1985 was the year of the teen-oriented science movies. Back to the Future was released that summer, but there were several more. In the month of August alone, three different science-themed comedies were released. The most famous is John Hughes’ Weird Science. The cult-classic of the group is Real Genius, which I highly recommend. Then there is the one that is largely forgotten today. It is one of the earliest films released by Disney’s then-new Touchstone Pictures division…My Science Project.
The story centers on a high school senior named Michael (John Stockwell) who is more interested in working on his car then he is doing his schoolwork. Problem is he’s in danger of not graduating if he doesn’t come up with a good science project for his ex-hippie teacher, who prefers to be known simply as Bob (Dennis Hopper). So, Michael decides to take the school’s obligatory cute-but-nerdy girl, Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) to the nearby run-down military base/junkyard to see if he can find anything interesting to tinker with for a project. In an underground storage chamber, he ends up finding a strange item that glows with purple electricity. Little does he suspect that in the film’s prologue we learned that this is the engine from a crashed UFO.
Michael takes the device home and quickly discovers that the thing drains power from everything it encounters…including Michael’s prized car. He ends up having to call his buddy Vince (Fisher Stevens) to rescue him when the car dies. Later, when the two friend hook the thing up to a car battery they notice ancient artifacts start to show up in the auto shop and later find that they have jumped forward in time by two hours. They then take the device to Bob who quickly trips out over the lava lamp like light show the thing produces. Bob soon realizes that this thing produces some sort of time warp and is eventually sucked up by the machine. Now, the machine threatens to wreak havoc across the town and the whole school building ends up caught in the time warp. Michael and Vince then have to team up with Revenge of the Nerds reject Sherman (Raphael Sbarge) to battle everything from Vietcong soldiers to a T-Rex to rescue Ellie, who is trapped in the school.
My Science Project is a film that really takes a lot of time to find its groove. By the time we get there, we’re at the film’s climax, which is actually fairly strong. That’s the only part of the film that really exploits the whole time-warp idea to anything close to its full potential. Various dangers from different times, both past and future, end up standing in the way of rescuing the girl and shutting off the big bad glowing thing that caused all this mess. If you look closely you’ll even catch a glimpse of Al Leong as one of the Vietcong and Michael Berryman as a futuristic mutant. This is actually Berryman’s second “mutant” role for summer 85, having also played one of the Mad Max-style bikers in Weird Science. The big set piece of the finale, though, is the T-Rex. We’re long before the CGI dinos of Jurassic Park here, and for what is essentially a giant puppet in a low-budget sci-fi comedy this T-Rex actually looks pretty good. Had the entire film reflected the same ambition of the last 20 minutes they may have had something quite entertaining.
The cast ends up being a bit of a mixed batch. John Stockwell is decent but his performance doesn’t have a whole lot of umph. Fisher Stevens, on the other hand, goes over-the-top in the annoying sidekick department. These types of characters were everywhere in 80’s teen films and just about every trope you can imagine is present in Fisher’s performance. I did like Danielle von Zerneck as Ellie, of course I’ve always been a sucker for 80’s geeky-cute characters. Of course, the highlight of the cast, as you may imagine, is Dennis Hopper. Anyone who was a teenager in the 80’s, as I was, can relate to the scenario of having former hippies as teachers. Bob clearly struggles a bit with finding the balance between the free-spirit he once was and fitting into the role of the authority figure that he inhabits now. Hopper also injects a little bit of mad-scientist into his performance, which is a lot fun. It’s a shame that his character is sucked into the warp midway through the film…however, his (spoiler) return at the end of the film is quite funny.
On a whole, My Science Project is a pretty middle of the road film, and is certainly the least of 1985’s teen science comedies. The climax of the film, though, is creative…it just requires a lot of patience for the viewer to eventually get to that point.