This February, three more cult classics of cinema are joining the Vestron Collector’s Series. In the first of a trio of reviews, I look at the 1990 movie Class of 1999.
It’s the future, and youth gang violence is at an unimaginable high. When Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell), the principal of Kennedy High School, decides to reclaim his school from the clutches of warring gangs, robotics specialist Dr. Robert Forrest (Stacy Keach) provides androids that have been programmed to dish out education and/or violence according to need.
For me, movies set in dystopian futures are always going to suffer when they’re set a mere decade after they’re shot. I mean – how bad did they think things were going to get in 10 years? A lot of what goes on in Class of 1999 is derivative of things we’ve seen before: part 1987’s Robocop (ruined cityscapes), part 1984’s Terminator (robots disguised as humans), part 1979’s Max Max (pretty much all the costumes, set designs and vehicle armour), part 1989’s Cyborg (Vincent Klyn’s contact lenses), even part 1986’s Chopping Mall (three murderous robots that are out of control). Some of the classroom scenes reminded me a bit of 1985’s The Breakfast Club too, actually, but that’s probably just me spoiling for a fight with the film’s cult following.
Being so obviously inspired by other movies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love those movies. It’s just that Class of 1999 doesn’t do anything new with any of the concepts or design ideas that it borrows. The structure of the film is reminiscent of 1985’s Commando (also directed by Mark L. Lester) in that we have a protracted closing fight sequence that lasts nearly a quarter of the movie. Unlike Commando, though, the opening portion of Class of 1999 is unfortunately a bit lacklustre and, actually, pretty terrible. There’s a very early scene in which the Razorheads spot the recently paroled leader of rival gang, the Blackhearts (Cody, played by Bradley Gregg). It’s an easy spot – he’s driving through their turf in a bright red car. Instead of shooting out the tyres with their [very many] automatic weapons and then simply slaughtering everyone in the car, they decide instead to chase them, periodically firing their weapons seemingly into the sky, before a failure to swerve even one inch to the left leads them to crash into a strategic pile of junk, The A-Team style.
Then there’s all the stuff set in the school itself, where the robot teachers occasionally murder a student for their transgressions. And, of course, we know that’s awful. Obviously – that’s awful. But these are violent gang members in a demilitarised wasteland set in a dystopian future – how much are we meant to care about these people, really?
But – seriously, that fight sequence. The final section of the film is where the special effects team (Eric Allard and Rick Stratton) really show their mettle. Relying entirely on practical effects, the showdown between the cyborg teachers and the remains of the rival gangs (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say) is hugely entertaining. There are moments where you wonder how on earth certain things were done, and a trawl through the special features provides some fascinating insights into an age of film-making before CGI. For me, the artistry in this sequence outshines any of the film’s forebears, and leaves you wondering why a shorter, tighter movie couldn’t have been made here.
On the whole, then, it’s an enjoyable movie, let down only by a largely uninspiring script pasted over an already thin storyline. It’s the final showdown that really make this movie worth watching. That the upgrade to Blu-ray hasn’t really dated this sequence is truly a testament to the special effects team.
Special features on this new Blu-ray release include the usual director commentary and interviews with directors of photography and screenwriters. The best featurette by a country mile is the interview with special effects creators Allard and Stratton: how they achieved what they did with the budget they had is truly phenomenal.