Revisiting Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty

Robert Rodriguez' 90s sci-fi spoof The Faculty may be a messy mash-up of influences, but it's still a really fun mess, Aliya writes...

Mix Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with The Thing. Throw in some Terminator, a spoonful of The Breakfast Club, and a pinch of The Stepford Wives, and you’ve got a big mess of a movie set in a school that’s being taken over by a conformist alien, one teacher at a time. You’ve got the very funny, occasionally scary, quite gory, and extremely entertaining 1998 Robert Rodriguez film called The Faculty.

Casey Connor (played by Elijah Wood, with a character surname firmly rooted in Terminator mythology) is the punching bag of his High School. When eating lunch alone at the football field he finds a strange brown sac in the grass; when he takes it to the science teacher, Mr Edward Furlong (played by Jon Stewart and bearing another Terminator-related name), it is proclaimed to be a new species of parasite that thrives in water. No prizes for guessing that it’s not a very friendly species.

When the teachers start to act out of character, and Casey witnesses the apparent assimilation of one of them, he ends up as our unlikely hero. And he collects a group of recognisable school misfits to help him save the world. Zeke, the drug-selling bad boy who also happens to be keeping it quiet that he’s a science genius (Josh Hartnett), and Stokely, the Goth girl who fights a daily stream of abuse (Clea Duvall) are the most interesting characters out of the students. 

There’s also the new girl, the most popular girl in school, the football hero (all with a twist) – but have any of them already been infiltrated by the parasite? There are tests and tensions, The Thing-style, and a lot of sharp, knowing dialogue on what usually happens during alien invasion literature and films, courtesy of writer Kevin Williamson. Williamson wrote horror revamp Scream (1996) and that’s a good indication of what you get in The Faculty. It’s all about examining the tropes of science fiction with a smart, funny angle. Half of the fun in this film is in identifying where you first came across a certain character’s name or saw a particular special effect. For instance, there’s a brilliant moment with a head on legs that I defy you to watch and not think of a certain John Carpenter film.

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Another great aspect of The Faculty, apart from its appeal to all fans of science fiction, is the cast. There are some famous names amongst the students, but the teachers really steal the show with very little screen time. Bebe Neuwirth plays the head teacher with a disconnected, shivery smile. Salma Hayek is the tired school nurse with allergies. Famke Janssen is the nervous, strait-laced English teacher.

Robert Patrick (yes, there’s another Terminator connection) is the very unpleasant coach, and the only truly frightening turn is by Piper Laurie. Laurie is an actor of such self-possession that she has to simply turn her eyes to the camera and you shudder. It’s to the film’s detriment that there’s no great final showdown between students and teachers, and Piper Laurie in particular is missing for much of the film’s second half.

There are other problems with the film’s ending, where it tries to tie everything up too neatly and happily, and ends up suggesting that our favourite misfit students really just want to be like everyone else after all. But at least the unveiling of the big alien is not a disappointment. Unlike many other alien films, the creature itself is big and nasty and convincing enough to make you believe it. And the showdown with Casey Connor is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to – you guessed it – The Terminator. 

Rodriguez drives the action and doesn’t let the pace flag, as you would expect from the director of such entertaining movies as El Mariachi (and remake Desperado), From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, and the Machete Films. He uses some neat tricks, such as freeze-framing while he flashes the character’s names up on screen at the beginning to give it a quirky edge. The action sequences are particularly good, and there’s an opening sequence involving the head teacher that delivers a lot of tension. Running around the deserted school late at night, trying to find a door that hasn’t been locked – this brings early Buffy The Vampire Slayer firmly to mind (season three of Buffy was underway in 1998/99 so she was in her last year at Sunnydale High).

In fact, out of all the films that The Faculty gleefully steals from, it’s Buffy that it reminds me of the most. The misfits battling foes that the rest of the town seem strangely unbothered about, with intelligence and wit on their side, brings to mind nothing so much as the Scooby Gang. But the great strength of Buffy was that it never wanted to bring its characters back to a recognisable normality – even after they left school, Xander and Willow trod a very different path, happy to remain outsiders and date witches, vengeance demons, and so on. It was always better, if hard work, to be different.

But that’s an unfair comparison – Buffy clocked up seven seasons, and The Faculty has just 90 minutes to make the same point. When the mainstream is infiltrated and becomes morally dubious (removing free will, making all women dress suggestively for some reason, having to drink endless cups of water, take your pick), who is left to stand up and fight? Only the dispossessed. And it’s particularly easy to root for Zeke, who affirms quite happily that he’s a contradiction, and Stokely, even if Elijah Wood never really looks more than mildly concerned at the turn of events. 

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The Faculty was a modest success at the time of release and seems to be going down the path of obscurity while Scream gets remembered with more affection. Which is a shame, because there really is a lot to enjoy in the performances, the special effects and the dialogue. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a very enjoyable one, particularly if you love the genre. But maybe that’s where the problem lies – is it more difficult to effectively spoof the science fiction film than the horror film?

Scream, Cabin In The Woods, Shaun Of The Dead, and many more have a clear blueprint. Moments of horror, gore and humour intermingle; it’s not easy to do well, but it is a recognisable pattern. If you’re going to spoof science fiction, where do you begin? What elements belong to all science fiction films? Even from the same source material, movies can vary dramatically. Take the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and compare it to the 1978 version. The pods may be the same, but the threat they represent is very different.

Perhaps the most successful and cohesive science fiction spoof is Galaxy Quest (1999), which had its sights firmly set on just one source – Star Trek. But The Faculty has so many different influences that it’s difficult to see what unites them. How is the future-scare of The Terminator similar to the fear of an ancient invader in The Thing?

The truth is that there really isn’t anything that unites them apart from that umbrella concept of science fiction. And so it bears repeating that The Faculty is very definitely a big mess of a movie. But if you love all things sci-fi, it’s a good mess.