Just whiskers away from being really snazzy, "The Faculty" still manages to make for a fun night out. Though the movie hasn't been the "Scream"-sized hit the producers were hoping for (though it was penned by "Scream" writer Kevin Williamson), it's still playing in the theaters, and if you're looking for a respite from all the prestige holiday releases, you might try it. There's something about its honest, good-natured junkiness that feels like a relief.
The plot weds "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to teen-movie schlock. An evil alien thingy (the sort of thing Slate's David Edelstein once called "a slimy wangdoodle") comes down and starts taking over high school teachers. Like the pods in "Body Snatchers," this puppy's got global domination on its mind. Soon the aliens are taking over the kids, starting with the most popular and influential. Enter our heroes, nerds, stoners and screw-ups who begin to suspect something is going on and find themselves outrunning the fast-advancing alien hordes.
The idea of having outsiders battle the forces of conformity doesn't have the resonance it did in Philip Kaufman and W.D. Richter's 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," largely because these victims don't have the oddball singularity that Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum and Donald Sutherland did in that picture. There's the well-intentioned kid who wants to give up the football team for academics (Shawn Wayne Hatosy), the scandal-hunting editor of the school paper (Jordana Brewster), the sunny Southern belle (Laura Harris) transplanted from Atlanta, the neglected rich kid (Josh Hartnett) who turns a fast buck by keeping his classmates in dope and condoms and the whipping-boy nerd (Elijah Wood). They're agreeable enough, just a little bland. The exception is Clea DuVall's Stokely, with her freckled face as hard as a piece of marble some cynical artist sculpted with a permanent sneer. Stokely dresses in black (natch), tells everyone she's a lesbian and can't ask for the time of day without making it sound like an accusation. Stokely is the sort of kid who makes teachers and parents and even her schoolmates throw up their hands in frustration. She isn't buying any of the high school spirit horseshit. And you'd have to be a creep not to love her.
(A word about the much pooh-poohed promotional deal that clothes the young cast entirely in Tommy Hilfiger duds: I realize the pressure commercial sponsors can exert on movies. But I'd be more concerned if the pictures they gravitated to weren't such blatantly commercial enterprises to begin with. I recently listened to an academic railing against the product placements in "Godzilla." But who goes to "Godzilla" expecting artistic freedom? Academics, that's who.)
I didn't much care for Williamson's script for "Scream." The acclaim for it as postmodern satire struck me as a sham, a way of getting by with a lousy movie by telling the audience you know you're making a lousy movie. And splatter-movie violence (for me, at least) has nothing to do with the sensuous pleasure of being scared; it's always just been unpleasant. But here, after the requisite gory opening, director Robert Rodriguez ("Desperado," "From Dawn Till Dusk") finds a good cartoon tone for the violence. When Hartnett rips the blade off a paper cutter, it's so outsized and ludicrous you just find yourself giggling at the carnage you know is a few frames away. There's a striking effect of a goldfish-sized alien sprouting willowy red feelers in a tank of water, and a couple other effects that are doozies: a full-sized alien changing -- in the blink of an eye -- to its human form in the school swimming pool. And later, as it walks in its human form, casting a many-tentacled shadow.
It's too bad Williamson didn't bother to make explicit the allure of turning into an alien (it appears to give the women teachers a makeover, but doesn't do so much for the men). He just uses it as a pop metaphor for conformity. But his swiping of the "Body Snatchers" premise (or his liftings from "Carrie," "Blue Velvet" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," among others) didn't much bother me. And he's got a blessedly light touch with the teen-alienation stuff -- the movie doesn't indulge in any John Hughes-style sanctimony. Some of the dialogue among the kids has the authentic heartlessness of high school, and several of his pop culture references are up-to-the-minute clever without feeling showy.
The appeal of high school movies is the promise that we're getting some revenge for what we went through ourselves, and the quick sketches of the faculty deliver it. Here are nastily funny caricatures of every hack, burnout and do-gooder you remember: the history teacher (Daniel Von Bargen) with the perpetually loosened tie who seems to be melting -- Jabba-like -- into his own resentment; the young science teacher (the dry Jon Stewart) who wants to come on like a hip dude; the brisk, competent principal (Bebe Neuwirth) who's frazzling around the edges; and the easily intimidated drudge (Famke Janssen). The movie could do more with the football coach (Robert Patrick); perhaps the joke is that he's an asshole before an alien gets anywhere near him. But Piper Laurie's drama teacher -- a dimpled mess one day, fretting about getting the money to put on "Guys and Dolls," and a coolly efficient, apple-cheeked monster the next -- is a flaky triumph.
It's problematic that the heroes discover a solution that will allow the people who've been taken over to become human once again. The picture might have seemed too hopeless without it (they'd have lost all their family and friends), but it does prevent the staging of a kids vs. teachers showdown where they let things rip. It's unlikely that "The Faculty" will give teens (the ones not prevented from getting in by the R rating) the rapt pleasure or shivers of recognition that "Carrie" gave an earlier generation of high schoolers. It's hard to imagine them sitting through this picture the way some of us watched Carrie killing off her tormentors, sighing in perfect contentment: "At last, someone understands me." And only intermittently does "The Faculty" affect us emotionally. "The Faculty" doesn't have the brains or the heart or the imagination you can find week to week on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But it's an awfully enjoyable, hip little B-movie. And when the heroes are snorting up homemade no-doze in order to save the day, it's almost subversive. That's school spirit I can get behind.