Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Project DCOM #9: SMART HOUSE


An unreconciled tension of recent years is between the creepy intrusiveness and phenomenal convenience of our technology. From social media to smart phones to the burgeoning concept of "the internet of things," we're increasingly willing to ignore the vast amount of data and privacy we're sacrificing all in the name of having convenience and efficiencies we never knew we needed. I certainly don't exempt myself from this equation, seeing as I'm typing this on an Apple computer with Microsoft Word and posting these thoughts online under my own name for all to Google. It's a concept that we're just now wrestling with, but this tension of intrusive convenience as it relates to modern lives had an early, perhaps partially accidental, dramatization in Smart House, a 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie directed by none other than beloved TV actor LeVar Reading Rainbow, Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation Burton?

Sci-fi as a genre has made much of these themes for decades, but surely Smart House is one of the first to get at the unthinking speed with which the average person will dismiss concerns about new technology when confronted with unimagined innovation promising comprehensive convenience. The Coopers, a single father (Kevin Kliner) with two kids, Ben (Ryan Merriman) and Angie (Katie Volding, also the little sister in Brink!), win a contest to live in "Smart House." The scientist (Jessica Steen) who heads the project gives them the grand tour of the features. The house comes outfitted with PAT, a personal applied technology that will learn about the inhabitants and adjust settings to their liking. It can ascertain your entire medical history with a drop of blood and chart your diet with built in breathalyzers. There are video screens for walls, self-vacuuming floors, and a kitchen that cooks for you, all run through an artificial intelligence that interacts with a chipper, maternal voice (Katey Sagal, the same year she started playing Leela on Futurama). Take that, Siri. The father's first reaction is to mention that it all seems a little creepy. But by the next scene they're moving in.

This is undeniably a goofy techno-paranoia parable with a distinctly late-90's vision of the future of high tech. There's a lot of obvious green screen work, fakey CG effects, and computer displays that can do just about anything with a handful of clattering keystrokes. An example of the movie's uniquely late-90's perspective happens early on when the scientist calls the winning family, but gets a busy signal because the son is still online, hogging the phone line, having fallen asleep while repeatedly entering the contest. But for all the silly surface detail, the movie isn't interested in exploring the smart house as much as it is using the house as a means of the son working out trauma over the death of his mother a few years before the movie's start.

It's quickly apparent that the boy is jealously guarding his family's status quo, working overtime to make sure he gets his sister doing her homework and dinner is on the table by the time dad gets home. An early scene shows him answering the phone, hearing a prospective date for his father on the other end of the line, and then purposely not passing the message along. When questioned, he tells his father that she didn't sound like his type anyway. He's living with a fear that his dad will invite a new mom into their lives. But he can't even bring himself to imagine the possibility when the empty space left by his mother's death still looms so large in his psyche. A sentimental scene midway through the picture finds the boy watching a home video of his mom that the house has helpfully projected on his bedroom wall. As tears run down his face, the sounds of his mother singing fill the room. It's a blunt force blow to the emotions, manipulative and effective.

Smart House is at its best when it’s poking around in this emotional rawness, or simply relaxing into simple teen anxieties as filtered through their techno-domicile. The dad, who is sweet on the scientist who in turn has eyes for him, invites her over for dinner as part of a nicely underplayed romantic subplot. Dinner conversation is largely about the house. "Does she follow me into the shower, too?" the boy nervously asks. Upon hearing the answer is no, he sighs, "That's a relief!" It's a small, funny touch of embarrassment that rings somewhat truthful of actual adolescent experience. That his character's anxieties about burgeoning changes - along with the aforementioned lingering mourning - lead directly to the main technological breakdown of the house is a nice touch in otherwise simple script by William Hudson and Stu Krieger (the latter also wrote Zenon). The son's the one who uploads a data dump of sitcom moms into the house's code, leading her to turn eventually into a cheery simulacrum of maternity, a monstrously exaggerated mother who turns quippy, overzealous, and eventually a hostage taker. "Mother knows best!" she happily roars, materializing as a 50's housewife of a hologram in the living room.

The movie's basically a cheesy mild sci-fi goof, like a motherly HAL 9000 crashing into a soft, amiable pre-teen sitcom. For every scene that gets near emotional truths it pivots into, say, an overly choreographed house party complete with pounding pop provided by an 'N Sync sound-alike band. (A total late-90's touch is the way teens show up to the party with their invitation emails printed out.) The way the plot eventually resolves its tensions is easy and almost hilarious in its deflating nature. The movie has neither the budget nor inclination to truly wrestle with its interests be they technical or emotional. It may accidentally end up saying that technology solves all and provides all, except when it comes to humans’ emotional needs. It’s an accidentally perceptive kids’ movie in which the main conflict is about a boy’s emotional development and the silly tech traumas only follow.

Up next: Johnny Tsunami

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