Rodriguez: The Faculty (1998)
Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez, The Faculty is one of the great American anti-sports films, a riposte to the culture that produced The Waterboy the same year, Any Given Sunday a year later, and Friday Night Lights five yearsafter that. It starts with a standoff between education and sport, in the form of a psychotic football coach, played by Robert Patrick, who commands Herrington High School as his own fascist domain. In the very first scene, we move from the football field of Herrington to the school proper, and from there to a staff meeting in which Principal Drake, played by Bebe Neuwerth, bemoans the amount of Ohio state funding that goes towards the football program. When the meeting ends, Coach Willis commandeers the PA system, and calls Principal Drake back into her office, where he tries to assault her, before morphing into an alien, and chasing her down the empty corridors.
This introduces us to the premise of The Faculty – that sports, especially football, are an inherently alien presence in American high schools. While Principal Drake manages to escape from Coach Willis’ grasp, she’s clinically stabbed by Mrs. Olson, the head drama teacher, played by Piper Laurie, suggesting that even the humanities are not immune to the sway of the sports program. From here, the alien species that started by infiltrating the football cohort begins to make its away across the rest of the school, revealing, in the process, that everyone in the school is dependent upon the football staff, who turn out to be American education’s version of lizard people (quite literally, as it happens, in this particular case). We experience this alien event through a group of misfits, which is to say the only students in the school who haven’t aligned themselves in some way with the football field – Zeke Tyler (Josh Hartnett), an ex-football player turned drug dealer who has been forced to repeat a year; Stokely Mitchell (Clea DuVall), a bisexual Goth who’s perpetually targeted by bullies; Casey Connor (Elijah Wood), a sensitive humanist with no interest in sports; and Marybeth Hutchison (Laura Harris), a new student, and a blonde bombshell, who has arrived from the American South.
Joining these four misfits are two characters with a more complex relation to the football field. On the one hand we have Stan Rosaldo (Shawn Hatosy), who is arguably the film’s protagonist. He’s a football champion who has decided to give up the sport, and his scholarship, so that he can focus on his grades, in order to build a future beyond high school. In addition, we have Delilah Profitt (Jordana Brewster), the head of the student newspaper, but also the head of the cheerleading squad. Between these two pursuits, Delilah’s character evokes how thoroughly the entire school is mediated through football, so she’s pretty shocked when she discovers that Stan, her boyfriend, is thinking of giving up his place on the team. As she explains to him, the spectacle of homecoming king and queen (which they hope to achieve) makes no sense when it’s dissociated from the spectacle of high school football.
Rodriguez evokes the world of these characters by immediately suffusing Herrington with the violence of the football field. We meet them all in the first scene of the film proper, as they traverse the space between school gates and school door, a battlefield that confronts them with one prospective tackle after another. One of them is elbowed in the face and flung into a pole, another has a near-car crash, and another has an actual car crash, in a brilliant vision of how high school feels when the classroom is continually subordinated to sport. This first primal approach to Herrington becomes the blueprint for a hyper-kinetic style that typified films about NFL in the 90s, and never for one moment allows us to forget that the beating heart of this school is the football field. Every action is slightly exaggerated, and every gaze brims with violence, while education itself is simply training and organising for the big game.
This ushers in the main plot point of the film, as the football team turns into the contagion point for an alien hive mind bent on invading middle America. The first jump scare occurs when Casey ventures onto the football field, while Stan first glimpses the aliens in the shower, the epicentre of NFL camaraderie. Like good athletes, the aliens are always hydrating, stocking the staff room full of bottled water as they infect more and more teachers, while also promoting their team’s brand, meaning more and more people start wearing the Herrington football jersey as the film proceeds too. The entire third act plays out in the environs of the football field, starting with the big game, a plosive montage sequence of concussion after concussion in which the alien home team utterly decimates the opposition, while the Herrington supporters sing “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and “We don’t need no education” plays over the soundtrack. Rather than celebrate the win, however, the football team go deathly silent, standing in formation as rain torrents onto the pitch, before enlisting the school as an army of NFL fans as they storm their way through the corridors in pursuit of ever more victims.
Of course, The Faculty also countenances the scarier prospect that the aliens are already here, already within us, in the form of the dark forces that operate through football as the motor engine of their conservative ideologies. At one point, the main troupe speculate that aliens have infiltrated Hollywood itself, and only release alien films so that Americans assume that their worst fears about the country can be relegated to the realm of fantasy. As the aliens take hold, The Faculty turns into a comic riff on They Live, in which the ability to perceive ideology doesn’t stem from special glasses, but from the simple fact of not liking or playing football. Over time, the aliens expand out from the football staff to the general school staff, then to students and parents, and finally to the police force, as they set their eye on the highest echelons of American government. It’s an eerie vision of the whole world turning into an adjunct to NFL, which becomes a site for “turning us into mindless slaves they can control.”
In an older kind of film, such as They Live, counter-culture might have been mobilised against the football aliens, but part of the despair (and dark comedy) of The Faculty comes from its prescience that this is not necessarily the case anymore. Now that we live firmly in an era of niche media, it can be hard to recapture the feeling of mass media, and the primal fear that it produced in 90s teen cinema – namely, that the mainstream would become pervasive enough to absorb and repackage any and all cultural opposition. Something of that fear animates how the football aliens tap into disaffection here, as well as the odd behaviour that ensues from those who have been infected, since it means that the main troupe are continually having to distinguish between people who are alien and people who are merely alienated – and to enlist people before the aliens can tap into their social resentments and anxieties. For that reason, it’s precisely counter-cultural students who are at risk, since their sense of being excluded from the football mainstream turns football itself into a fantasy of inclusion that they have to work hard to resist, even if conformity ultimately seems inevitable.
Rather than attempting to target each prospective alien, then, the troupe soon speculates that if they kill off the alien queen, the source of noxious ideology, everyone who has been infected will return to their former selves. Much of the second half of the film involves their attempts to determine where this alien queen is hiding. At first, Coach Willis seems to be the obvious choice, since the football field is the main point of transmission. Then, it seems like Principal Drake is the likely choice. In a brilliant twist, however, the alien queen turns out to be Marybeth, the recent arrival at Henderson, the southern white girl, the paragon of politeness and gentility, the reason why the footballers are playing in the first place. Disturbingly, Marybeth only becomes more seductive to the troupe when they find out that she is the queen bee. She strips down to a bikini, and parades her body before them, while her alien tendrils mirror the football streamers hanging from the roof of the gym. But she also seduces them by eschewing overt hostility to emphasise the pleasure of conformity, the comfort of a hive mind: “In my world, there were limitless oceans, far as the eye could see.”
Marybeth brings the film to its crisis, as the troup teeters on the cusp of total indoctrination, and one character after another gives way to the status quo, no matter how indie or individualist they initially seemed. Since this is a Hollywood film, the plot has to be resolved, and the aliens have to be defeated, but Williamson and Rodriguez do this in a completely token way, and quickly move onto an eerie epilogue in which the alien presence may have been expelled from Coach Willis, but his approach to football is exactly the same. Similarly, while Zeke has returned to the team, and the other characters have implicitly reconciled themselves to the sport, football is still present as an alien force, as Casey wryly notes “things sure have changed, haven’t they?” and a new wave of students is tackled across the screen.
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