One of my favorite moments as a college professor came a few years ago while teaching a course on Film and twentieth century America. In this class, I have my students form groups and pick a movie from the title century on which to do a presentation for their peers. Group projects are always challenging for people, usually because one person ends up doing most of the work, which results in that person resenting their mates. To hopefully avoid any squabbling, I meet with each group individually, watch their movies with them, suggest ideas, and make sure everyone has a role in their team effort. One of the films chosen by a small cadre of my students was Weird Science (1985). When it comes time for them to present, I always emphasize creativity. This particular group delivered. They provided props that attempted to recreate the experiment that led to the creation of Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), and each member wore bras on their heads. Please read the rest of this review in order to understand why that was apropos.
Weird Science is another installment in John Hughes’ quest to document teenage life in the suburbs of Chicago during the 1980s, and once more we are in the fictitious town of Shermer, Illinois. Two high school nerds, Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), rather creepily watch the girl’s gymnastics team practice and fantasize about them. Their inappropriate daydreams are ruined when the cool guys, led by Ian (Robert Downey Jr., though without the “Jr.” at this point in his career) and Max (Robert Rustler), pants them as they are lost in their thoughts. Later that evening at Wyatt’s place, with the Donnelly parents out of town, they return to their longings for female interactions. Since they are social misfits, Gary comes up with the idea of using Wyatt’s powerful new computer in order to create a digital woman with which they can flirt and ask questions about how to improve their chances with the ladies. As they go further in their programming, their experiment slips the bounds of reality and delves into the metaphysical. Their desire to make their fantasy woman as real as possible leads them to try to draw more computing power into their processors, hooking up wires to a Barbie doll surrounded by candles, and putting bras on their heads. It has all the makings of a magic ritual, and when the dust settles a scantily clad Lisa emerges from their bathroom. She is everything they hoped she would be, she is obedient to their every whim yet prepossessed enough to give back to them what they need to hear, and can apparently make things materialize out of thin air. So, their first request is to take a shower with her, though they cower in the corner keeping their pants on while she does what most people do in such situations: washes. She then comes up with the idea of taking the boys out on the town, conjuring the right kind of clothing for each for the occasion and a snazzy vintage car. She takes them to a rough blues bar in downtown Chicago, her goal being to get them to loosen up. The alcohol mostly accomplishes this for them, though it also leads to them speaking in some unfortunate, stereotypically black voices. The next day, they all go to the mall (this is an Eighties movie, after all), where they are bullied once more by Ian and Max. Witnessing this, and being disgusted by it, are two girls that Gary and Wyatt have crushes on but who are currently on the arms of Ian and Max, Deb (Suzanne Snyder) and Hilly (Judie Aronson). What saves face for Gary and Wyatt, and earns the attention of Deb and Hilly for the first time, is, of course, Lisa. Ian and Max notice her as she leaves in a Porsche with Gary and Wyatt, and she invites them to a party she says Wyatt is hosting later. For his part, Wyatt is nervous about said soiree, not only because it would be breaking his parents trust, but also because his older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) would hold it over his head if he found out about it. Hence, when the festivities get underway, Gary and Wyatt spend most of the time in the bathroom, much to Lisa’s disappointment. What begins to bring them out of their shell is the arrival of Deb and Hilly. They meet Gary and Wyatt in the bathroom and begin talking. This draws them out, but soon they are accosted by Ian and Max who suddenly see their former bullying targets as friends, if only to get a chance to meet Lisa. Instead, Ben and Wyatt agree to make another woman for Ian and Max, which further angers Lisa. To finally jar them out of their cowardice, Lisa summons a rowdy motorcycle gang, who tear through the Donnelly home with their vehicles. Gary and Wyatt are forced to stand up to this new threat, and doing so earns the devotion of Deb and Hilly, who end up spending the night after the party. The next morning, Chet comes home to a disaster, but Lisa convinces him to keep his mouth shut by turning him into an ugly creature. Everything is put back to right just as the Donnelly’s return home. Confidence gained, Gary and Wyatt bid Lisa farewell.
Weird Science is irreverent and chock full of inappropriate jokes of all kinds. Given that it is about two teenage boys who create a fantasy girl, though, it could have been much worse. If you are familiar with John Hughes’ offerings, you know that he deftly rides the line between what is raunchy and not as he explored issues that teenagers dealt with in the 1980s. Sex is one of them. Sometimes he is serious about it, as with the pressures of whether or not you are doing it and if that makes you cool as with The Breakfast Club (1985). Sometimes it is as simple as wanting to play hooky from school on a nice day as with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). His movies are all similar in that they explore parallel themes, though each have their own method in saying what they want about those themes. What I appreciate about Weird Science, aside from the fact it does not seem to think premarital sex is a big deal (I am a practicing Catholic, as you know), is that its focus is on getting two shy kids to be more comfortable with who they are, and confident. I can identify with them because I was the nerdy kid in high school that lacked courage to talk to girls, a trait that I cannot say I have completely transcended. Interestingly, when Gary and Wyatt create Lisa, they do not do what you would immediately expect from such a film. In the end, Lisa understands what they need better than they do, and she helps them realize it.
What irks me about Weird Science as a practicing Catholic is not only the lack of concern over the sin of premarital sex, but the godlike powers that are on display. The veritable pagan ritual that brings Lisa into existence is only the beginning. Life has one source, and that is God. It is also her abilities to magic things into being with a thought that is troubling. To be sure, God can make anything miraculously happen, and there have been many who have lost Faith because He did not do what they wanted in the moment they felt they needed a miracle. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be how God works most of the time. I appreciate how Lisa is intent on a higher purpose than simply getting Gary and Wyatt laid. Her work is driven home when toward the end Gary tells Deb that while Lisa is everything he thought he wanted, if he had it all to do over again he would have created somebody like Deb. A good line, and evidence of his transformation. I simply would have preferred it coming from somebody without the ability to make a nuclear missile disappear.
If you are feeling nostalgic for the 1980s, then Weird Science is for you. If you wonder what Robert Downey Jr. was up to at that same time, then put the kids to bed and take a look. There are some adult themes in it that I would rather not see, and I do not care for Lisa’s abilities. Still, it could have been a lot worse.