Cinema: The horror! The horror!

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The Independent Culture
The Faculty (15)

Director: Robert Rodriguez Starring: Jordana Brewster, Clea Duvall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett

104 mins

It was R L Stevenson, I believe, who said that, when he was at home, he wished he were travelling and, when he was travelling, he wished he were at home. For me, the cinema is a little like that. When I'm watching an austere European art film, say, there are times when I find myself secretly wishing it were a big, splashy, escapist Hollywood entertainment. Then when, mostly for professional reasons, I'm obliged to see the Hollywood entertainment, I realise after all that I'd prefer to be watching the art film.

Not that, currently, the situation is as clear-cut as I make it sound. However loosely the term is defined, Robert Rodriguez's teen horror-comedy The Faculty could never be described as an austere art film. Yet its self-conscious recourse to narrative strategies that used to be the exclusive preserve of art films testifies to its director's ambition that it be more than merely a splashy entertainment. Its generic pedigree - out of Wes Craven's Scream by Brian De Palma's Carrie, John Carpenter's Hallowe'en, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or should that be Philip Kaufman's remake?) and Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (or Paul Schrader's remake?) - is all the more obvious in that Rodriguez brazenly flaunts his petty pilferings instead of endeavouring to conceal them. The gimmick of Kevin Williamson's script (he wrote Scream) is that the teens in the movie are able to figure out where its narrative is bound precisely because they themselves are fanatical aficionados of the very genre to which it belongs. One of them is jeered at by his hipper classmates as "a geeky Stephen King kid". Another hatches a plan to thwart the aliens by recalling how a similar crisis was handled in Invasion of the Body Snatchers - and I don't mean the Tourneur film or even the Kaufman but the original Jack Finney novel. (Yes, it's that erudite.) In fact, The Faculty's knowingness about the trashier end of pop culture makes it oddly reminiscent of the recent Pleasantville, except that here it's very much Unpleasantville.

Does this nudging, self-referential kleptomania render the movie more or less interesting than if the plot had been served up straight? Who any longer knows? Certainly not the critic, on whom it dawns, as soon as he attempts to apply his own faculties to The Faculty, that he's in a no-win situation.

If I say that the storyline - a group of six teenagers discover that their high school has been infiltrated by alien mutants - would once have been considered adequate only for the cheesiest of drive-in fodder, then one of the movie's fans will immediately tell me that that's just the point. I propose that its incessant shock effects - a pencil protruding from an impaled hand like a chocolate flake in an ice cream cone, a shadow clouding up a pane of frosted glass, a woman nervously calling out "Is that you?" in an unlit corridor - are hopelessly dated and derivative? That's the point! I suggest that the monster is more risible than alarming? That the characters are just a bunch of two-dimensional stereotypes? That the absence of invention is total? Can't you see that's the point, asshole? Haven't you got it yet?

Well, I fancy I have now. The Faculty is a movie of points, not meanings. It's a closed circuit, plugged into itself. It doesn't really expect you to be scared or amused or, God forbid, involved. All it requires of you is that you "get" it. The canny Rodriguez knows his audience. He knows that, like infants being told the same bedtime tale for the umpteenth time (or masturbators replaying the same pet fantasy inside their heads), it won't tolerate the slightest deviation from the pre-programmed narrative norm. For the umpteenth time, I say. There was Scream - then, naturally, there was Scream 2. This new version of the same whiskery old plotline is Scream Umpteen, locatable anywhere on the numerical continuum.

It would be easy, and also deeply satisfying, to dismiss The Faculty as trash (which it is) and let it go at that. Yet it epitomises a disturbing Hollywood trend that leaves one wondering just what sort of American movies we're going to be watching come the millennium. It's a trend I first became alert to when a friend and I went to see Twister, the hit movie about chasing tornadoes. About half an hour in, when both he and I had become matchingly fidgety, I asked him in a whisper if he wanted to leave. He peered at his watch. "Look, it's exactly 7.25," he whispered back. "Why don't we hang on for just one more tornado? It should happen in, oh, six or seven minutes, it'll last about 10 minutes, so we'll be out by 7.45 and in the restaurant by eight o'clock." And so, almost to the minute, we were.

I don't care what anyone says, the American cinema, even at its most crudely formulaic, never used to be that mechanical. But what is even more dismaying than such extreme schematicism is that it clearly responds to a genuine public demand. Increasingly (there are always exceptions), audiences prefer movies that run by clockwork - videos, like compact discs, should now come complete with a system of numbered tracks, permitting one to key out the boring, lovey-dovey bits - and the sole form of "sophistication" that can be claimed for The Faculty is that it actually goes so far as to take as its subject its own abject capitulation to the debasement of populist cinema.

I should add that the press-show audience I saw it with giggled at quite a lot of the jokes and, overall, appeared to enjoy the movie. This made me so uneasy I began to think my colleagues, too, had been taken over by aliens. Or maybe I'm the alien.