cowardly, but redeemed by love
Weird Science (1985) Starring Kelly LeBrock, Anthony Michael Hall, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Robert Downey Jr., and Bill Paxton. Written and directed by John Hughes.
Among the great John Hughes films about adolescence, Weird Science is the least great. It's silly, cliché-ridden, and sloppy. It is, among many things, a testament to how bold The Breakfast Club was and how much The Breakfast Club scared even the man who made it.
When Hughes wrote The Breakfast Club, studios were afraid to invest money in it. It was written so it could be filmed with a low budget (one location, small cast, no stunts, no extras, little special effects, only one set of clothing needed for each actor, etc.), but studios were still reluctant to invest even a little because they worried it would earn even less. Studios were convinced teenagers wanted only violence and nudity in films, while The Breakfast Club was a character-driven film with barely even a plot.
While Hughes was struggling to get The Breakfast Club made, he dashed off a screenplay for Sixteen Candles, a film more in line with what studios expected in a teenager film: drunken parties, teenagers recklessly driving expensive cars, teenaged males desperate for sex and teenaged females desperate for love, geeks afraid of jocks, etc. Sixteen Candles found financing quickly and was shot before The Breakfast Club even got off the ground.
After Hughes finally shot The Breakfast Club, but before it was released, he made Weird Science, and it feels very much like Weird Science was meant to be a course-correction after The Breakfast Club failed. If The Breakfast Club did as poorly at the box-office as everyone was predicting, Hughes would need a hit soon after, or his career would end.
Follow Every Trend
While The Breakfast Club is Hughes' boldest film, Weird Science is the most timid teenager film Hughes would ever make. Once again, Hughes brings out the checklist of teenager film clichés he had brought to Sixteen Candles (Gratuitous nudity? Check. Horny teenagers? Check. Big house party causing expensive property damage? Check. Recklessly driving expensive cars? Check.), but this time Hughes reached out further, beyond the teenager genre, to grab reliable tropes from every corner of pop culture to stick in this film, desperate to copy anything that had already proven profitable.
Computers were big in the early 80's. In 1982, Time Magazine's Man of the Year wasn't a man or even a woman; it was the computer. Computers were expensive, and it took many hours of study to make a computer do anything. As a result, few people owned one, giving them a mystique. The people who did own computers didn't really know what to do with them or even what they could do with them, so computers had untapped potential. And everyone knew computers represented the future. Corporations were already relying on computers to do things human employees couldn't. This all made computers seem almost magical.
WarGames had shown a teenager use his computer to change his grades, to eliminate his phone bill, and to almost start a nuclear war – and across America, people were asking, "How much of that is real?"
Hughes capitalized on all this computer fascination as he wrote a story about two lonely teenagers (Anthony Michael Hall, returning from Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who use computer magic and some improvised voodoo to create a flesh and blood version of their fantasy woman (Kelly LeBrock).
Several successful comedies of the era had been built on little more than a goofy guy making a fool of himself ogling a hot woman — including Bo Derek's star-making 10 and even LeBrock's previous The Woman in Red.
Fish-out-of-water comedies were also hot. Films ranging from Beverly Hills Cop to Star Trek IV were getting laughs by showing characters struggling to fit in where they sorely stood out. So Weird Science grabs at this, too. LeBrock promptly supplies these upper-class teenagers with fake ID's and takes them to a seedy bar, and we get jokes about these kids' struggling to fit in.
But the real fish-out-of-water here is LeBrock's Lisa. Though she's barely a few days old when the film concludes, Lisa understands how to fit into our society just fine. What makes her the odd one out is that she's in the body of a 23-year-old woman and yet she cares about the two teenagers who created her. She has compassion for them. She wants them to have enjoyable lives. In a society where adults either avoid teenagers or seek ways to make the teenagers serve their needs, Lisa is an adult who wants to serve two teenagers.
Critics denounced this film as sexist for having a female lead whose only goal is to serve the male leads. Personally, I've always found this ironic. Sixteen Candles was praised as feminist because it had a three-dimensional girl as its lead, yet Sixteen Candles also had some misogynistic elements that most teen sex comedies would never have dared. Weird Science, on the other hand, may be aimed at a male audience, but its respect for the female lead is strong.
Lisa is, in fact, the film's true hero. At its simplest definition, a "protagonist" is the character in a story who actively pursues a goal, and the story ends when she either achieves her goal or fails to achieve it.
In Weird Science's first act, the protagonists are Hall and Mitchell-Smith. Their goal is to create their fantasy woman. But once they accomplish that, 13 minutes in, they are no longer the protagonists. They are merely going along for the ride as LeBrock's Lisa takes the wheel.
Lisa's goal is to help these two losers improve their lives, develop the confidence to tackle their problems, and live satisfying lives. Hall and Mitchell-Smith are her biggest obstacles, clinging to the comfort of the known as Lisa pulls them through the dreams they fear pursuing. The story ends when the boys have developed the confidence to date real women their own age and maybe stand up to adults who cause them trouble.
There is plenty here to worry a youth advocate, of course. The fantasy woman of these two 15-year-olds is not a fellow teenager but a 23-year-old woman? (Sadly this is not the first time Hughes pushed the "dating older equals dating up" cliché.) And we should certainly be worried about a movie whose message is that teenagers should have things forced on them by adults who decide what is best for them.
But the film is redeemed by its most unusual element: an adult who understands two teenagers and genuinely wants their dreams to come true. She is effectively a stand in for Hughes, the 30-something filmmaker struggling to make films that genuinely serve the interests of teenaged moviegoers while he is trapped in an industry that considers teenaged audiences unworthy.
Kelly LeBrock and Anthony Michael Hall
The genuine love Lisa has for these teenagers is sharply contrasted against their own parents who may claim to love their children but who really only love the fantasy of a son who honors them with good grades and has no needs of his own. In the film's best scene, Lisa meets Hall's parents and freaks them out. Lisa challenges them. "Do you ever compliment him on his grades? Do you ever compliment him on anything?" As Hall's magical fairy godmother, Lisa knows Hall's needs, and she demonstrates that his needs are worth honoring, even as the parents react with outrage and even as cowardly Hall struggles to placate his parents with false assurances he has no needs.
Lisa is the one who loves the real Hall and wants him to enjoy a satisfying life. She stands up for him to his parents and then teaches him to stand up for himself. This film recognizes young people's need for love and support and nurturing in a way few films do, and Lisa is one of the best heroes young audiences have ever been offered.
Cinematically, the film has many shortcomings, and most of them stem from the film being rushed. If The Breakfast Club bombed, Hughes wanted this course-correcting hit to come quickly. It's a shame. The rush job led to sloppy work. More importantly, if Hughes had still been working on this when The Breakfast Club triumphed, his confidence would have changed his approach.
When Weird Science was finally released (proudly promoted as the new film from the director of The Breakfast Club) Hughes promoted it by emphasizing the parts of the film he should have emphasized while making it: the character-development.
In Hughes' famous interview for Seventeen, he said:
You know those sexy pinup posters people put up in their bedrooms? I always saw them as being kind of silly and vacant. That was to be the point of the movie - that this glistening body in this semi-revealing outfit with this come-on look on the face is a real empty, pointless image to carry around or to look for.
The film, however, takes only the weakest stab at such a message, in a scene near the end where Hall tells his same-age love-interest, "Lisa is everything I ever wanted in a girl, before I knew what I wanted. If I could do it again, I'd make her just like you." This is supposed to signify the teenager turning away from the shallow desires he once had and focusing on someone's finer qualities.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work because Hughes never got around the fleshing out the teenaged girls in this film, let alone giving them finer qualities.
They're, um ....
This film would have been much stronger had Hughes put as much care into creating these love-interests as he put into creating even minor characters in The Breakfast Club. (True story: Rick Moranis, fresh off Ghostbusters, was originally cast to the play the janitor in The Breakfast Club. Hughes replaced Moranis because of a disagreement on how the janitor should be played. Watching Weird Science, one wishes fervently that Hughes had cared enough to even have a thought on how these love-interest characters should be played.)
So what motivates Hall and Mitchell-Smith to give up Lisa and pursue instead these teenaged ciphers? With some generous fan-wanking, we can say this ending signifies the boys growing enough self-respect the reject the ageist "dating older = dating up" idea and to finally recognize the value of people their own age. Maybe. Early in the film, there are suggestions these teenagers envy adults. There's a joke about Hall shaving non-existent facial hair. And going to a bar to hang out with middle-agers is not Lisa's idea; the teenagers describe that as their dream in the film's first scene. At the film's conclusion, there are no suggestions they still envy adults or want to be anything other than the teenagers they are. So this interpretation is plausible. But if Hughes actually intended this, he was mighty subtle about it — and Hughes, even in his most serious films, was never one for subtlety.
It's a shame Hughes was in such a hurry to get this out. Had he still been working on it when The Breakfast Club became his defining hit and revolutionized Hollywood, he would have known it was now okay, even expected, for him to flesh out characters, to take teenagers seriously as both a subject and as an audience. The Breakfast Club taught that lesson to the entire film industry. Unfortunately The Breakfast Club's auteur didn't have the chance to learn his own lesson before completing this film.