The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978)

I once made a promise to myself that I’d never watch the grotesque exploitation piece Cannibal Holocaust again, but between Slave of the Cannibal God and the much more recently-produced Bone Tomahawk, I feel as if I already have. Now, Bone Tomahawk is admittedly a much better film than either of the schlocky horrors I’m lumping it in with here, but it does traffic in some of the same “savage natives” fear-mongering in a way that’s at least worth discussing, if not admonishing. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, Bone Tomahawk does not depict the same real-life-animal-torture-as-entertainment aesthetic that make that film such a memorably unpleasant (and perhaps genuinely evil) experience. Slave of the Cannibal God very nearly does. It’s not quite as cruel or as nihilistically empty as Cannibal Holocaust, but it does position itself comfortably within the same wheelhouse while clearly displaying a level of craft that indicates its producers should’ve known better.

Released as Prisoner of the Cannibal God in the UK (where it was briefly banned as a “video nasty”) and Mountain of the Cannibal God in its native Italy, this delightful romp stars Bond girl Ursula Anders as a woman searching for her lost husband in the jungles of New Guinea and a young Stacy Keach as her reluctant guide. The guide fears, correctly, that the husband may have been abducted & tortured by an especially brutal tribe of cannibals who live on a mountain many fear to climb. They embark on an Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness-style mission to recover the doomed man anyway, an expedition that drastically dwindles their numbers along the way and inevitably results in an elaborately staged cannibal ritual. If there’s anything interesting about the way Slave of the Cannibal God structures its jungle expedition, it’s in the way the film often functions as a by-the-books slasher. A masked serial killer who had broken off from the cannibal tribe the group seeks picks them off one by one in the style of a spear-wielding Jason Voorhees. The rest of the film, however, is all reveals of ulterior motives within the expedition and shocking displays of animal cruelty & casual racism/sexism. It’s not quite as grotesque as the same vibe achieved in Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s well-shot & well-acted enough to suggest that it never should have ever come close.

The animal deaths depicted for atmosphere in Slave of the Cannibal God are largely presented as if they were pure nature footage. There’s something oddly staged-feeling about its footage of snakes eating a monkey or an owl, though, whether or not those animals were already co-habitating in the Sri Lankan filming location. Worse yet, the film includes a religious ritual centered around the gutting of a live lizard that’s stomach-turning at best. It’s not nearly as grotesque as the animal deaths in Cannibal Holocaust and it at least appears as if the lizard were promptly eaten raw, but it’s still an entirely needless act of animal cruelty. Anytime the film pauses to depict animal violence it feels as if it’s borrowing a primal energy it can’t bother to muster on its own accord. This is doubly disheartening when things like the lizard-gutting are used to make New Ginea’s “primitive peoples” (in the characters’ words) seem like grotesque monsters. Gleeful violence against women, mocking fascination with little people, and just a generally sleazy vibe that typifies 70s grindhouse aesthetic do little to lighten the mood of these for-the-sake-of-entertainment atrocities. Very early in the film, around the time I watched a snake slowly scalp a monkey for what felt like minutes, I realized that I probably should’ve known better than to watch something titled Slave of the Cannibal God in the first place. Things did not improve from there.

I did get a couple quick glimpses of the movie I would’ve wanted Slave of the Cannibal God to be, though, the movie I hoped to see instead of the one I should have known to expect. There’s a brief moment in the expedition where a gigantic crocodile puppet yanks one of the native guides from the group’s raft and tears him to shreds in the water. In a later scene, the masked killer who terrorizes the expedition chops off another guide’s head with a machete. A focus on this kind of practical effects spectacle, preferably without xenophobic othering & the detriment of all women everywhere, could’ve saved this movie from achieving its lowly status as a slightly less gross Cannibal Holocaust. More of a dedication to its unexpected slasher tropes could’ve helped distinguish it as well, as it at least would cut down on grouping all New Guinea tribes together as personality-free hoards and help establish a basic sense of novelty. I’m not convinced this inherently imperialist exploitation genre is at all worth saving, however. I guess Bone Tomahawk finds a way to skirt its worst trappings and, from what I hear, Eli Roth’s Green Inferno supposedly finds a way to shame the explorers instead of the community they invade; I’m not sure either achievement is enough to justify keeping this monstrously ugly thing alive. Films like Slave of the Cannibal God & Cannibal Holocaust would likely better serve the world by not existing at all and I honestly feel a little complicit in their continued legacy by picking this one up second-hand at the thrift store, as if it had something worthwhile to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

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fourstar

Batman has been lighting up the silver screen for seven decades (!!!) now if you look all the way back to the serialized episodes that played as appetizers before feature presentations in the 1940s. That means there’s several generations of kids who’ve grown up with their own personal version of Batman, a specific actor or adaptation that marks their introduction to the Dark Knight. Just think, there will be thousands of youngsters who are first introduced to the Batster through Dawn of Justice this weekend, meaning their own personal Bruce Wayne will be none other than former Bennifer member Ben Affleck. Personally, my first Batman was likely Michael Keaton (who also probably remains my favorite), but the one I remember  much, much more vividly watching as a kid is the disembodied voice of Kevin Conroy.

Kevin Conroy voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne for the excellent, long-running television show Batman: The Animated Series. I spent so much time with Conroy’s voice emanating from Batman’s mouth that it’s impossible not to think of him as the Official Batman. It’s also arguable that since Conroy has logged so many hours as the Caped Crusader through all 85 glorious episodes & two feature length movies within that series, he’s more than earned the title. As an animated work, Batman had a really easy path to mastering the comic book balance between campy humor & brooding severity that so many adaptations have failed to capture by committing too fully to one end over the other. The show’s noir, Art Deco visual design (which was achieved by drawing on black paper) is not only gorgeous; it’s true to the property’s Detective Comics roots. Similarly, Conroy’s voice work plays the show’s hero with the perfect mix of suave, dark, and humorous tones that make him such an interesting anti-hero. I like to think that the reason Batman: The Animated Series is remembered so fondly is because it really was that good.

Batman: The Animated Series spawned a couple feature film editions in its time, but the most significant of the pair by far came at the height of the series’ popularity. The show was such a hit that it earned a legitimate theatrical release in 1993’s The Mask of the Phantasm. In the film, Batman finds himself being framed for a series of murders with interconnected victims in the organized crime community. The mysterious perpetrator in these murders is a fellow masked crusader known only as The Phantasm. While being hunted by the police for The Phantasm’s crimes, described here as “vigilantism at its worst”, Wayne flashes back to an early romance that swelled & fizzled during his early days as a gimmickless vigilante grieving over the loss of his parents.This trip down memory lane proves to be more than therapeutic. It also helps the befuddled Batman solve the mystery of who’s been murdering criminals instead of simply, nobly apprehending them.

It at first seems as though The Phantasm’s identity is spoiled by the very-recognizable voice of character actor (and, in Class of 1999, salacious banana eater) Stacy Keach, but that only leads to one reveal of many. The Mask of the Phantasm feels like a standard multiple episode story arc from Batman: The Animated Series, just one uninhibited by commercial breaks & repetitive credits sequences. The series was finely crafted enough to genuinely earn this theatrical treatment, though. Even if the movie doesn’t constitute the best story arc the series had to offer, it’s still a fine, typifying glimpse into what made the show so great in general. To that point, the series’ key antagonist, the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill in his second most significant role), drops in mostly just to remind you of how awesome he is in this specific adaptation. There’s a particular fight scene between The Joker & Batman in a small-scale Gotham miniature that makes them look Godzilla-sized by comparison that I contend ranks among the best-choreographed fight scenes in any Batman film. The Mask of the Phantasm may not be the pinnacle of what The Animated Series had to offer, but it’s a great, concise mystery & an easily digestible glimpse into what made the show special, not to mention what made Kevin Conroy’s work one of Bruce Wayne’s best manifestations.

-Brandon Ledet

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