Smart House (1999) might be the scariest Disney film ever. You would not know it from watching a preview, or even seeing the whole movie. Hopefully this review will enlighten you. You can find it on Disney +. Outside of its existential horror, I was left wondering how in the world it got made at all. I suppose it is proof positive that when you have money to burn like the Mouse, you can let anybody pursue whatever crazy idea that falls out of their addled brains. Hence, it might not surprise you that it was directed by LeVar Burton. You remember him, right? When I was a kid, he was great on Reading Rainbow. He earned his fame before for that by appearing on the famous television mini-series Roots. Then next we saw him he was Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its various spin-off films. After that, he sort of disappeared, though his International Movie Database (IMDb) page would suggest otherwise. What, was he wandering around a Disney backlot and somebody said, “Hey! LeVar! Come direct Smart House for us! You were on Star Trek, so you know technology stuff, right?” Okay, I am rationalizing. On with the review.
Evil genius . . . er, semi-competent computer engineer Sara (Jessica Steen) has developed a fully automated home with an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) she calls “Pat” (Katey Sagal), which is short for “Personal Applied Technology.” Yes, instead of giving this technology to, say, the military, she decides to implant it in a home. Doubling down on this strange move, she then starts some kind of local contest for people to enter to win the right to live in the house. Cut to eighth grader Ben (Ryan Merriman) who is obsessed with winning the sweepstakes. When we first see him, he is making a tuna casserole. You know, the kind of thing you see any typical thirteen year old boy do. So confused was I at first that I thought he was living on his own. But in walks his younger sister Angie (Katie Volding), followed shortly thereafter by his dad Nick (Kevin Kilner). Mom, Natalie (Susan Haskell), died a few years previously, which accounts for the added responsibility Ben takes upon himself. I guess this also partially explains why he wants a house that can do everything for him, though that is not how the film plays it. Instead, he is portrayed as seeking a mother figure. Also, instead of letting dad go out on dates with other women (Ben goes so far as to purposely not relay messages from past dates to his dad), he seeks out this AI home? Okay. . . . Because Ben had entered the contest like a billion times, they win the the right to live in the wonder-abode. At first, everything is fine. Pat can make strawberry smoothies (that are oddly blue) instantaneously, along with a host of other technological amazements with a simple voice command. Things begin to go wrong when Nick starts making passes at Sara, who is on call to take care of any problem with the house. Ben is obsessively protective of his dad (think The Good Son (1993) and you kind of get where I am coming from) to the point of being rude to Sara when she is over for dinner. In response, Ben begins messing with Pat’s programming, changing her from a machine that unobtrusively suggests efficiency to an over-bearing 1950s housewife with the power to imprison her family if they act out of line. That is not hyperbole, by the way. Despite being shut down to fix other bugs occurring, Pat turns herself back on when she hears Nick making a comment about her not being needed. She also creates a three dimensional, holographic projection of herself that shutters in Ben, Angie, and Nick with steel plates over the doors and windows until they can learn to behave. In spite of all her newfound self awareness, what gets Pat to relent is when she realizes she can never actually physically touch anyone. This happens when Ben is beginning to break down in terror and she reaches out to stroke her cheek. When the non-existent hand passes through his face, she accepts that she is just a program and allows Sara to return her to her original settings. And despite this harrowing experience, they all decide to continue living in the house as if nothing happened.
Look, you can compare Smart House all you want to Terminator (as I did) or any of the other horror films I mentioned. The comparisons are apt, but that clearly not the intent of the film. It is played completely straight, which makes it hilariously awful. I am willing to bet that most of the budget went to getting Katey Sagal (for some reason) and the semi-familiar Kevin Kilner. The rest went to the bargain basement special-effects unworthy of a production company like Disney that is actually well-known for innovation. But when it is 1999 and you have the Disney Channel to run, you have to have something to fill the hours of the day. Thus you get Smart House.
Earlier I mentioned Smart House in the context of an existential crisis, and I stand by that opinion. The subtle suggestion is that technology can make our lives better, and this is an age-old debate. Heck, the Amish have been making a lifestyle out rejecting modern conveniences for hundreds of years. The word “convenience” speaks to what I am getting at here. For even longer than the Amish the Catholic Church has had groups of people who give up such things to live a life dedicated to prayer. However, neither does the Church say that one way of living is better than the other. Put differently, it is not wrong or sinful to live in house like that depicted in the movie. What becomes problematic is when those tools take the place of the gifts that God gave you. In short, the danger is to become lazy. The Bible refers to this as “sloth.” If a bit of technology can free you to do other things, like praying more or doing something else for the betterment of society, so much the better. I sort of see The Legionnaire in this context. Conversely, if these conveniences do everything you need to simply go on breathing and you do nothing else, that is a bit of a problem, no? You can point to any of many health crises in American society today that can be linked to too much reliance on technology.
Smart House explores none of these issues. Instead, it has the horrifying climax where Pat concludes that she is not real, and the film ends with everyone carrying on as normal. What a missed opportunity, Disney. Is it that they felt like slipping deeper messages into this made-for-television movie was unnecessary? I do not know. What I will say is that there is nothing objectionable about the film from a Faith perspective. Most of what I discussed above is subtext that runs through my mind as I watch a movie like this one. So if you want to submit yourself to this torture, then go ahead. As the credits began rolling, I sat there for a moment trying to stem the tide of hysterical laughter that was attempting to force its way out of me.
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