"Even though this violent indie film has "exploitation" stamped all over it--with its gratuitous car chases, shootouts, and anarchistic characters--it is a guilty pleasure." - Bryan Reesman, Amazon.Com
It's 1999 and teenage violence has escalated to the point that many inner city schools are now located inside free-fire zones, areas controlled by teenage street gangs which even the police refuse to enter. In a last ditch effort to "educate" the children, the principle of Kennedy High (Malcom McDowell!) contracts with Megatech's department of educational defense to supply robotic teachers (including Pam Grier!!) capable of dealing with the more troublesome students. Of course, what the head of Megatech (Stacy Keach as an albino with a rattail haircut!!!) conveniently forgets to mention is that these are in fact de-commissioned combat androids loaded with nifty built-in weapon systems like flame throwers and grenade launchers. It's not long before the rebellious kids provoke the terminat..., er, robots into reactivating their military protocols. As the student body count rises, bad boy Cody and good girl Christie try to end the gang war and rally the kids in a last ditch effort to destroy the (and I quote) "three inhuman teaching monsters".
Director/writer Mark L. Lester first visited the hazardous hallways of high school in the exploitation cult classic Class Of 1984. In that film, one lone teacher tries desperately to free Abraham Lincoln High from the grips of the drug-dealing punk rock gang terrorizing its faculty and students. The struggle escalates until the punks finally cross the line and rape his wife, at which point the teacher goes all Death Wish on the gang and dispatches them in gory fashion. Fans of the revenge genre loved it, others despised it. Roger Ebert summed it all up in his review, "Class of 1984 is raw, offensive, vulgar, and violent, but it contains the sparks of talent and wit, and it is acted and directed by people who cared to make it special." Needless to say, its reputation guaranteed an eventual sequel.
Eight years later by real world time, fifteen by the movie's, Lester went back to school with the Class of 1999. But, having pretty much mined the homicidal student vein for all it was worth in the previous film, Lester apparently felt the need to do something to spice things up this second go around. And the tried and true method for doing this in a sequel, which Lester unashamedly adopts, is to amp up the elements which made the first film successful (or abhorrent depending on your tastes). In other words, there's more violence in Class of 1999 than in most other two movies combined. Joe Bob Briggs gives the following tally; "Forty-two dead bodies. Two motor vehicle chases, with one crash and burn, one crash and plunge. Neck-snapping. Fireballs. Arm-ripping. Skull-drilling. Terminal spanking. Flaming supporting actor. Brutal push-ups. Student cut in half. Puke-a-rama. Six fistfights. Attempted rape. Kung Fu. Junkie Fu. Robot Fu. Forklift Fu." And that's AFTER the film was reportedly edited and resubmitted to the MPAA 9 times before finally being granted an R rating instead of an X.
But you can get all that from a Scorsese movie. The real draw here is, of course, the terminator-like educators. And what jolly old souls they are too. Seriously, whether they're spanking a student at super-speed or punching a hole through Stacy Keach's stomach (which inadvertently proves that route IS the way to a man's heart), these things just never stop laughing. And when the robots light-heartedly flip through the driver's manual in search of traffic violations to pin on Cody while trying to run him over, well, you just have to laugh with them. Still, in the end, you have to wonder just why the military would commission killing machines with an inappropriate sense of humor to begin with.
At first, the cartoonish level of violence and presence of the androids seem to distance this film from the heightened realism of its predecessor. But in its day, people scoffed at some of the visuals in Class of 1984 too. New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote "when you see students having to pass through a metal-detecting device to get into the school, 'Class of 1984' is sort of crudely funny." You have to wonder how funny Canby still found that image when in 1994 the federal government began requiring school safety programs in an attempt to crack down on school violence, programs which included metal detectors in many schools, even my old alma mater. (Insert your own all-to-easy joke about the quality of Times writers here.) That's not to say we should expect maniacal military robots to pop up in our high schools anytime soon, just that we shouldn't so quickly dismiss any underlying themes or messages in the film just because the premise is a little out there.
And what could a movie which features Foxy Brown ripping open her chest to expose a bunch of sprockets and plastic tubing possibly have to say to us? Well, if you view the two Class movies as bookends, there does seem to be some progression of thought going on (intended or not). In the first film we see a breakdown of the social order where those in authority (the police and the school administration) fail to address the gang problem. One lone teacher realizes his only hope is to take action against the students himself. In the follow-up film, the problem has escalated to outlandish proportions and the authorities are forced to respond. But the response ends up being just as evil as the authorities institute totalitarian solutions. In the end, just like in the first movie, it is up to a single individual to find a middle ground and bring resolution to the problem. Whether we agree with Class of 1999's philosophy or not, we have to admit that it represents a maturing in the series' consideration of the problem even as it stays consistent with the first film's original statement on the solution.
We practice this combination of change and consistency in the Church as well as in movies. The Catechism states that "Tradition (the apostolic preaching which is preserved in a continuous line of succession) is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium." A simple example of this idea is the practice of the Mass on Sundays. While the early Church kept the idea of a weekly communal worship service as absolutely necessary, it had no problem changing the centuries old Jewish day of worship from Saturday to Sunday in order to distinguish itself from traditional Judaism as well as honor the day on which Jesus was resurrected. God's requirement for his people to gather together was an unchangeable truth, the day of the week however had some flexibility. This is what John Henry Cardinal Newman called the Development of Doctrine at its most basic.
Which brings up the obvious question, what must stay the same and what can be changed in the Church? Though not a Catholic, C. S. Lewis provided a simple but effective guideline when he wrote that "change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak; if it became a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change." With all of the hot button topics (women's ordination, married clergy, same-sex unions, etc.) being argued over in the Church right now, it would be nice if the discussions revolved around what does and does not represent unchangeable core teachings. Instead we get nutty stuff like Soulforce's 2001 open letter to the USCCB with a paragraph which reads "According to the book Roman Catholicism in America by Chester Gillis, 88% of Catholics in 1993 believed that contraception was a matter of personal moral judgment. Obviously the hierarchy's teachings on "natural law" are not a dogma accepted by the laity, which Cardinal Newman referred to as "the believing Church." When the Church refuses to listen to the "believing church," Cardinal Newman went on to say, it loses its authority to teach." In other words, at least in this part of the letter, Soulforce argues for theology by popular opinion rather than consistent teaching, and even tries to back it up with a quote from Newman. (sigh) Maybe it really is time to round everybody up and put them back in the classroom. Somebody send in the robots.
Since the Church teaches that the Magisterium, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, will forever faithfully preserve the unchangeable Traditions, then we have to accept that the allowable changes in tradition (with a small t) implemented in Vatican II in no way contradict the core teachings of the Church. Which means stuff like wearing veils to mass, ringing a bell during the consecration of the host, and (sob) using Latin are all entirely optional. Still, the theology professor Christine Gudorf writes that “our ability to make sense of our world and of our relationships with others, even to understand ourselves, requires a certain degree of continuity in all of these. Both change and continuity are constants in our lives, and both are necessary for individuals and communities.” In short, while some things must necessarily change, it is the things that stay the same which actually give relevance and meaning to the here and now. So, would it really kill anyone to let those of us who want it have a little better access to Latin or even, dare I say it, Gregorian chant?