The very odd, updated box art for the 1985 film My Science Project.
The very odd, updated box art for the 1985 film My Science Project.
Photo: All Images: Disney (For Real! It Owns the Rights)

A middle finger coming out of the trunk of a car. That was literally my only memory of the 1985 sci-fi comedy My Science Project. For some reason—probably because I was very young when I first saw it—that image burned itself into my brain and for decades it was the only thing I’d associate with the film. Not the actors, not the plot, not anything. Just that middle finger. For 35 years.

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In my mind, the middle finger mechanically popping out of a car trunk happened during the film’s climax. A moment of levity as the hero triumphantly sped away from the bad guys. And, for decades, I seriously believed that happened in this movie. Oh, and something about a science project too, I guess. Having just rewatched the film though, the moment happens about a half-hour into the movie, not during a chase, and has literally no bearing on the plot of the movie whatsoever.

Turns out, the real science project should be why my memory of My Science Project is so bad.

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The actual movie, written and directed by Last Starfighter creator Jonathan R. Betuel, is about a gearhead named Michael (Top Gun’s John Stockwell) who breaks into an abandoned airbase hoping to find something to pass for his senior science project. There he finds a mysterious energy source that, from the film’s prologue, we know is part of an alien craft. Michael then joins up with his best friend Vinny (Fisher Stevens) and budding love interest Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) to bumble around town trying to figure out what the device is. Lots of hijinks ensue and yes, at one point, Vinny pulls a mechanism in his car and a middle finger pops out of the trunk flipping off another vehicle. It’s a dumb joke, but somehow it locked into my memory.

The big moment.

I keep coming back to that memory for two reasons. One, the majority of My Science Project is so lifeless, repetitive, and boring it almost makes sense a young child would remember a bright middle finger sign instead of the rest of it. On the other hand, the third act is so outrageous, wild, and kind of awesome that the fact I didn’t remember a single frame of it makes me think I’d never actually seen the whole movie. Because, holy shit y’all, it’s wild.

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Spoilers for a 35-year-old movie coming up.

As Michael, Vinny, and Ellie run around town, eventually they learn the alien engine is actually a portal through space and time, and when that engine taps into the town’s electricity, a gateway opens. So the final act of My Science Project sees Michael and Vinny go into their high school to rescue Ellie except the high school has become the gateway. All spaces, at all times, all exist simultaneously inside the school, where they proceed to encounter Egyptian pharaohs, Vietnamese soldiers, Roman gladiators, futuristic mutant cyberpunks, and, eventually a giant Tyrannosaurus rex that they fight in the gym with machine guns.

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I didn’t remember the gymnasium T. rex machine gun fight but I remembered the middle finger. Fuck me, indeed.

Stevens and Stockwell looking about as 1980s as two actors possibly can.
Stevens and Stockwell looking about as 1980s as two actors possibly can.
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Eventually, Michael saves Ellie, as well as the world, and that’s that. Roll credits. As they did, I couldn’t help think about how deeply flawed My Science Project was. Betuel’s idea of students finding a mysterious, alien machine that can change space and time is so strong, so filled with potential. But the movie saves it for the very end and is more concerned with running down a checklist of every high school trope of the era. Poorly too, I might add. Jocks drinking beer? Check. Nerdy girl loving the cool guy? Check. Teens saving the world? Check.

Plus, at no point does My Science Project bring any of those things together cohesively. It’s a sci-fi film, but only in parts. It’s a comedy, but only through dated, offensive stereotypes. It’s a romance, but only on paper. And eventually, seemingly out of the blue, it has this manic, wonderful, epic set piece that makes you wish the entire movie consisted of just that.

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But, it isn’t, and that’s probably why My Science Project was just a middle finger to me all these years. Simply put, it’s nothing special. History hasn’t been particularly kind to the film either. It was a bomb at the box office—Back to the Future, Weird Science, and Real Genius were all released the same year—reviews weren’t great, and while DVDs and Blu-rays were made, they’re long out of print. It’s also not streaming anywhere official, so unless you have a memory of it, it’s almost like it didn’t exist. Or, it’s just a middle finger. Which isn’t the legacy the film deserves, but it’s the one it has.

Dennis Hopper in his small, but significant, role.
Dennis Hopper in his small, but significant, role.
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Random Thoughts (Which, Appropriately for This Random Movie, I Have a Lot Of)

  • Watching the film in 2020, you can’t help but notice there’s barely a person of color in the entire thing. And not a single one in a meaningful speaking role. The heroes are all white men and all the women, even the one who is supposed to be smart and capable, are ultimately helpless damsels in distress, reading Cosmo and waiting for the boys to call. The dated politics of the film really drag it down a notch, but that’s par for the course for films of this era.
  • There are two very good little Star Wars moments in the film which I’m going to call out because...obviously. First, Michael is asked, “How many times did you see Jedi?” to which he replies, “I didn’t see Jedi.” This is a shock, and, in 1985, a perfect way to explain his character. Second, some bullies randomly (and pointlessly) mess with Michael’s car while wearing Storm Trooper and Darth Vader masks. Again, it’s totally inconsequential to the plot or anything in the film, but the fact that producers surely had to pay for that made me smile anyway.
  • Dennis Hopper is in this. Why? More like why not! He plays “Bob,” the “cool” teacher who Michael needs to do the science project for. Bob is also the person who figures out what the device is, by being sucked into it and traveling through time. It’s a small, showy role, that makes you think, “I wish this movie was about Bob.”
  • Richard Masur is also in the movie. You might not know his name but you know his face (The Thing, License to Drive, Risky Business, My Girl, etc.). He’s an amazing actor but here he plays a cop that doesn’t come into the movie for an hour, does almost nothing except kill about four minutes of screentime, and that’s it. It’s so odd. His inclusion, like Hopper’s, leads you to believe maybe there was more to this movie at some point. Or maybe they just wanted a paycheck.
  • Soon after My Science Project, John Stockwell would play a small but crucial role in the mega-hit Top Gun. He plays Cougar, the guy who loses his nerve at the beginning of the film, giving Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, his big shot. Though obviously it’s not really true, it’s fun to think of this film as almost a Top Gun prequel. Stockwell’s character in this could have easily gone into the military after graduation and become an ace pilot. It would’ve made perfect sense.
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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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