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Guaranteed to Jack You Up: A Review of The Faculty
There’s 90s movies, there’s teen 90s movies and then there’s Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty. A little bit of Scream, a little bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a whole lot of cool, The Faculty was the gonzo director’s third foray into mainstream filmmaking following cult classics Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Though it’s a more traditional film than those two and Rodriguez’ debut El Mariachi, The Faculty packs just as much weirdness as you’d expect, along with an awesome soundtrack and so trippy sci-fi thrills. As far as teen alien invasion films go, the film is, dare I say, the Bridge on the River Kwai of the genre. It also will allow you to watch Frodo Baggins take on alien parasites, and who hasn’t wanted to see that?
Herrington High School in Ohio seems like your normal, everyday Midwest town. Everyone is crazy about football, hormones are ranging, pretty much everything teenage cliché you can think. There’s just one twist; aliens are taking over the earth, and they do so by invading the bodies of Herrington’s faculty, from everyone’s favorite science teacher Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart) to the mousy English teacher (Famke Janssen) to the borderline psychotic football coach (Robert Patrick) to even the poor old drama teacher (Piper Laurie). As the entire school slowly becomes infected by the alien parasites, the hope for humanity rests on the shoulders of six students; the loser nerdy Casey (Elijah Wood), drug dealer Zeke (Josh Harnett), popular girl Delilah (Jordana Brewster), outcast Stokley (Clea DuVal), conflicted football star Stan (Shawn Hatosy) and new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris). Together, the six search struggle to remain uninfected while searching for the alien host, hoping that killing it will render the parasites worthless.
The origins of The Faculty date back all the way to 1990, before Rodriguez had even begun his film career. The film was then conceived as a screenplay by writers Bruce Kimmel and David Wechter, who unsuccessfully attempted to sell the story for the next several years. Following the success of Scream however, The Faculty script suddenly became a hot commodity and was scooped of by Miramax (not so coincidentally the same studio that produced Scream) and given to Dimension Films. Kimmel and Wechter were then moved aside (both receive a story credit for the film) and the studio hired Kevin Williamson to rewrite the script and direct the film. Williamson would eventually pass on directing in favor of directing the box office bomb Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and Rodriguez was brought on board to direct. The rest, they say, is history. Or is it silence in this case?
It’s no coincidence that Williamson was brought in to rewrite Kimmel and Wechter’s script. Miramax and Dimension clearly wanted The Faculty to be a science fiction Scream, and who better to deliver that than one of the genius’ behind the latter? From that standpoint, Williamson clearly succeeds. No one will ever attempt to say that The Faculty looks to reinvent the wheel, and the script pretty much contains the usual strengths and weaknesses we’ve come to find in Williamson’s work over the year. At the end of the day though, there’s nothing wrong with Williamson’s work here on a large scale. The Faculty offers up plenty of quotable lines, several likable characters, and just enough scares and laughs to prevent the film from falling too far into the comedy or horror territory. Perhaps Williamson’s greatest achievement remains his ability to keep the script from taking itself too seriously while also including his trademark pop culture references. I’m still getting over how Jon Stewart’s character is named after former Terminator 2 star Edward Furlong, a choice that is by no means a coincidence.
Those expecting The Faculty to feel more like a Rodriguez film from a directing standpoint will be disappointed. There are certainly still flashes of the director’s famous style (most notably during the worlds most out of control high school football game) and Rodriguez did also serve as the film’s editor, continuing his trend of wanting to be involved in every aspect of production. Beyond those brief glimpses however, the film more closely resembles Wes Craven’s style in the Scream films (which Rodriguez coincidentally was involved with, having directed scenes from Stab, the film within the film as it were). That being said, the departure from Rodriguez’ normal style is a blessing here rather than a curse. As much as I enjoy films like Sin City or Machete, going gonzo here on The Faculty would’ve likely turned the film into a borderline unwatchable, albeit ambitious, piece of film. By playing it straight and helming the project like it was another part of Craven’s cannon, Rodriguez shows he’s capable of delivering entertainment that’s still well made and fun without being completely insane. Also, Rodriguez stepping back allows the film to utilize the outstanding composer Marco Beltrami and an awesome 90s alt rock soundtrack to surround the film. Led by super group Class of 99’s bizarre and brilliant rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, the soundtrack both subtly and not so subtly captures the mood of the film, while Beltrami’s score (much like it did in Scream) is another winner that helps bring out the tense thrills.
The Faculty is the definition of a film featuring an All Star cast, featuring future stars like Elijah Wood, Usher (yes, that Usher), Jon Stewart, Salma Hyek (in a minor role) and Josh Hartnett, veteran stars like Bebe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Robert Patrick and Famke Janssen and even cameos from film critics like Harry Knowles. The most effective of the group is Wood, which isn’t surprising at all considering his resume before and after the film. As a nerdy young man who “doesn’t believe someone should run unless their being chased”, Wood’s Casey is never unlikable (unlike some of his comrades) and easy to root for, aka the perfect protagonist for a survival story like this. Closely trailing him is Clea DuVal’s awesomely named Stokely, who effectively nails the badass reject who eventually lowers her guard. The biggest surprise of the entire cast is Hartnett; known for being a poor man’s movie star more than actor, the Pearl Harbor performer gives what might be the best performance of his career here as Zeke. As opposed to many of his future characters, which came off as a poor man’s version of roles Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck would take, Zeke actually has meat; an outcast drug dealer who plays things close to the chest in order to hide his vulnerability from the world. Hartnett nails this every step of the way, enough to make you wonder why people didn’t just continue using him this way (ironically, the best role Hartnett had besides The Faculty was Sin City. The director; Robert Rodriguez).
The Faculty isn’t for everyone. Those who aren’t a fan of the style of Scream will be annoyed that the film shares many of the same themes and ticks, and even fans of Rodriguez may be turned off by the different style compared to his other films. Overall though the film works, both as a creepy sci-fi thriller and a clever parody of alien invasion films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Combine that with its appealing cast and a great score/soundtrack and The Faculty is a cult film that deserves to be seen. It may not be a Scream, but as Wood’s Casey would say, the film is “guaranteed to jack you up.” Cthulhu bless you Kevin Williamson (and Rodriguez).