There are certain movies that fully encapsulate an era, and in 1998’s The Faculty takes everything that you hated (and perhaps, strangely miss) about the late 1990s, and folds it into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Thing, comic-horror romp through a middle-American high school. It’s the result of late-era MTV culture — that brief time between Nirvana and My Super Sweet 16 — collapsing in on itself like a dying star. And like its teenage protagonists, The Faculty might not know exactly what it is, but it is determined to have an unbelievable amount of tongue-in-cheek fun trying to find out.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, whose grindhouse via MTV aesthetic has run the gamut from El Mariachi to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and written by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson, The Faculty is carried by its ensemble cast of late-90s teen stars — it’s why it has been called the movie that launched a thousand careers.
It’s here that Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Clea DuVall, Jordana Brewster, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, and Usher combine to form humanity’s last best hope against an invading alien force that is systematically picking off and assimilating everyone in the film’s small Ohio town — the authority figures first, and then the teens. While Elijah Wood might have previously been a child star, for others like Brewster, The Faculty represented their first big roles.
And the students are just the tip of the iceberg. The eponymous “faculty” is composed of Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Jon Stewart, Piper Laurie, Bebe Neuwirth, and Robert Patrick — and even late-90s mainstay Chris McDonald gets into a few scenes. Perhaps the most talented people who worked on the movie were the casting team of Anne McCarthy and Mary Vernier, who have both enjoyed long careers, and whose standout credits are too numerous to list here.
At Ohio’s Herrington High, which is where our intrepid teens make “the first contact,” life exists like in any other high school across the country — as long as your single point of reference is an episode or two of Freaks and Geeks (which wouldn’t debut until the following year, but let me get on with my point): The nerds are nerds. The jocks are jocks. The smart people are smart, and the dumb people are dumb. Except no one is quite who you think they are at first blush. Maybe the jock actually wants to be an academic. Maybe the burnout is a secret genius. And maybe the new kid is actually an alien. This idea serves the double-duty of sowing mistrust between the characters while half-heartedly championing individuality, even if the film never fully commits to that idea — in fact, it seems to go out of its way to derail it, but more on that later.
Even before the aliens invade, Herrington is a disturbing place. The students conform so tightly to stereotypes that they already feel like strange creatures imitating humanity. When we meet our cast of students for the first time, it’s through a montage that quickly defines the lives of our heroes. Wood gets beaten up because he’s the nerd, while Hatosy, the school’s star quarterback, is reprimanded by his cheerleader girlfriend (Brewster) for stepping out of his lane and wanting to focus more on academics. As the loner, DuVall unsuccessfully tries to avoid everyone else, and as the burnout, Hartnett peddles fake IDs and homebrewed drugs to the student population. Each introduction is accompanied by the character’s name, slashed across the screen. It’s a trite beginning to a fairly trite movie.
It’s hard to know how “in on the joke” Rodriguez and Williamson are. What was surely meant to be homage mostly spins out into blatant theft — as when, faculty member Elizabeth Burke (Janssen) is decapitated and we are treated to a sequence of her head, which has sprouted tentacles, crawling across the ground looking for its body.
And while the film might have begun as an earnest (if fun) allegory of individuality triumphing over conformity, it devolves into each character, in their own way, conforming. Sure, they may beat back the alien menace, but by the time the credits roll, DuVall has washed the blackout of her hair in order to date the quarterback, Hartnett has traded in his “My First Meth Lab” for a spot on the football team, and — in one of the silliest examples of wish-fulfillment ever committed to film — Brewster and Wood have begun dating.
But that doesn’t mean that The Faculty isn’t fun, especially as a ripe hunk of nostalgia for those young enough to have seen it in theaters. It’s wild to watch Jon Stewart still trying his hand at acting, just in case his TV gig didn’t pan out. It’s funny to watch Wood, who was still a few years away from reinventing himself as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, playing the nerd, instead of the strangely sexy psycho he tends to play these days.
The movie gets a lot of things wrong — I mean, Creed is featured on the soundtrack — but it does accurately capture the pop culture of the late 90s, even if the reality of that period escapes it. There are some good jump scares, a host of young performers trying really, really hard to “make it,” and an aesthetically stylish director stationed at the helm (even if he’s not at the height of his powers). So, watch The Faculty for the nostalgia, watch it as a time capsule of a bygone era, and watch it for the sheer fun of it.