Under-staffed for satire

Movie: The Faculty

Our Rating: 1.00

At first blush, the plot of "The Faculty" seemed rife with satirical possibilities. Take one typical American high school, then inject an alien life form that rapidly assimilates the teaching staff as part of a shadowy conspiracy of world domination. Imply that the student body is next. Leave a handful of teen-age outsiders to confront the unfolding menace head-on. What better impetus could there be for a biting parody of the alienation most children feel as they struggle to discern the motives of the scholarly adults who so often strike them as inhuman creatures from another world?

There's only one catch: Writer Kevin Williamson ("Scream") doesn't pen biting parodies. He scripts stupid, ugly, self-amused movies, in which loudly enumerating the clichés of a genre (and then reviving them yourself, one by one) is all that's required to lay claim to the mantle of the spoof.

As a result, most of the time we waste watching "The Faculty" is spent listening to its cast of pubescent misfits broadcast the story points stolen lock, stock and barrel from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Puppet Masters" and "The X-Files" -- works that have genuinely attained the heights of otherworldly paranoia "The Faculty" can only stumble toward. Somehow, all of this lowbrow, postmodernist navel-gazing is accomplished while the kids in question are running for their lives down the hallways of the same Dilapidated, Underfunded High School Set that's been the backdrop for "Dangerous Minds," "The Substitute," and God knows how many other blackboard- jungle melodramas. For director Robert Rodriguez, it's an unfortunate dip into the land of crass commercialism; for Williamson, it's cynical business as usual.

Despite the film's title, its focus is on the kids, man, the kids. And what a colorless bunch they are: Elijah Wood's portrayal of the nerdly Casey (an alleged poindexter who would be BMOC in any non-Hollywood classroom) demonstrates that the former child star shouldn't count on any more of a seamless transition to grown-up stardom than Anthony Michael Hall enjoyed. The analogy is an unavoidable one, as the film's central characters are hollow and intentional mirror images of the homeroom archetypes we remember so well from "The Breakfast Club." As black-clad loner Stokely, Clea Duvall is a frighteningly accurate Sheedy-alike, though it's scarier still that Williamson doesn't realize that heavily mascaraed Bauhaus wannabes have become the rule rather than the exception in the 13 years between the two films.

"The Faculty's" sole subtle note is the dawning awareness that its only protagonist who isn't a "Club" refugee is also the one with a hidden, sinister agenda. He (or she, mystery fans) is unrecognizable to us as a familiar stereotype, therefore he/she must be an alien. Xenophobically tweaking John Hughes is the highest level of cleverness this film can muster.

If the entire production wasn't so pathetically bereft of bite, a thinking man's audience could become fairly irate at its depiction of the teaching profession. Before their extraterrestrial makeover, the instructors are shown to be uniformly ineffectual and dispirited. Only after they've been transformed into something half-human do they display any amount of capability or confidence -- an irony that no one involved in the making of the film seems to grasp.

Then again, with such B-list thespians as Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek and Famke Janssen playing the faculty, who could expect a retread of "To Sir with Love?" The saddest sight is that of gifted comedian Jon Stewart, inexplicably slumming through the thankless part of a science teacher who isolates the mutant genus in his bio lab, yet can't even make it into the pages of the school paper with his discovery. Why Stewart ever took this role is beyond human ken. He's not on the screen often, but when he isn't, you can almost hear him banging his head against the hall lockers in frustrated shame, counting every second until the new season of "The Daily Show" comes around to rescue him.

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