Teachbots?  Does the audience get an avatar to insert themselves into the movie, or are we just supposed to watch the carnage?

Brandon: Simply by the nature of what it’s trying to portray, I totally have to agree that all basic humanity has been stripped from this movie’s ultraviolent teens. Cartoonishly over-exaggerating adult fears about out of control young adult behavior, Class of 1999 poses a grim, larger than life portrait of teen rebellion that is far beyond anything you’d expect to see in any conceivable human being, young or not, even in a worst case scenario, ten years down the road cyberfuture. Yeah, teens can be perilously obsessive over getting their hands on drugs, beers, sex, and cool cars at times, but usually not in the way Class of 1999‘s teens mix those simple pleasures with guns, bombs, landmines, and missile launchers. The first half or so of the film plays like a particularly paranoid parent’s warped nightmare about what their teen is up to while they’re out with their bonehead friends. A great example of this is the warehouse concert scene. I’ve been to quite a few concerts in my time & while many may have involved industrial music dance parties, I can’t remember ever witnessing a gang beating in the moshpit, machine gun fire set off to the rhythm of the songs being played, or the venue being lit by carefully placed barrel fires. I’m sure that as my parents first let me out of the house to experience live music for the first time, however, their worst fears of what was going on weren’t too far off from that image.

The trick here is that Class of 1999 is smart to spoof both sides of the teen rebellion coin. Because teens are perceived as such violent, out of control animals, authority figures take an automatically adversarial position against them. Late in the film when Principal Malcom McDowell complains about his army of roboteachers, saying, “They’re waging war with my students!”, he’s met with the response, “Isn’t that what all teachers do?” If the film indeed has any specific sort of point it’s trying to make & we’re not supposed to just, as Erin suggests, sit back & “watch the carnage”, I think it’s to be found somewhere in that exchange. Even if real life teens are as bad as portrayed in this film (they’re not), they’re still far more sympathetic than the (robotic) adults that brutally murder them by snapping their necks or forcefeeding them glass vials of superdrugs. There’s an oppressive, prison-like atmosphere in the film’s educational system (complete with “RESPECT”, “OBEY”, “LEARN” commands that could’ve been directly lifted from John Carpenter’s They Live) that feels like a direct indictment of privatized, militarized schooling that treats kids like violent threats instead of young, eager minds. The cyberfuturism of Class of 1999‘s killer robot “tactical education units” may not be readily recognizable in today’s flesh-bound educational units (public school teachers), but they do feel like a blown-up, exaggerated version of the way we systematically tend to treat children as a threat & a nuisance.

Boomer, how much do you think Class of 1999 is a movie of its time? Do you think that there’s a bit of historical, late 80s gang violence context here that would drastically change if there were to be a Class of 2025 released in 2015? Or would the same basic adult fears of teen rebellion & a privatized, militaristic educational system be eligible for lampooning today (with CGI bloodsplatter unfortunately subbed for the practical effects gore, of course)?

Boomer: One of the great truths about western culture is that each generation that reaches the level of becoming “the establishment” seeks out and pontificates about the fatal flaws in the generation that follows. This is nothing new; adults of today are “concerned” about the isolating effects of handheld devices, just as my parents were “concerned” about the isolating effects of the Discman, or their forebears were concerned about the invention of this thing or that thing, going back to concerns that the invention of the phonograph would lead to fewer people being interested in learning to play instruments. There are a lot of sociological and anthropological reasons for this, but most of it boils down to the universal constant that we will only get older, coupled with the fear of obsolescence and fear-mongering about “the youth,” and treating them, as Brandon notes, as a threat or nuisance.

The other major factor in the genesis of 1999 is that the late eighties and early nineties saw a very visible rise in gang violence, something that couldn’t simply be dismissed, so the news media had to address it. However, the “establishment” couldn’t acknowledge that disenfranchised people turn to crime because of systemic problems related to class and privilege, especially not when people were basically walking down the street accidentally poking others with their raging pro-wealth Reaganomics hard-ons. As a result, the majority of Americans, ignorant of the real causes of gang violence and its apparent meteoric rise, had nothing to cling to but their filtered and incorrect understanding of social problems, reinforced by the cyclical nature of youth-blaming.

What’s so interesting to me is how 1999 manages to be both an indictment of that mindset and the apotheosis of it at the same time, and, although I may be giving it too much credit here, I think that this is intentional. The darkness that permeates Culp’s world represents all the things that the parents of 1989 feared about the future, a horribly violent place where those nasty (scary) teenagers with their loud music and their dirty fingernails rule over a scorched suburbia because no one took a stand against teenage skullduggery when there was a chance! But it also holds up a mirror to that absurd frame of mind, pointing out the flaws in that kind of fearful, conservative nightmare by showing how unrealistic and silly such a future would be. Also, there are killer robots, because who doesn’t love that? And, if your kids are running around doing drugs, they probably learned it from watching you, mom or dad!

So, the answer is “yes,” 1999 is a very much a product of its time and of the politico-cultural environment from which it sprung, and there would have to be significant updates to remake this movie, although I could see how it could be done in a couple of different ways, depending upon which of Joann and Cletus’s fears you wish to highlight and mock. Political correctness is often a good place for conservative muckrakers to stir up some passion: “In the future world of 2025, schools no longer teach facts, they teach feelings. They no longer teach science, they teach sensitivity. And they only teach the ‘corrected’ version of history.” And, like, instead of robot teachers, there’s an AI that seeks to “purge” students of their hopefulness or individuality or whatever by teaching them about all of American history, atrocity alongside progress, and by teaching them self-control and tolerance. Cody Culp would be a secret bigot who teaches his androgynous and sexless peers, long having been made soft of mind by those damn SJWs, to fight back against the machine of liberal indoctrination by being politically incorrect and proud, or whatever. To be honest, though, I don’t know that this would be recognized as a satirical interpretation of a conservative’s nightmare of the future; it would be more likely to be seen as a prescient vision of a world to come, ruled by the “libtard.” Or maybe I’m just on a tangent; who knows.

The real truth is this: the way education is enforced in the west is not the best method for schooling, and we all pretty much know that. The priorities are all skewed, and the eight-hour, rigidly-structured schoolday that has been the model for a long time isn’t based on the best pedagogical or psychoeducational practices but on the model of a workday; it forcibly instills in children a willingness to accept the drudgeries of pyramid capitalism, essentially, rather than encouraging critical thought, technical acumen, interest in knowledge for its own sake, or any kind of prioritization of variety in educational forms. You can see that small changes are taking place today, but for the worse; as an educator, I toured a new charter school just a year or two ago that was filled with classrooms that didn’t look like classrooms. They looked like call centers. So even if Class of 2025 were to be made in the way that I poorly pitched above, a Republican nightmare of social justice gone mad, it would still be nothing like the schools of the future, just as my school in 1999 was not a war zone of apocalyptic proportions.

Britnee: What do you think about a Class of 2025? Does your conception of what Class of 1999‘s thesis was differ from mine, and if so, how do you think your interpretation would be updated for a contemporary audience?

Britnee: When watching Class of 1999, I did realize that there was a connection to the large amount of youth gang violence occurring around the time the film was released, but I really didn’t think much of it. I saw the film as being loads of stupid fun without much depth, but your perspective really got me thinking about the whole “youth-blaming” and “conservative nightmare” aspects that the film definitely illustrates. Loud music, fast cars, leather jackets, heavy eyeliner, and funky haircuts were a conservative parent’s nightmare in the late 80s/early 90s, and the teens in 1999 are an explosion of this stereotypical degenerate youth. The whole film actually reminds me of a lost Billy Idol music video. It’s just so “Rebel Yell.” These types of teens were going to cause the world to become a post-apocalyptic cesspool of crime, violence, and pure filth. Unfortunately, the world did not become that exciting by 1999. There were many changes that occurred within those short 10 years, but at the same time, much remained the same.

Now, to think of what my interpretation of 1999 would be for a contemporary audience. 1999 did play on the fear of what the future would be like for the youth of that time, and now it seems as though one of the biggest fears for today’s youth is the lack of importance placed on quality education. A modern 1999, or as Boomer stated, 2025, would deal with the absence of general education and the emphasis on some sort of super strict social class-based structure. Children will be sorted into military, white-collar, or blue-collar positions at birth, like in the movie Antz when newborn ants are assigned to be workers and soldiers. Who knew that such a horrible movie would be so insightful? Each group would have their separate type of school, but they would be more like training academies. Only the elite would receive a quality education, and they would use it to coerce obedience and conformity on the youth. Those that do not have elite status would live in squalor and have all sorts of chemicals in the air and water that dope them up, making them ultra submissive to authority. I feel as though the teen rebellion wouldn’t be as violent as one would expect. They would rely more on outsmarting the authority and only shooting them up from time to time instead of a constant machine gun blowout like in 1999. At this point, weapons would probably have lasers instead of bullets, so the battle scenes would be a little more on the calm side.

Erin, speaking of weapons, did you think that it was strange that the weapons in 1999 weren’t very futuristic? Come to think of it, not much was futuriscitc about this film that was set in the future. Is the budget to blame for this or is it something bigger?

Erin :  Britnee, someone remarked during our viewing of Class of 1999 “Oh no!  They didn’t invent cell phones in the future!” as two characters were forced into a situation with no way of contacting each other.

In some ways, yes, I think that budget has something to do with why the weapons and other parts of the film weren’t very futuristic.  Clearly, the bulk of the effects budget went to the Teachbots and their final set-chewing rampage.  Honestly, I think the bulk of the general budget may have gone to that last scene.

In other ways, I think that a few things inhibited Class of 1999‘s presentation of the future.  First of all, it could make logical sense that the teen gangs in the movie only have access to older, out of date technology and weapons. Teens in 1999 might have had pagers, but in my community were only on the cusp of common cellphone ownership.   Admittedly, this theory falls apart a little in the way that the administrators are not seen using futuristic technology either.

Secondly,  one of the difficulties of setting a movie in the near future is hitting the right pitch for technological advancement.  I think that the rapid development of computer and internet culture, where even impoverished  families have internet access and at least one computer, and the ubiquity of personal electronics such PDAs and cellphones might have been impossible to see from late 1980s.  From where we stand, it seems obvious and inevitable that the future would look like it does (or did, in 1999).  For the writers and audiences at the time, that might have seemed as outlandish as Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders.

And thirdly (and most likely, I think), placing Class of 1999 in the near future is a nice way to hand wave away the complete ridiculousness of the world that the movie inhabits.  The future setting means that the filmmakers have to take much less responsibility for portraying any kind of real life anything, from the physical sets to the interactions of the characters.  Honestly, I think that’s a sloppy use of what can be an effective story-telling tool.  Science Fiction as a genre is also used as a means of giving us the distance needed from reality to discuss difficult issues.  By setting Class of 1999 in the future, the filmmakers were able to explore both the dual fear of out-of-control youth and out-of-control education institutions with removal from the actual educational landscape of 1989-90. (I’ll insert here that I think Class of 1999 is more a fantasy rather than a proper Science Fiction movie.)

The unreality of the movie not withstanding, there are some moments that resonated with me as “real”.  When Cody’s mother and brother fight over drugs, I was reminded that the late 80s had seen crack cocaine strike urban areas like an epidemic.  Many cities were still suffering from botched urban renewal plans and the hemorrhagic flow of residents to suburbs.

What do you think, Brandon, where do you see realism in this movie?  Is searching for reality even relevant?

Brandon: I feel like we’ve already run through a great deal of the film’s startling realism here: the cultural context of 80s gang violence (as portrayed in the media); the broken, unnecessarily adversarial education system; the shocking jolts of harrowing drug addiction & attempted sexual assault that break up the fun, etc. Something that does stand out to me, though, is the budding romantic relationship between our beloved teen protagonists Cody & Traci. Okay, it’s a little ridiculous that that the movie made time for a romantic subplot in the midst of battle droid educational units liberally murdering teenagers in the guise of discipline, but it’s also a somewhat believable ridiculousness. If you combine already heightened teenage libidos with the kind of tumultuous situations that naturally tend to bring people together (say, your gym teacher removing his arm to reveal a subdermal rocket launcher, for instance) it’s only logical that a romantic bond or two will arise. Thankfully, the one delivered here is accompanied with such great exchanges as Cody coolly responding to the question “You gonna call me or what?” with “Yeah. Both.” and hilariously teasing Traci to “Open up those suburban eyes” to the danger they’re facing. I’ll make no guesses as to how realistic that exact dialogue is, but the situation is at the very least more believable than an army of robotic teachers that get away with viciously spanking (not to mention disembowling & setting aflame) their students with out so much as a peep from the PTA.

Lagniappe

Erin: The least believable part of this whole movie is that these kids are still showing up for school.  With the exception of Cody’s probation requirement, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to show up. Why?  Why are they there?

Britnee: Of all the strange yet amazing moments in Class of 1999, the one that I just can’t forget is when Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) exposes his claw machine hand for the first time. As he sinks his creepy claw into the skull of an unfortunate teen, he says one of the greatest lines in the film: “I love to mold young minds.” Those obnoxious arcade toy machines will never be the same!

Brandon: One of the oddest details in a movie where they’re in no short supply are the ordinary objects of a banana & glass of milk. Character actor Stacy Keach does an excellent job of chewing scenery as the evil “Megatech robotics specialist” Dr. Robert Forrest, who provides the technology for the evil teacherbots. He gets obvious perverse pleasure from watching his creations discipline their students (which is especially alarming during one particular robospanking), deriving even greater joy when their “discipline” escalates to murder, and he just generally looks like an evil lab rat that killed so many other lab rats that he was honorarily dubbed a scientist because people were afraid to put him down. What I love most about Dr. Forrest, who is an all around great villain, is that on top of these unwholesome characteristics, he seems to enjoy incongruously wholesome snacks. Watching someone so evil & so fake-looking casually chew on a banana & gulp a glass of milk is a hilarious, unsettling sight gag that beautifully complicates his character in a way that’s almost too good to have been scripted. I like to imagine that Keach came up with his own onscreen snack regimen himself, insisting on enjoying his milk & his banana (surely obtained from craft services) on camera in order to give his character a whole other layer of perversity. No matter whose idea it was, though, it totally worked & after the movie I ended up thinking just as much about those snacks as I did about the film’s roboviolence, which is really saying something.

Boomer: The DVD for this movie is as light on special features as you would expect for a niche-but-not-quite-cult classic film such as this, but it amuses me that the DVD cover foregoes the Terminator-esque cover of the VHS in favor of an image that looks like Shaq in Steel. Almost every trailer on the disc, however, is for some film that echoes Terminator in some way, however, which is good enough. Also, nothing tells you more about the film-makers’ misconception of the teaching profession than Traci’s comment that women never buy just a sexy bra or pair of panties, that they treat themselves. Because teachers make soooo much money with which to treat themselves, am I right? That’s why I’m still a teacher–no, wait, I quit because even working a second job didn’t net enough to get by on. Sorry, Traci, not all of our academically employed fathers are getting grant money from crazed scientists.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)
January: The Best of 2015

-The Swampflix Crew

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8 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Class of 1999 (1989)

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  7. Pingback: Movie of the Month: Class of 1999 (1989) – state street press

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