Good cast can't save this dead-in-the-water sci-fi thriller
What would you do if you found out that your high school's faculty was being taken over by aliens? That's the basic question asked by THE FACULTY, a science fiction thriller that tries to scare with its idea, but instead continuously relies on the tired "jump" shocks. Admittedly, I wanted to like this movie, judging from the previews. It looked well-directed and creepy, but this is just a case of the trailer being better than the actual film.
Kevin Williamson is today's hottest screenwriter. He revived the teen-slasher genre with his superb Scream, and went on to craft two more good horror films. But something tells me Williamson is not the great screenwriter we all thought he once was. Maybe he was just a man with one good idea, and that was it. Someone needs to tell Williamson about something called "setup," the first part of the film that allows the audience to get ready for the events that follow. If the film Life is Beautiful has too much of a setup, THE FACULTY has no setup whatsoever. Yet which is better? Life is Beautiful is a carefully crafted comedy surrounding the horrific events of the Holocaust, and comes off as a very good film. THE FACULTY is a carefully crafted science fiction thriller surrounding the horrific events of a local high school, and comes off a very bad one.
THE FACULTY begins so quickly you may forget you are watching the film and not another preview. The football team of the local high school is practicing while getting orders barked at them by Coach Willis (Robert Patrick). That night, Willis stalks down Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) where another faculty member (Piper Laurie) stabs her with a pair of scissors. The next day, all three of them are still healthy, alive... and drinking lots and lots of water. Mind you, this is just the very first five minutes. Unfortunately, these first five minutes literally destroy the film. I've seen that the endings of certain films can ruin the entire movie-going experience, but I don't recall ever seeing a film ruined by its beginning.
Why is this so bad? Labeled as a science fiction/thriller, your average audience moviegoer will expect to be thrilled. Unfortunately, the thrill factor is ripped out in this opening sequence. We know from the start that the faculty is being infested and taken over by aliens. There is no doubt about it. But just imagine for a second how exciting it would have been to not know if the faculty was being taken over. Instead of cheap scares, we could get high suspense, not quite sure if the so-called infested faculty members are actually aliens. Perhaps the paranoid teenagers have seen one too many films, and those films have subconsciously caused the students to perceive the faculty's strange behavior as alien. In essence, it could be an updated version of The Crucible. Alas, that sort of suspense is not present here. Instead, we are relegated to a sorry rehash of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
And there is yet another flaw in Williamson's screenplay. Where Scream made fun of the horror/slasher genre, THE FACULTY merely wants to replicate the old science fiction thrillers. Unfortunately, Williamson also wants to come off as original as possible by adding dialogue explaining the similarities to those aforementioned films. One character even goes so far as to say, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers was merely a copy of The Puppet Masters." My question: does adding dialogue such as this make it new? Absolutely not. Instead, it sets itself up for comparison to those films. And while those films may not be the best from the 50s and 60s, they are certainly better than anything portrayed on screen here.
Williamson has gathered a massively cliched group of teenage characters, supposedly out to exploit those cliches and break them down with his dialogue. There is the computer-geek Casey (Elijah Wood), football quarterback Stan (Shawn Wayne Hatosy), his cheerleader girlfriend Delilah (Jordana Brewster), brilliant but misguided Zeke (Josh Hartnett), white trash Stokely (Clea DuVall), and the innocent new student Marybeth (Laura Harris). All of these students must group together as the alien species soon begins to take over every student. Admittedly, the story here is a good idea, but one ruined by ridiculous circumstances and the stupidity of the alien species. There is a scene where all six students walk through the hallways of their school, knowing all too well that every single student has become a host to the alien species. Any intelligent species set on taking over the world would never allow these six to roam the halls free. Later on in the film, a chase sequence ensues as the faculty and students try to grab them. Now, what kind of species is this? These aliens make the ones in Independence Day look smart.
It's a fortunate thing that the cast here is good, otherwise this film could have been even more worse than it already is. Elijah Wood (hot off his miserable turn in Deep Impact) gives a surprisingly effective performance, turning the wide-eyed computer geek into an actual character. Even Josh Hartnett (who we last saw in Halloween: H20) gives us a good and likable character. Clea DuVall is very funny as the sarcastic Stokely, and Jordana Brewster is delightfully ditsy without being stupid. Shawn Hatosy is probably the only one in the cast that doesn't quite work. His performance is wooden and annoying. Laura Harris is mostly there to stand around naked (arguably her most talented aspect). Of the faculty, Robert Patrick is extremely effective as an evil coach, while Salma Hayek is surprisingly unattractive as a sick nurse (though, once she's an alien, she looks a lot better). But it is Famke Janssen who steals each and every scene. Janssen consistenly does great work, even if it is in terrible films (Deep Rising and now this one). Piper Laurie isn't really given enough screen time, which is a shame. Bebe Neuwirth is also limited on the screen, which is a sin in my opinion. And if you are film-knowledgable, you will more than likely recognize Harry Knowles from the "Ain't-It-Cool" website. His performance is a couple seconds long and not very good.
THE FACULTY is rated R for violence, language, drug use, nudity, and some gore. Robert Rodriguez is a talented director, but he needs to land a good script. His style is visually appealing but even that can't make up for the tepidity of the screenplay. But not all of the blame can be put on Williamson. Rodriguez isn't a director of suspense, as suspense requires the ability of restraint. Rodriguez is a director of excess, and here is a motion picture that will hopefully be relegated to the video store shelves, never to be heard from again.
*1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie