In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
Let me start with something a little personal; Weird Science was the first John Hughes movie I ever watched, and I watched it an age I maybe shouldn’t have.
I’m fairly sure it was a school night and I was still in primary school. I recall staying up way past my bedtime and coming across the film on a late-night broadcast on BBC 1. I might have been nine years of age, maybe even ten, but I adored the film. It was zany, and I recall having to suppress my laughter because I didn’t want my parents to hear that I was still awake, and I massively enjoyed it.
I didn’t seek the film out, I came across it more by accident, a by-product of a time when we were still at the mercy of television schedules when it came to planning out an evening’s viewing. Remembering the moment when I first watched Weird Science reminds me of a time when I loved the film.
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It is not a film that has aged well. Like Sixteen Candles, there is so much about Weird Science that might have got overlooked if you just weren’t paying attention enough when you first viewed it. But to look at it through the lens of the year 2020 is to see that it’s a film with a problematic edge that is hard to overlook.
It’s a film positively brimming with the male gaze, filtered through the point of view of two nerdy male characters. Like Revenge of the Nerds, it asks us to sympathise with two teenage male leads and be alright with them sexualising every female who comes their way and who are put down by a plethora of characters who are either physically strong or more popular. This being Hughes, it’s no surprise that we are given early glimpses of actors who would go on to bigger things, in this case, Bill Paxton (who only a year earlier was cast as one of the first victims of The Terminator) and Robert Downey Jr.
If Molly Ringwald was Hughes’ female lead of choice during this period, then Anthony Michael Hall was the male equivalent. He’s basically playing a variation of The Geek from Sixteen Candles (in fact, the characters are interchangeable), and like Ringwald, being an actual teenager made his portrayals that little bit more believable. If Ringwald was chosen to represent what it meant to be a female navigating the tricky world of peer pressure, complex parental relationships and boy troubles, then Hall was the geeky equivalent, playing characters who were obsessed with technology and obtaining the girl who otherwise would never look twice at you.
What’s most disappointing about Weird Science is how it never does anything original with the trope of the male nerd. He gave Hall’s character of Brian in The Breakfast Club layers that made the character vastly different to other nerdy characters of the era, but the two movies either side of it just play the usual storytelling and character beats with nothing new or interesting to say.
What’s equally polarizing about Weird Science is how it approaches burgeoning male sexuality in a film in which two teenagers create a woman in the form of Kelly LeBrock and expects us to be fine with the idea that this thirty-something sex goddess would make out with teenage boys. You can argue that the movie is a fantasy film, so why bother with realism, but it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Problems with sexual conduct did appear to be an issue in Hughes’ movies so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the film goes down this route, but for a writer and director known for a higher level of sweetness in his films, there is a salacious feeling to a lot of Weird Science that becomes hard to chew on the older you get. Sure, watching it as a kid you’d laugh at the antics and the destruction of the house set to that Oingo Boingo song (it still has the ability to get stuck in your head for days, just to warn you), and that random moment when the mutant punks arrive to crash the party complete with a cameo appearance from Vernon Wells is bizarrely strange and funny. But the film is Hughes at his most infantile and unsubtle.
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You can look at Sixteen Candles and wince and even be a tad disturbed at the sexual politics on display, but the central storyline involving the forgotten birthday and the final scene cannot help but evoke a more nostalgic reaction. Same goes for the life lessons learned in The Breakfast Club, and as we’ll see when Hughes delivered arguably his best teen movie in 1986, he could combine high concept comedy with sweetness and brilliant character all without resorting to crude elements.
Released into cinemas in the summer of 1985, the year represented an incredibly busy time for Hughes. This was after all the second of two films he released that year which he wrote and directed, released six months apart, and yet Weird Science and The Breakfast Club are like chalk and cheese. And while we can point out the problematic elements within his detention-set comedy-drama, the film has a potent point to make about the differences between high school sub-sets and was gorgeously observational in its humour and drama. There is none of that to be had here. The best time to watch Weird Science is as a kid, when the critical faculties are that little bit lower. To watch it at any age in adulthood is to invite a level of critical drubbing that is unavoidable.
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It would also mark the last film that Hughes would make with Universal Pictures until 1989’s Uncle Buck. With executive Ned Tanen moving to Paramount Pictures, Hughes would make the move too, and once again would deliver two movies in 1986, albeit handing the directing reigns of one to Howard Deutch, and with it Hughes’ final collaboration with Molly Ringwald.
Both of 1986’s teen comedy-dramas would represent a peak for the Hughes teen formula, with both movies being two of his most famous and one of them being one of his very best, and which would take the male-centred filter of something like Weird Science but apply to it something brilliantly high concept, fun but almost meaningful and poignant as well as hysterically funny.
In the meantime, let’s leave Weird Science in the past. I’m leaving it there on that school night when I stayed up late, one of my few acts of rebellion as a youngster. I think it’s better there.