November’s Movie of the Month, Class of 1999, is by no means a great movie. It’s a strange, didactic, dated, entertaining, culturally intriguing piece of mindless cyborg action with misguided social commentary, but while it’s a movie that holds a special place in my heart, there’s nothing groundbreaking or objectively iconic about it. For all its strengths and weaknesses, it’s a movie that truly commits to its fictional world and its boundaries and stays within those strictures: the grime is grimy, the robots are robotic, and the violence-prone teenagers are teenaged and prone to violence. The idea that armed, militant teenagers whose schools are at the heart of free fire zones would continue to attend class is absurd, but the movie never winks at this idea. Sure, the dieselpunk armored vehicle chase that opens that film is ridiculous, but the movie plays it with sufficient sincerity to make it, if not believable, at least explicable. The sequel? Not so much.
Class of 1999 II: The Substitute isn’t just a movie with a title that combines Arabic and Roman numerals in an attempt to drive classicists insane, it’s also one of those sequels that features no returning cast members and seems to have missed the point of the first film. I hardly know where to start here—there’s almost nothing right about this movie and so very much that’s wrong. According to the poorly composed Wikipedia plot summary of the film, Substitute is, like the original Class, set in “a violent future metropolis where gangs rule the hallways.” This is a lie; the setting of Substitute is somewhere in the featureless American midwest, judging by the area surrounding the school, in a building that the crew wasn’t allowed to alter in any way. Early in the movie, a character stands atop the school’s roof, and the entire background is just rural dusty nothingness, where cars move slowly and lazily down a traffic-free highway. With regards to set design, the graffiti that covers the walls of the school is clearly painted on translucent plastic sheeting that moves in the wind, demonstrating zero effort to maintain the illusion that this isn’t just some random school that was open for filming on weekends. A teenage wasteland it most definitely isn’t.
The plot follows John Bolen (Sasha Mitchell), a substitute-of-fortune who happens to be a decommissioned and repurposed military android, just like the three killer bots from the first film, apparently the last of his kind still wandering the earth. He is being pursued—if lackadaisically and perfunctorily following the trail of a killer robot can be called a pursuit—by a man whose sole purpose is to provide voice-over exposition in the form of digressive verbal journal entries, named G.D. Ash (Rick Hill). Bolen’s left a trail of bodies behind at every school that has had the misfortune of playing host to one of the iterations of his cycle of violence, and he’s just arrived at a new school. Jenna McKenzie (Caitlin Dulany) is a teacher there, although she’s suffering harassment at the hands of gang members who support Sanders (Gregory West), a gangbanger against whom Jenna is planning to testify; she’s the only one who saw him intentionally aiming at a fellow student who was supposedly killed by an accidental gun discharge. Her boyfriend, Coach Grazer (future Alpha Dog director Nick Cassavetes), is also the curator of the local military history museum, and he pleads with Sheriff Yost (Jack Knight) to increase his protection of Jenna, but Yost doesn’t have the manpower (in fact, there is not one other police officer in the entire film, seeming to imply that Yost is the beginning and end of this town’s police force). Bolen shows up and immediately starts killing students. He also develops an attraction to Jenna, whom he protects from attacks by Sanders’s goons.
You’ll notice that there’s scarcely a mention of students in the above paragraph, or of classes, or of school. Unlike the previous film, wherein the teenage students were the protagonists, here they are indistinguishable cannon fodder, with Jenna and Grazer as the unmemorable leads. With Class, even if the characters were thinly defined, there was a supporting group of recognizable people with different clothes and hairstyles rounding out the main cast of teen characters like Angel, Cody, and Hector. Here, every single teenager wears a prison orange jumpsuit, even though they’re not incarcerated or even particularly violent; the only two teenagers of consequence are Sanders and his lieutenant Ice (Diego Serrano), and neither of them are ever seen attending school. We never even find out what subject Jenna teaches! Grazer doesn’t mention that he’s a coach until well into the film and long after the audience has made the assumption that he’s just some survivalist who Jenna happens to be dating, like Burt Gummel from the Tremors series. Class was about kids whose teachers happened to be military killdroids. Substitute is, instead, about a killer robot who happens to be a teacher, and only the former is relevant. There’s no reason that this narrative needed to be set at a school at all; the plot could be transposed to a law firm, a diner, or a grocery store with no significant effect on the storyline, which is a problem when your title has the word “class” in it.
I hate to keep coming back to the problem with the film’s setting and the difference from Class, but it’s quite distracting, especially since the movie itself refuses to let you forget that it’s a sequel, what with all the reused footage that illustrates Ash’s expository narration. The editing in Substitute is already schizophrenic, but Ash’s presence in the story is particularly poorly integrated, as his stream of information feels like it was initially written as one long monologue that was then chopped up and distributed throughout, played over unconnected footage from the first film. Case in point: one sequence of the film features Ash describing Bolen’s M.O., “His method is to cap off a series of onesie/twosie murders with a mass kill.” This information is relayed over footage from Class of the P.E. teacher’s Terminator walk, the teachers’ Taurus flying over the edge of a dock, and a random fire. This is followed by a scene of Jenna and Grazer talking about their relationship, which is itself followed by more expository monologuing that begins with “This is consistent with his infiltration programming….” The monologue is one uninterrupted thought that is artificially broken up into incomplete chunks. That’s madness.
That’s not even getting into the nitpicky inconsistencies with Class‘s worldbuilding, such as it is. The entire plot against Jenna hinges upon the fact that Sanders claims his gun went off in class accidentally, ignoring that the first film made it abundantly and explicitly clear that weapons were confiscated at the entrance and students had to go through metal detectors, not to mention that this would have gotten a kid in 1994 charges of criminal negligence and possession of a firearm at the very least. There’s also the fact that the excesses of 1989 made their way into Class‘s vision of the future, while the relative drabness of real-world 1994 meant that Substitute‘s aesthetic was more realistic but much less visually intriguing. Class‘s northwestern shooting locations rendered that film’s post-apocalyptic world in an effective perpetual overcast, whereas the glaring sun in this movie makes for a complete tonal reversal, further distancing Substitute from its predecessor. And I haven’t even mentioned that the big, violent setpiece that serves as this movie’s anticlimactic climax is a paintball game, whereas Class ended with full-on warfare between killer droids and a unified teenage front comprised of rival gangs. Comparatively, imagine that Rocky II had boiled down to Stallone battling the antagonist at Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, or that the conclusion of Terminator II featuring Sarah Connor and the T-1000 settling their differences with laser tag.
This movie is cheap in every conceivable sense of the word. Its sets are cheap, its actors are cheap, its plot is cheap, and it’s not really all that entertaining. The bizarre editing sometimes makes the movie seem to have more energy than it actually does, which is a mark in favor of the editor. The few jokes that we get about the future are likewise cheap, like references to the impeachment of Bill Clinton (“hahaha”) and the reference to American domination of Japan in the realm of computer advancement, a jingoistic attitude that carries over into the film’s inexplicable and sudden occasional fervor for and idealization of the war machine and military history. Substitute also has the ultimate cheap ending: Bolden isn’t even a military droid after all! He’s actually the son of Robert Forrest, the creator of the robots, memorably portrayed by Stacy Keach in Class. His robotic behavior is the result of PTSD, and all those times he was shot and kept going was because he was wearing Kevlex, silvery spandex that can stop bullets! To be fair, I did find myself wondering early in the film why he would be out taking a jog if he didn’t need exercise, and why he would be programmed to sweat while experiencing lustful thoughts, but the explanation that he’s actually human doesn’t make sense either, given all the buildings and precipices he leaps from with impunity.
It’s really no surprise that the director of the film has never made another feature, although he helmed several episodes of the terrible 90s series Team Knight Rider and has credit as a second unit director on 72 projects, although his major area of expertise is in stuntwork. Writer Mark Sevi appears to have rooted his entire career in drafting scripts for bad DTV sequels to forgotten and forgettable fare like Excessive Force and Relentless; it was not until his ninth script that he wrote something that didn’t have Roman numerals in the title, and two of his last five writing credits appear to be creature features of the Asylum Studios mold. Star Sasha Mitchell was arrested a year after release for alleged domestic assault, and a year after that he was briefly a fugitive after skipping out on his probation, a debacle that cost him his lucrative main cast role as lovable dimwit Cody on TGIF staple Step by Step; his career never really recovered. No one emerged from this movie unscathed, save for Cassavetes, who will still be remembered by history as the man who directed The Notebook, so the curse touched him as well.
If this were just a standard review, this would be the point where I would say “avoid this movie” and award a star value, but this movie is more than just a 1.5 star piece of DTV detritus, it’s a time capsule that reminds us of a period when sequels were all but guaranteed to be cheaper, less imaginative retreads of a more successful movie, and not even one that was particularly popular or noteworthy. It represents the beginning of the era we live in now, where everything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Sinister to Cars can and will get a sequel that sees a theatrical release. It was a sequel that required no knowledge of the first film, and one which actually makes no sense in the original’s context. It has a place in history, but isn’t worth celebrating.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond