“The Faculty” wasn’t particularly well received on the occasion of its Christmas Day 1998 release, opening in fifth place that weekend — well below fellow holiday offerings “Patch Adams” and “Stepmom,” but also taking in less than the hanging-in-there “Prince Of Egypt” and “You’ve Got Mail.” If hearing “The Sign,” “Waterfalls” or other once-ubiquitous ‘90s hits can reduce particularly weak-minded children of that decade to reflexively inane squealing, most movies don’t have the same effect; except as .gif fodder, they don’t pass fast enough to provide that quick hit of instant nostalgic gratification. It is, nonetheless, “The Faculty”’s 15th anniversary, and it is a teen movie (OMG THE ‘90S), and nothing says “measured appreciation” like “nostalgia-baiting, internet-friendly revisitation posted on an arbitrary but chronologically appropriate date.” Shall we?
The plot was accurately summed up by star Clea DuVall in the pages of “Spin” as “‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ meets ‘The Breakfast Club.’” Indeed: a disaffected jock who’s just quit football (Shawn Hatosy), a small and frequently-beaten-up, unathletically-inclined student photographer (Elijah Wood) and so on band together to combat the threat of mass pod people invasion. In terms of it-could-never-happen-now characterization, note Duvall’s Stokely “Stokes” Carmichael, a generically glowering alterna-whatever who tells people she’s a lesbian so they’ll leave her alone (!), even though she’s quickly revealed to be totally straight (phew). This characterization could never happen now: it’s less datedly offensive than simply inexplicable. (Why fear lesbians? Do they possess tentacular vaginae dentatae?)
In the corpus of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, “The Faculty”’s no “Scream” (any of them) but stands above 2005’s rock-bottom “Cursed” or 1999’s unfondly unremembered “Teaching Mrs. Tingle.” For purposes of lazy nostalgia, it benefits primarily from its retroactively novel casting of Jon Stewart as a goateed science teacher as well as its charmingly pre-Columbine idea of what school violence looks like. When it’s morning and lunchtime on campus, there’s a pogrom-esque scale of beatdowns taking place across the schoolyard, with nerds being gleefully swung crotch-first into flagpoles and generally gun-free exaggerated mayhem closer to “Rock ‘N Roll High School” than the shooting-every-month reality we’ve gradually become accustomed to. The lead is Josh Hartnett, who’s still surviving if not really thriving, with a resume this past half-decade composed entirely of not-quite-even-under-the-radar titles (“I Come With The Rain,” “Girl Walks Into A Bar”); none of the remaining cast have fallen off completely off the map like, say, a good third of the “Dazed And Confused” roster.
Contemporary criticism largely focused on chewing out Williamson for indulging in more rote meta-reflexivity; with people (wrongly!) annoyed by what they perceived as “Scream 2”’s unforgivably diminishing returns, it was all too easy to (rightly) turn on a movie that has a character repeatedly recap “Body Snatchers” when it’s time to figure out how to kill the invaders. (“The Faculty” also steals an entire sequence from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but since no one said that title out loud that seems to have been less troublesome.) In a move that seems too apropos to not have been deliberate, the soundtrack’s heavy on covers by ‘90s types, allegedly highlighted by “Another Brick In The Wall” as recapped by Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morellos and the Porno for Pyros rhythm section. There are a lot of dead links on the internet I wish were extant, but you can still access a contemporary MTV article on this important development, with a quote from Elijah Wood himself. (“That’s awesome...Classic people...the fact that [Pink Floyd] let them cover this song is, it's something they approve of. That's something.”)
For topicality, “The Faculty” turned to two unlikely places: The Youth Drug Menace and, oddly, the ever-ongoing crisis of slashed funding to public school arts programs. The former’s treated cursorily, with bet-hedging ambivalence: drugs are bad, especially the concoctions Hartnett makes and distributes to be snorted out of pens, which lead to hysterical laughter and the shakes (effectively it’s caffeinated nitrous). Still, ad hoc narcotics defeat the aliens, so maybe the parents of America should chill a bit.
But after considering the soundtrack, the all-Tommy Hilfiger-clad teen cast (an early, casually sinister premonition of things to come), the wildly distracting cameo from then-on-the-up-and-up fanboy internet pioneer Harry Knowles and the sparse and unimpressive CGI, the most period-flavorful aspect of the film is its early emphasis on slashes to public funding. With Robert Patrick’s bona fides as a nightmare high school football coach established in the first scene, we cut to a faculty meeting where the teachers learn the bad news: no field trips, no new computers, no musical production, but all the funding for pigskin remains in place. But but but — no buts, says the principal; that’s what the small town lives for, and that’s what keeps money flowing into school coffers.
Funding cuts to public school electives are a hot topic to this day. As a public school elementary kid of the ‘90s, it subjectively felt like this was only now becoming a public think-of-the-children issue, a change reflected on-screen by the tapering-off end of the public-school-from-hell cycle that started in the ‘80s (“The Principal,” “The Substitute,” “Dangerous Minds” et al.), a change in concerns lukewarmly reflected by a very tiny streak of movies emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts and their constant endangerment by uncaring administrators and uncomprehending school districts. What contemporary works might “The Faculty” ultimately have the most in common with? Maybe not its claimed antecedents; try it sandwiched in the middle of a triple-feature of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Music Of The Heart.”