It’s my creation
From my heart and from my handOingo Boingo
Why don’t people understand
My intentions, ooh, weird science
This week, I got a little weird with storytelling by watching the 1985 cult classic, Weird Science. This film starring Anthony Michael Hall (Gary), Ilan Mitchell-Smith (Wyatt), and Kelly LeBrock (Lisa) centers around two nerds and the drop-dead gorgeous fem bot that they create by messing around on their computer. The movie has a ridiculous premise and probably isn’t meant to be analyzed too deeply, but I’m going to attempt to anyway, because I think it follows storytelling tropes to a ‘T.’
Strangely enough, Weird Science had mixed reviews upon its reception and wasn’t regarded as highly as the other teen angst movies of its time, such as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. And if the thought was maybe a little weird to you that a lot of the movies in the 80’s had a similar angst-y high school vibe to them, you’d be right to be skeptical. That’s because Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science were all created by the same person: writer-director John Hughes. Weird Science was a bit different though- it took sci-fi, comedy, and teen angst and mashed them all together into something that was surreal and risqué. Sci-fi movies were the other popular genre of movie in the 80’s (Back to the Future), so it likely seemed a good idea to infuse science fiction and wacky 80’s graphics into a story about hormone-driven computer geeks.
And despite the movie’s 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it does follow an interesting sequence of events that help shape the story, namely it first presents “a question, a problem, an obstacle, an opportunity, or a goal […] Second, characters change as they wrestle with the problem […] Third, the problem receives closure,” from THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING: Creating Narratives with New Media. In fact, if we were to graph this out à la Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories, our graph might look something like this:
On the Graph we have ‘G’ for Good Fortune, ‘I’ for Ill fortune, ‘B’ for Beginning, and ‘E’ for End. I’ve added ‘N’ for nerd, and ‘P’ for popular. This story gets wacky, so follow my logic here-
- Gary and Wyatt start as nerdy as you can be. They get a “pantsing” in front of the gym class.
- G & W create the woman of their dreams, Lisa, via digital means.
- Lisa appears to be making their dreams come true. She can make fast cars appear out of nowhere and she can get them into bars despite them being underage.
- G & W are reminded that they are still nerds and they get doused in Slushies in front of everyone at the mall.
- G & W: Hey cool kids, we got a Porsche and a hot chick. Beat that.
- Parents are a real drag.
- Inner turmoil over having a party. No one even knows whose party it is; kids just show up to Wyatt’s house due to Lisa’s interference.
- G & W score cool kid points with the hot chicks Deb and Hilly.
- Things go horribly, horribly awry. There is a rising climax of chaos (and plummeting cool points). A biker gang of killer mutants crash the party and call out G & W for being super nerds. Everyone laughs at them. Plus, ya know, weird science-y stuff happens and people freak out. Not cool.
- G & W face their fears and become the heroes of the party by making the killer mutants GTFO of the house. They save Deb and Hilly in the process.
- Mini-resolution. G & W get the girls Deb and Hilly, but the house is a mess and Wyatt’s brother Chet has been turned into a blob thing.
- Resolution. Lisa’s mission is complete. As she leaves the boys, we see everything return to normal. Gary and Wyatt have come to terms with their nerdy-ness. They are now on the graph of happy and somewhat popular.
The graphed points are all over the place, which I think is what makes Weird Science interesting. There are tension points wherever Lisa is involved, and the viewer waits to see what crazy thing is going to happen next. But more importantly than the mystery of the plot points are the characters. Our main protagonists are story-worthy because they are relatable. A big part of the human condition is that we just want to receive validation for being our true selves, and this is a central theme of the movie. Gary and Wyatt begin their journey with the mistaken belief that they will only be liked for what they can give to those above them in social status, rather than being liked for what they are. Only through the obstacles and lessons that Lisa throws their way do the boys realize the error of their thinking. They grasp the importance of being liked as-is, and their efforts are karmically rewarded by getting the girls Deb and Hilly.
Bits and Pieces
Where does Weird Science fit into digital media today? The movie’s premise fits in perfectly with the idea of technology and where it might one day take us. Gary and Wyatt created Lisa from bits and pieces of anything they could find. (Fun-fact: Lisa is a nod to Apple Lisa, one of the first personal computers to offer a graphical user interface). Magazine pages, code, and other bits of data were all fed into a computer in the hopes of getting the perfect woman as an output. While this might seem ridiculous, it’s not so far removed from reality that we can’t imagine computers learning from us. They do, in fact, learn from us all the time.
The Machine is Us/ing Us shows us just how real machine learning is. Each time we click on a link, add a tag, or share a video, we are teaching the computer an idea. The computer collects data from us. And what it does with that data is really up to us humans, which raises a whole slew of privacy, security, and ethical concerns. But on the flip side, there are some really cool things you can do with machine learning. Self-driving cars and facial recognition rely on machine learning. Computers can now beat complex games such as ‘Go’ because of machine learning. This wasn’t possible up until a few years ago. We can now program computers to behave in ways that are similar to how humans think via neural networks. Computers recognize patterns and come up with creative solutions to problems in ways that even us humans can’t anticipate. And that’s really cool. We might be light years away from making fem bots materialize out of some mystical cyber space, but we aren’t that many years away from driver-less cars.
I like this one idea from the chapter, ‘Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century’ from THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING article, and it was that, “stories decode and encode.” Whether a story is in a traditional format, or a digital one, they all seek to unravel the mystery of “what next.” We can think of stories like code- bits of information assembling into a narrative. Data need not be cold and uninviting. It can be warm and “alive,” even if not in the literal sense.