All throughout the 1980s, moviegoers were bombarded with a number of films that contained elements of science fiction, fantasy and adventure, and more often than not these movies were set in the real world and filled with regular people. Though the lines were very blurred, these films varied in both tone and in their target audience, with some being more for children (Goonies; E.T.) and others being more for adults (The Terminator; Robocop), while there were those that sort of met right in the middle (Ghostbusters; Back to the Future). And then there were movies that targeted the teen audience, such as Real Genius, Weird Science, and of course writer/director Jonathan R. Betuel’s My Science Project.
What makes movies such as My Science Project and others from that era so enjoyable is the way in which they captured youthful imagination. There’s a true sense of wonderment and curiosity to be found in these types of films, and often these feelings come from putting characters in situations that challenges them to embrace either adulthood or the child within them. In the case of My Science Project, it’s the former, as the film’s lead character, Michael (John Stockwell), is at a point in his life where he really needs to grow up.
Form a heart-to-heart conversation with his teacher (played by Dennis Hopper) early in the film, it becomes apparent that Michael is a smart kid. Within this same scene, it also becomes very obvious that Michael's not living up to his potential, as he's far more concerned about his car (which he lovingly refers to as his GOAT) than he is in his own future. Michael’s a brilliant kid who lacks drive, and at this integral point in his life as a high school senior, he needs to turn things around or face some heavy consequences.
Michael's lack of motivation and love of his car is not only hurting him scholastically, it has taken a toll on his relationship as well. Again, Michael is more concerned with his car than he is romancing his girlfriend, who breaks up with him for those very reasons (to be fair, though, her expectations are a bit much). The breakup bothers Michael, as he doesn’t seem to think there were any issues with their relationship, which shows how little he has paid attention to anything other than his car. At this point in Michael’s life, the world is simply moving on without him, and he will be left behind if he doesn’t step things up.
Michaels immature nature become the catalyst for the events to come, as his lack of focus on school work has put him in a position where he needs to do well on his science project. If he doesn’t, he will not receive a diploma. Since Michael has not been putting much effort into his studies, he has no science project. As a result, Michael, very characteristically decides to take the easy way out by going to an old junkyard that was once used for military testing in the hopes that he can find something to pass off as his science project.
Joined by the class nerd and eventual love interest, Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck), Michael stumbles upon a hidden underground bunker at the military complex where he finds a strange orb. It's mesmerizing glow immediately captures Michael’s attention, making it an obvious item to turn in as his science project. Due to the film’s opening scene involving a military discovery of a UFO, it’s already apparent that this orb is not of this world. This is further cemented in the next few days, as every time Michael and his best friend, Vince (Fisher Stevens), mess with the contraption, something bizarre happens. It isn’t long before Michael and Vince learn that the orb can manipulate time, and through a series of fantastical events, the orb opens up a time portal in their high school.
After learning that Ellie is trapped inside the school, Michael is now in a position where he has the opportunity to man up and save her from this hostile situation. As a result, Michael, Vince and the school geek, Sherman (Raphael Sbarge), enter the high school to rescue Ellie, only to find themselves facing off against a number of deadly antagonists from various points in time, including Vietnamese soldiers, dinosaurs and aliens from the future.
Now, this is where things get interesting for Michael as a character, as his route towards becoming a man involves acting out the fantasies of almost every young boy (and some young girls, too, I assume). Killing aliens and dinosaurs with machine guns, without any consequences, is the stuff that dreams are made of when you’re a kid (well, at least me). it’s this fantastical situation, however, that forces Michael to think about someone other than himself and, more importantly, his car. Saving Ellie is all that matters to Michael, as she is the one person who has inspired him to, quite simply, be more concerned with something other than his car.
Michael and Ellie’s relationship is truly what drives his transformation towards becoming an adult. What I find most enjoyable about the way in which their relationship is portrayed is how different Michael and Ellie are from one another. As previously noted, Michael is a gearhead with a reputation as a cool dude, while Ellie, on the other hand, is a glasses wearing bookworm who has absolutely no interest in cars. The two characters are true opposites, yet the fact that they are opposites is never made to be a big deal by the characters or the film itself.
While My Science Project is a lesser-known film from the era, it shouldn’t take away from the value that the film provides in terms of its characters. It’s a movie I greatly enjoyed as a child, and now, as an adult, I still find it to be a fun, nostalgic romp that echoes back to the days of yesteryear; where movies weren’t afraid to be sincere and innocence was embraced by adults and children alike.