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Rico Torres

Teachers' Pests: Laura Harris and Josh Hartnett plot against authority figures in Robert Rodriguez's new film, 'The Faculty.'

Kevin Williamson recycles himself in 'The Faculty'

By Richard von Busack

ALIENATION ON TODAY'S high school campuses is the subject of The Faculty. Body-snatching space parasites, about the size, shape and color of Jerusalem crickets, infiltrate Herrington High School. Once established, they work down the lines of power to the bottom of the social barrel. Thus, the school's rejects are the only ones able to put up any resistance. The no-hopers include Zeke (Josh Harnett), a smart, ironical designer-drug dealer; Stokely (Clea DuVall), a scrawny Goth, raccoon-eyed from mascara; and Marybeth (Laura Harris), a nicey-nice girl who has just arrived from Georgia. Thanks to Zeke's powdered drug "scat"--sold in the tubes of hollowed Bic pens--humanity has a weapon against the body-snatchers.

Robert Rodriguez's usually thrilling visuals are dull here. The hand-held camera looks more like budget-shaving than suspense-building. And the digital effects are nothing new, except for an eerie scene in which one of the little buggers metamorphoses in an aquarium, growing long, red filaments and minute, razor-sharp teeth. The Faculty is a step down for Rodriguez, whose From Dusk Till Dawn easily trumps pretty much the entirety of screenwriter Kevin Williamson's oeuvre after Scream. Maybe that's because Williamson has been busily recycling Scream for the two years since the original came out.

In The Faculty, Williamson is a hair away from plagiarism, which he tries to excuse through some of his usual Godardian frame-breaking devices. As has been observed elsewhere, Williamson's trick of having two characters reiterate the plot of an old movie saves him from coming up with his own plot. (The spiral seems to be tightening: here, the old movies referred to are I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream.) For the most part, Williamson is stealing from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The screenwriter tries to make a clean getaway by staging a dialogue between Stokely and Casey (Elijah Wood), who compares the plots of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters. According to Stokely, Body Snatchers is supposed to be a rip-off of the former. Maybe so, but Finney's arrangement of the material--as a bottom-up fermentation, with ordinary people being unable to trust each other--is more interesting than Heinlein's top-down arrangement, with the authorities becoming zombified first. Heinlein fans always power-trip themselves up eventually: The Faculty ends with the losers firmly absorbed back into the ruling elite at the school. Stokely has the quickest and most depressing makeover since Ally Sheedy got the infamous pink-ribbon treatment in the last reel of The Breakfast Club.

The Faculty seems to be a Buffy the Vampire Slayer pastiche. Buffy's appeal is that it mixes adolescent social problems with supernatural plots. Thus, things that seem like matters of life and death to high school students literally become a matter of life and death. In The Faculty, the handling of the social problems of the teens is cursory and clichéd. The set designs of a battered, filthy high school are a nice try, but the filmmakers can't establish the right mood of awfulness, and the borrowed bits of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" playing on the soundtrack don't help. ("We don't need no education." If we had one, we wouldn't be listening to "The Wall." Nor would we call Kevin Williamson a master of suspense.)

The Faculty (R; 101 min.), directed by Robert Rodriguez, written by Kevin Williamson, photographed by Enrique Chediak and starring Josh Hartnett, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie and Robert Patrick.

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From the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of Metro.

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