20 Years Ago LeVar Burton Directed This ‘Black Mirror’ Movie For Kids on Disney Channel
When 13-year-old Ben Cooper entered into, and won, a competition to win a house that could take care of his family’s needs via a virtual assistant, he had no idea what PAT, the digital life behind the virtual curtain, was capable of. Life at home for him, his little sister Angie, and his dad Nick was becoming increasingly difficult to manage and navigate after the death of the family matriarch, though, so the prospect of a smart house seemed like the solution to their problems.
Enter Sara Barnes, creator of Pat and the titular Smart House over which PAT had dominion. The rest is Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) history.
Twenty years ago today, Disney Channel released Smart House and introduced audiences to a futuristic, sci-fi world where AIs were capable of sentience in addition to completing household chores. What made Smart House so great was its exploration of issues related to family dynamics, advancing technology, motherhood, and the dangers of artificial intelligence. Other DCOMs released that year that tackled similar themes were Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Genius but Smart House was different due to its explicit, thorough, and deliberate treatment of the idea that “smart” technology could harbor more risks than rewards.
In Smart House, things started off fun and innocent. From immersive video games to house parties, personalized breakfasts to lighthearted conversations with Pat, the Coopers felt blessed to have been awarded such a great opportunity. They no longer had to sweat the small stuff and could navigate their own lives and interpersonal relationships much easier given the constant help from their omnipresent domestic engineer.
It wasn’t until Sara and Nick start dating, and Ben decided to reprogram PAT to learn about motherhood from classic sitcoms, that the excrement hit the air-conditioning and PAT began to turn into a controlling menace. Inspired by problematic tropes and dangerous stereotypes about motherhood and caregiving, PAT unleashed a storm of overprotective and overbearing fury onto the Coopers in an attempt to help them that proved to be more terrifying than welcomed.
PAT’s behavior, and the Coopers’ evolving relationship to PAT, would seem like your average sci-fi thriller and could be added to a list of similar films or shows like Ex Machina, Her, Westworld, and iRobot. Except for the fact that Smart House premiered twenty years ago and was a made-for-tv-movie for children. Sure, there were some shows like Star Trek and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Smart House offered the themes of those types of visual narratives to young children and encourage them to ask themselves important questions about their relationships to technology.
In 1999, the closest and most widely available things to PAT, or any type of “smart” technology, were home appliances, thermostats, garage door openers, and related products that many families owned. A far cry from the products released by companies like Amazon, Apple and Google today. It was a Siri-less world where you had to ask Jeeves because Alexa wasn’t invented yet.
Further, when Smart House premiered there was no such thing as macOS or Windows XP. It was also a pre-Xbox and pre-iPod era so most of the imagery and ideas featured in Smart House were pure fantasy and, to many, seemed too advanced to be possible anytime in the near future.
When PAT holds the Coopers hostage viewers were left wondering how they’d recover from and respond to the situation. But deeper questions and concerns lingered beneath the surface of the story that made Smart House into, arguably, a precursor for Black Mirror. If one were to craft a genealogy of films that challenge audiences to question their relationships to technology given the dangerous potential of unchecked advancements, Smart House would fit neatly onto a branch of 90s sci-fi on the cinematic family tree.
Smart House was subtle in the ways it approached complex, often philosophical, subject matter. PAT’s identity crisis, Ben’s grief-inspired reprogramming of PAT, the concept of a “good mother”, the reconceptualization of surrogacy, children interfering with their parents’ romantic relationships, the myth of privacy, the nature of being and existence with respect to corporeal bodies and consciousness, and the list goes on.
Screenwriters William R. Hudson and Stu Krieger, along with director LeVar Burton, encouraged DCOM fans to think about big ideas and imagine an alternate reality. What does it mean to be human? Can AIs have a personality? Is it possible to carry on after the sudden and tragic loss of a loved on? Smart House addresses those questions and more with humor, cool graphics, and a fun soundtrack that had late 90s tweens singing “jump, jump the house is jumpin” and “C’est la vie” for weeks.
Burton revealed that he was surprised by the popularity of Smart House and that “we are living in a time when the technology has advanced to the point where there are devices that are controlling a lot of aspects of our lives.” When asked about connections between Smart House and Black Mirror, particularly with respect to Ben’s obsession with finding a way to replace his deceased mother, he said that what he loves about science fiction is that “it really does cause us to think about the condition of humanity” and that there is “something about the storytelling that causes us to reflect on who we are, and how we’re doing at being humans.” Ben was “looking for the technology to fulfill a need that only a human being could. And and the result was, as you might predict, disastrous.”
As we get closer and closer to an era where technology and humanity are inextricably linked, it’s important to think about what led us to this point. Is there a point of no return? Maybe it’s time to consider some reprogramming.