It’s the future (the film was made in 1990); the gangs are violent, the schools unsafe. The answer: robots. This may not be the succinct tagline that adorns the theatrical one-sheet for Mark L. Lester’s CLASS OF 1999—that would be the much more ambiguous “The ultimate teaching machine…out of control”—but it’s about all you need to make an educated (sorry) decision on whether or not you want to spend ninety-nine minutes of your life watching Lester’s pseudo-sequel to his seminal punks-on-film opus, CLASS OF 1984.
Unlike Lester’s first “class” film, CLASS OF 1999 isn’t an update on the reckless youth flicks that dominated drive-in screens when such a thing mattered. Rather, this is an amalgamation of two sub-sub-genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned together outside of potential canon arguments: robot-as-protector flicks and teacher-as-protector flicks. Think of it as ROBOCOP meets DANGEROUS MINDS or THE SUBSTITUTE meets CHOPPING MALL and you’re on the right track. Like all of those movies, both the teachers and the robots—this time existing as one and the same—are tasked with serving the youth, or at least appearing to do so. From Robocop’s attempts at ridding Detroit’s streets of drugs and random violence to CHOPPING MALL’s robots’ task of making sure the youth time-waste-space of the shopping mall is kept crime free, there is a parallel to—especially in the outwardly mechanical aspect of—the actions of Michelle Pfeiffer and Tom Berrenger’s masqueraded efforts as military trained ‘substitute’ teachers as an ex-marine and ex-mercenary, respectively. And all exist as catalysts for wanton violence, which is why we even bother to tune in.
CLASS OF 1999 also has a lot more going on than can be covered by surveillance/protector/technology power culture as well. It deals explicitly with gang violence both within and outside of school walls as well as with a very specific year that, though is a source of nostalgia for the majority of us watching this now, was a sure sign of doom more than twenty years ago. Unlike other movies that were set on or around the turn of the millennium—END OF DAYS and STRANGE DAYS immediately come to mind, with both specifically involving the much-hyped New Year’s Eve—CLASS OF 1999 makes no mention of End Times or motions towards anything resembling a Y2K. Its timeline seems to exist merely to allow for the chaos to unfold without the need for the trappings of anything taking place in the special effects heavy one year jump to the year 2000. It’s the aesthetic equivalent of comparing THE FIFTH ELEMENT to STREETS OF FIRE and manages to feel more dismal than either.
Beyond its robot/teacher—and likely THE FACULTY inspiring—protector/attacker binary switcheroo and potentially underserved Y2K titular abandon, CLASS OF 1999 does have something else strange to offer the curious viewer: a bleached white Stacy Keach rat tail. Seriously, Keach looks older here than he does in NEBRASKA and it suits his nefarious mad scientist role rather well, which he seems to be having a great time with. And he’s joined by Pam Grier and Malcom McDowell—sans rat tails—who aren’t as typecast here as one may expect, and it lends it a strange air of superiority—relatively speaking, of course—to CLASS OF 1984, even though the latter is the more revered and re-visited film of the two.
Which, I don’t understand. CLASS OF 1999 isn’t exceptional Cinema by any, or even most, means but it is wildly successful in doing what it does. It plays out like a B or C-star studded New Republic Pictures DTV title with a Red Scare-esque pseudo-political agenda that is as far from subtle as a robot violently and repeatedly spanking a student in front of a full class can be. Mark Lester’s career may not be rife with box office success—though he does have the crowd pleasing COMMANDO and FIRESTARTER on his resume—and his work may have been relegated to the DTV and TV movie pool after the early ‘90s, but CLASS OF 1999 could be his magnum opus. It melds genres, tropes and modes of filmmaking in a way that I haven’t seen outside of the likes of the more prolific genre cinema mainstays like Roger Corman or Jess Franco and he manages to sneak in a surprisingly didactic approach to the inanity shouldn’t be ignored. There has been a lot of talk about the Vulgar Auteur in recent years, with Lester’s name rarely—if ever—being mentioned, and if there is a case for his inclusion in that canon of Renny Harlins and Paul W.S. Andersons, this is it.