1998 saw the release of The Faculty, directed by Robert Rodriguez. Recognized as a mix of classic sci-fi films—including Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Thing—and in the self-aware style of Scream, The Faculty explores the invasion of a high school by alien beings who first assimilate the teachers, then the student body.
The Faculty touches on a fear of conformity and assimilation into an inauthentic life. The film is set in a high school, perhaps the most appropriate setting for such themes. High school is widely recognized as the time in which adolescents begin exploring different groups in order to define themselves as individuals. Wrapped up in this phase is the fear of conformity, of succumbing to peer pressure and placing the will of the group over the individual. For The Faculty, this fear is symbolically reflected in the threat of assimilation by aliens.
As the students are assimilated, the normal conformity of high school life changes, becoming something sinister. In one of the film’s great reveals, Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) and the football team stand on the football field in the rain, with alien tentacles reaching for the rain from their upward-turned faces. They are standing in a staggered but even formation, indicating the structured intent of a hivemind, as opposed to standing randomly, which would suggest individual thought and action. While a formation is not alien to a sports team, which already operates under a group mentality, the odd setting and addition of alien physiology indicates that this group mentality is not human. Normally symbolic of high school male conformity, the football team now embodies a greater evil and pursues the male students to assimilate them into the alien group.
The ending of The Faculty is the most revealing point of the film. With the alien queen1 defeated, life returns to normal for the characters. But, as others have noted, the film “tries to tie everything up too neatly and happily, and ends up suggesting that our favourite misfit students really just want to be like everyone else after all.” Our hero students, who have spent the film striving against conformity and absorption into the alien group, end the film joining with the conformity of normal high school life— in itself another kind of assimilation.
Zeke (Josh Hartnett) begins The Faculty in rebellion. He deals drugs to the other students and, though brilliant, is an underachiever. He does not bow to the expectations placed on him as a student. He teases his teacher, Ms. Burke (Famke Janssen), when she confronts him about his behavior. The exchange between them is not one of a student with a teacher, but one between two near-equals. This is due to his defiance of her authority and her hesitance in asserting herself as an authority figure. There is also a hint of sexual tension as he brings up the subject of condoms and, after she is assimilated by the alien group, she wears more sexually suggestive clothing and becomes the sexual aggressor, flirting with him. Initially, it seems as though Zeke is pleased with his life. He does not hesitate at dealing drugs and other contraband on the high school grounds, and blatantly steals from the school, stating, “I’m just doing my part in the deconstruction of America.” But in his first confrontation with Ms. Burke, his devil-may-care attitude breaks: after the exchange, he rests his head on the trunk of his car seemingly in despair. His varying attitude leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is living an authentic life, or whether he desires something different.
What is not ambiguous is at the film’s end, Zeke has changed drastically. He is shown practicing with the football team, joining in the pinnacle of conformity for a male high school student. Taking a short break from practice, he looks at the bleachers, where Ms. Burke sits watching him. She shyly waves and he smiles at her. It is not explicitly stated, but it can be assumed that they are in a relationship—the act of sitting on the bleachers, watching a high school sports team practice, is a place reserved for parents or significant others. Though Zeke is depicted smoking, he listens to Coach Willis, who calls him back to practice. In the beginning of the film, Zeke shirked the instructions of those in authority, but here he obeys the instructions of perhaps the most authoritative figure in the whole film. From this, it is clear that his smoking in this scene is merely a token act of rebellion: for all intents and purposes, Zeke has abandoned his rebellious life for one bowing to authority and convention, wherein he finds acceptance among his peers and within a romantic relationship.
Stan (Shawn Hatosy) begins The Faculty as the high school quarterback, but in his first conversation with Delilah (Jordana Brewster) he reveals a tension with this role. He wants to quit the football team to focus on his studies. Stan has realized his importance to others is based in his athletic competence, and he desires to challenge himself to be competent academically. He tells another student how a teacher changed his D grade to an A, saying Stan “deserved it for having such a strong arm.” He laments this favoritism, saying, “I just wish people would let me be.” Stan’s character embodies the fear of the inauthentic self: Stan is accepted, and celebrated, by others for his athletic achievements, but he is afraid that he is not pursuing his own goals and desires. This is a common theme in adolescence: a 2012 survey of U.K. children age 11-16 found that near half of those surveyed had quit activities they love, or had hidden skills or talents, due to fear of being bullied. In announcing his intentions to quit the football team, Stan breaks away from this cycle of suppressing his own desires to please others and begins moving towards living his life authentically. Like Zeke, who is living in rebellion against social expectations, Stan wishes to join in a rebellion against the pressure of his peers, and his coach, who keep him locked in an inauthentic life.
Stokely (Clea DuVall), like Stan, begins the film in an inauthentic life. Initially, she is portrayed as a rebel, like Zeke, choosing the shirk the norm in favor of an authentic life. But in an exchange with Marybeth (Elizabeth Harris) Stokely’s life is revealed as a facade, one pressed upon her by her peers, who spread rumors about her. After being told by Delilah that Stokely is a lesbian, Marybeth attempts to praise Stokely for being “out,” stating “it’s very impressive.” Stokely confesses she is not a lesbian, but she does not dissuade the rumor because “being a lesbian is just my sense of security.” Later, Marybeth notices Stokely watching Stan and encourages her to talk to him, but it takes a literal push from Marybeth to get Stokely to engage with Stan. Stokely does not want to engage with the outside world, content in her “sense of security” within inauthenticity. Instead of shirking the rumors and living authentically, Stokely embraces them and, in doing so, embraces isolation.
After the aliens are defeated, the film portrays Stan now free of the football team and in a relationship with Stokely. He is dressed nondescriptly, most notably his letter jacket is missing, signifying his successful resignation from the football team. Stan watches Zeke and the football team practice, but when asked by Stokely if he has any “regrets,” he says “none whatsoever.” He kisses Stokely, indicating that he is no longer with Delilah in a relationship that, as will be discussed further, was predicated on social status rather than affection. His appearance and actions indicate that he has given up his inauthentic life for a more fulfilling one.
In the same scene, Stokely’s transformation is most striking of all. Whereas in the beginning of the film, she was attired in black, goth-like clothing, in the end, though she still wears some of her old jewlery, she is missing her heavy black eyeliner and wearing pastels and skirts—in other words, she has adopted the trappings of a normal high school girl, visibly conforming to social expectations. Stan and Stokely’s kiss indicates that in giving up her “sense of security” in rumors, Stokely has also left the isolation that accompanied them. Stokely is no longer living under the facade of rebellion, but in the new security of the social norm.
In Casey’s (Elijah Wood) first moments walking onscreen in The Faculty, he is immediately elbowed in the face, giving him a nosebleed. Casey begins in the role of the small and the bullied. He wanders the football field alone at lunch and geeks out with the high school biology teacher over his discovery of an alien creature. In an exchange with head cheerleader and head of the school newspaper, Delilah, Casey questions why she “rags on” him. She replies, “Nothing. It’s just your fate.” Casey is established as an outcast, the unwanted, fated for this life. But in his discovery of the alien threat, he finds purpose. Casey is the one to talk Stokely into believing his theory of the and he spurs the other students into the fight against the aliens. He moves from a place of isolation to a part of a group, finding meaning within the group and their united cause.
Delilah is the popular girl, high on the social ladder, who picks and “rags” on those beneath her, as established in her scenes with Casey and Stokely. She dates Stan and belittles his desire to leave the football team to pursue an academic future. To convince him of his misguided ambitions, she states, “The accepted social order is that head cheerleaders date star quarterbacks, not academic wannabes!” Her every action seems dictated by her idea of the “social order” and ensuring her place in it. She does not date Stan because she wants to, but because the social order dictates it. She does not even engage with him affectionately, rejecting his attempt to kiss her because she is concerned about her makeup. In short, she embodies the stereotype of the superficial high school cheerleader.
Notably, of the circle of students struggling against alien assimilation, she is the first to fall. Does her belief and adherence to the “social order” make her weaker and more susceptible to assimilation than the others? Each other student stands out or rebels in some way or another against the norm, while she does not. She accepts her place in the high school hierarchy and, in fact, seems to revel in the power over fellow students that comes with her place and role. Because of this, it is not surprising that she is the first to be assimilated since, in terms of conforming to the social order, she had already assimilated long ago.
At the film’s end, Casey appears transformed, blatantly symbolized by a butterfly which he takes a picture of. He is wearing more fashionable clothing and appears to carry himself with more confidence. As he embraces Delilah in a passionate kiss, it becomes clear that they are romantically involved. He has moved from a place of isolation to join in the social expectations of a high school relationship.
Initially, Delilah appears to be transformed as well. At the beginning of the film, she would not have considered dating Casey. Their relationship defies the “social order” she defined for Stan, and so is evidence for change on her part. However, first one must ask: is she dating Casey because she has changed, or because he has? That is, does Casey now have a social currency she desires, much as Stan did when he was the quarterback of the football team?
It becomes clear that the answer is the latter. Casey is no longer the social outcast, demonstrated when Delilah throws a stack of magazines and the school newspaper at him, the titles of which hail him as a hero for saving the school. Shortly after, a news team approaches him for an interview. Casey has transformed from a nerdy photographer to a boy wonder. He is not only accepted among his peers and adults, he is in fact highly desired and sought after. In this scene, Delilah’s role as Casey’s partner demonstrates his ascent up the social ladder: she is the romantic prize accompanying his new social status. It is apparent Delilah’s character has not changed from the beginning of the film: throughout it all, she has maintained her place in the social order and coupled again with someone whose social status complements her own.
The ending of The Faculty supports and reaffirms Delilah’s observation of the social order. The students who did not fit into the roles expected of them have succumbed: the rebels have given up their rebellion, the outcasts have found acceptance, and each individual has been paired with another to eliminate isolation. The end of The Faculty is what the students feared from the beginning: assimilation into a larger being. While for students such as Stan and Stokely, this new being means a life lived authentically, for students such as Zeke and Casey, the question remains whether their new life is authentic or just a reflection of the influence of the social order, and other individuals, over them.
1. A analysis of The Faculty is not complete without an examination of the significance of the alien queen and her motivations. However, due to the already lengthy nature of this post, that discussion will be saved for another time. ↩