Mark L. Lester/ US/ 1990/ 99 mins
On Blu-ray from Mon 25 Feb 2019
Nothing dates quite so swiftly as a vision of the future. There’s a real irony in how sci-fi narratives say so much about the times in which they’re created. Commando director Mark L. Lester’s Class of 1999 may be concerned with the turn of the Millennium but in attitude and aesthetic, it’s none-more-80s. As we’re riding the crest of a nostalgic wave for that tasteless decade, there’s no better time for a reissue. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and frankly nonsensical in places; but it’s also surprisingly well made and is far more fun than the vast majority of the lazy revivalist homages we’ve seen recently.
In the 1990s, student violence has grown exorbitantly, to the extent that some schools have closed. This gang warfare has led to the creation of lawless ‘free-fire zones’, in which police will not set foot. Capitalism and education collide and not-at-all sinister corporation MegaTech joins forces with the education board in an attempt to solve this massive problem. The bastard fruit of this murky union is the introduction of three military androids reconfigured as teachers. It isn’t long before the three droids go violently beyond their objectives and the students are forced to fight back.
There is little about Class of 1999 that makes any sense. Why do the gangs dutifully turn up to school (checking in all semi-automatic weapons along the way)? Why does the headmaster allow his daughter to attend this charnel house? Why does there only appear to be three teachers? And why does one of the androids sport a pipe outside the school, when it isn’t necessary to keep up the charade? Nevertheless, this rampant stupidity, along with the genuine skill in its construction, makes it a real pleasure. It does help that there are great character actors enjoying themselves immensely, such as Malcolm McDowell, a limbo period Pam Grier (post-Blaxploitation and pre-Jackie Brown), and a maniacal Stacey Keach with a resplendent Karl Lagerfeld mullet.
Class of 1999 is an eccentric chimera of multitudinous influences, but this doesn’t detract from the simple pleasures it offers. Part of the fun is picking apart its magpie nest structure and spotting the impeccable sources from which it has borrowed. The armed student insurrection nods to Lindsay Anderson‘s counter-culture classic If… (one suspects the casting of McDowell as the hapless headmaster is no coincidence), the sartorial choices of the gangs are straight out of The Warriors and Mad Max, and the androids are obviously a lo-fi riff on The Terminator. Elsewhere there are shady boardroom dealings that evoke Paul Verhoeven‘s Robocop and Lester was also clearly inspired by the Dutchman’s satirical sense.
For a film like Class of 1999 to work, it has to be so-bad-it’s-good, or it has to commit to its premise and go for glory. Fortunately, Lester is a fine action director and for what it sets out to achieve, the film is a triumph. Its flaws are obvious, and a better balance of spectacle and satire was achieved with similar themes a decade later in Battle Royale, but Class of 1999 stretches minimal resources with impressive elasticity and deserves a new, wider audience with this reissue.