Class of 1999 is an apocalyptic delinquent thriller — it should have been called Cyberpunk Without a Cause. A trashy teen derivative of The Road Warrior, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and every other retro-future fantasy that director Mark L. Lester could cram into the compactor, the film posits a world in which America’s high schools have been overrun by heavy-metal hoods who tote machine guns, beat up teachers, and live in self-patrolled communal slums known as ”fire-free zones.” Needless to say, making the honor roll isn’t high on their list of priorities.
Can anything be done? The principal of Kennedy High (Malcolm McDowell) thinks so. Enlisting the aid of an ominous corporation known as MegaTech, he has brought in three very special new teachers — powerful, humanoid robots whose disciplinary methods fall somewhere between those of the Terminator and the Marquis de Sade. (You never knew a spanking could be this loud.) When the kids catch on to the fact that their new authority figures are less than human, teacher-student tensions erupt into a full-scale military conflict.
Movies as proudly disreputable as Class of 1999 are generally good for some laughs and thrills, and this one is no exception. Amusing details include Stacy Keach (as the MegaTech entrepreneur) glowering into the camera through silver, cat’s-eye contact lenses and an outrageously casual PA announcement: ”Any student caught on school premises with an automatic weapon will be detained and turned over to the proper authorities.”
Lester is working within a brazen tradition of ”sociological” exploitation movies: His images have a comic-strip vitality, his story and characters are strictly one-note. The fact that he has taken material dating back to The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and dressed it up in the latest styles of punk sensationalism is a testament to how potent and malleable Hollywood’s youth-rebel myths are. At the same time, there’s no reality left in this stuff. It’s an overwrought sci-fi fantasy now — a tabloid horrorshow.
The members of the mostly male cast aren’t exactly good actors, but they’re experts at strutting around and glaring at each other like psychotic teen gladiators. They’re all on the same wavelength: anger as attitude. The only one who shows much personality is Joshua Miller (from River’s Edge), whose eyes dance knowingly atop blobby, androgynous cheeks; he suggests a prepubescent Paul McCartney.
The best part of the film is the climactic battle, in which Lester’s B-movie musings about the jadedness of today’s youth take a back seat to lurid special effects. The robot teachers are great villains, with green slime for blood and whirring, mechanical weapons that come bursting out of their forearms. And John P. Ryan, with his demented skeletal grin, gives a wonderful, over-the-top performance as the most, uh…enthusiastic of the teachers. He’s the kind of guy who grabs onto a student’s head with his robot claw and says, ”I love to mold young minds!”