In 1988, director Stewart Raffill released his follow up to the moderately successful The Philadelphia Experiment. Raffill’s career has never been one to garner awards attention, having delivered mostly genre fare that has left little in the viewers memory. Yet, in 1988, he joined the great Blake Edwards as the co-recipient of an award that many maybe don’t want to have – the Worst Director award at the Razzies. Beating out Michael Dinner for Hot to Trot, Roger Donaldson for Cocktail and Peter MacDonald for Rambo III; Edwards won his award for his film Sunset, while Raffill won his award for a little film called Mac and Me.
Now, at that same ceremony, Mac and Me went on to lose (or win?) the Worst Film award to Donaldson’s 5% on Rotten Tomatoes film, Cocktail – a film which has gone on to have a slight cultural influence with its cocktail concoction scene. History has been kinder to Cocktail, with it becoming appreciated for what it is – an ok film with a charismatic lead. Yet, if you were to ask people on the street what the worst film of the bunch that was nominated (Caddyshack II 4%, Rambo III 36%, Hot to Trot 0%, Cocktail 5%, Mac and Me 0%), then odds are they would say that Mac and Me was the worst out of the bunch. Hands down. It’s a stinker. Ask Paul Rudd, he’ll tell you.
I’m of the firm belief that there is no such thing as a ‘guilty pleasure’. The ‘Urban Dictionary’ definition of guilty pleasure is Something that you shouldn’t like, but like anyway. Well, why shouldn’t I like Mac and Me?
It sits on Rotten Tomatoes with a solid zero percent rating, meaning it has no positive reviews. On IMDb it has a user average of 3.4/10. Understandably then, after all this time, many will gladly deride the film as being a truly terrible film. Comparisons to Spielberg’s E.T. are apt – a young boy befriends a lost alien, junk food is consumed as a way of bonding, and inevitably, chaos ensues. Other complaints include the somewhat average design of the aliens; the obvious latex of the costumes taking away from the believability of the creatures, and the janky animatronics giving a disturbingly unnatural feel to the movements. Then, of course, there’s the unexpected dance number in a McDonald’s that seems to come out of nowhere… or does it?
But, with all of that in mind, it’s a film that I have great affection for. Let’s be clear first of all – this is not a masterpiece of cinema, but on the same hand, it is also not a completely incompetent film. Technically, there’s little to complain about – there’s some nice camera work and Alan Silvestri’s score is fine. Acting on the other hand is not exactly the best with the two young actors – Jade Calegory and Lauren Stanley – providing the best young child performances they can muster. The story cribs a lot from E.T., but manages to throw its own spin on the ‘lost alien’ story.
For all its criticisms, and the regularity that Paul Rudd rolls out clips as a punchline, Mac and Me isn’t actually all that bad. In fact, it’s one of the most progressive films to come out of the eighties, promoting the employment of disabled actors in lead roles, while also having a pro-immigration message at its core. Yes, there’s even a healthy dose of pro-consumerism and pro-corporatisation as well, but more on that later on.
First up: the casting of Jade Calegory as the lead, Eric Cruise. Calegory is wheelchair bound due to having had spina bifida. After sixteen operations, including a spinal fusion, Calegory had to spend a fair amount of his childhood in a full body cast. He wanted to prove that kids in wheelchairs weren’t lazy and were just as capable of doing the same things that full bodied kids were able to, and through his role as Eric in Mac and Me he was able to do just that.
As Calegory’s mother said in a People interview, ‘the movie shows that these kids can get in a chair and play. They don’t have to sit in front of a TV. Jade just plays the part of a regular kid, and it took a lot of courage to do that.’ One of the modern complaints about films and television is the under-representation of minority groups in key roles. If only Mac and Me were a successful film, then it could ideally have helped boost the representation of disabled actors in cinema. As it is, many roles that require the actor to be in a wheelchair, or not have full use of their body, are portrayed by able bodied actors (namely, The Theory of Everything or the offensive Me Without You).
The difference between those roles and the casting of Calegory in Mac and Me is that the fact that Eric is in a wheelchair does not define him as a character. It doesn’t exclude him from living the life that he wants to live, where many films with characters who are not able bodied are restricted in life, with the film showing that their life is hampered and possibly even ruined by the fact they are not able bodied. Here, Eric’s mother Janet (Christine Ebersole) is supportive of her son, having moved across the country from Illinois to California and into a wheelchair friendly home (well, that is besides the massive drop off into a ravine at the back of the house).
The set up for the Cruise families story is simple – they’re moving to a new state, and a new home, after the separation of Janet and the Cruise boys father (who is only seen in a family photo Eric keeps by his bed). The set up for Mac’s family is a little different. On a planet far away from Earth, they encounter an American spaceship that has landed to collect some rocks – think a larger version of the Mars Rover. At first, Mac’s family set up to defend themselves from this foreign entity by throwing rocks at it, only to find that it harbours no aggression towards them.
They move closer to the ship, and realising that it’s just there to just collect rocks they assist it with its task. One of the larger rocks that they offer up the ‘invading’ unit is later claimed to ‘look great’ by one of the scientists back on Earth. One could possibly read a little too much into this situation where a spaceship – American, of course – has invaded a foreign land for their own benefit. As the ship sucks up air, it manages to suck up Mac and his family – the first sign of the bizarre flexibility of Mac’s race.
On the subject of Mac’s appearance for a moment – many have complained about the creature design of Mac, with his giant bulbous eyes, pointed ears and straw sized mouth. Unlike many alien invasion films, we’re presented with a good idea of what Mac’s planet looks like – and from that small representation we’re able to gather what kind of evolution would have had to have taken place for these creatures to turn out the way they did. They gather their food by spiking a hole in the ground and drinking whatever the fluid is that is there. Their skin is weathered and tanned, almost as if it’s a camouflage to help them blend in with the stark environment they live in.
Part of the argument against certain creature designs can be read as pertaining to that which wholly embraces the creationist theory. That is, shouldn’t a creature look visually appealing, and relatable, to that of what us humans look like? Shouldn’t the anthropomorphic traits of creature design be heightened to create a stronger relationship between viewer and film?
Unless that creature has specifically been created within the context of a story, then why is it not possible for a creature within a film to look however the designers wish them to look? Is it not enough to say, plug in No Man’s Sky and base a film on whatever abomination that game conjures up. To say that a creature is ugly, or illogical, goes against whatever possible evolution has occurred within the world that that creature has come from. When people complained about the unsympathetic alien in Super 8, they were complaining because it was a creature that the kids in the film had grown to sympathise with, and the creature itself was reasonably monster-esque. Much the same as the kids within Mac and Me who immediately throw aside any biases that they may have and want to support and help Mac and his family.
There is the preconceived notion that within a family film, the non-human creature should be child-friendly, or rather, be an approachable, toy-friendly looking creature. While Mac does technically tick some of those boxes, there is no denying that the movements and body type of the creatures is eerie and can be off putting to watch. Their distended bellies and awkward gait, combined with elongated fingers and an unsettling manner of communication gives these humanoid looking aliens an almost uncanny valley feeling. They look like humans, but clearly they are not. It’s natural for our mind to reject things that are abnormal, or different, or things that are not familiar to us.
That’s not to say that unnatural looking aliens can’t be empathetic creatures. One simply needs to look at Abbott & Costello in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to see that the squid like creatures are as empathetic as Spielberg’s E.T. creation. Sure, the whole point of Arrival was to show that through communication and the use of unconventional language – or rather, pushing ourselves past accepting solely base human relationships – that we can be united together in ways that we couldn’t imagine. The unconventional manner that Mac communicates to Eric in relation to where his family is – namely, but making pseudo-wind farms out of straws – is a barrier that Eric has to conquer. It is only when Eric sees the wind farms that he truly recognises what Mac was trying to communicate. Granted, Amy Adams Louise Banks character has much more difficult barriers to break down.
With that in mind, one of the great strengths about Mac and Me is the unbiased nature of the kids within the film. Eric and his neighbour Debbie are non-judgemental. The first time Debbie sees Eric, she doesn’t comment on his wheelchair – as many kids may do – but rather, comments about how it’s great that she’ll have someone new to talk to. She sees Eric for who he is, rather than for his disability. Later, when Mac goes fleeing across the backyard, Debbie calls out to Eric to find out if that was his brother – even though he’s a little funny looking.
In fact, Debbie is possibly the strongest character of the bunch. She’s strong willed, knows what she wants and when she’s presented with an unruly and very, very curious bunch of aliens in the back of a speeding van, she stands her ground, demanding they pay attention to her and follow her directions. In turn, she manages to keep them occupied for long enough so they don’t keep turning tyre irons into knots.
If anything, Mac and Me is about acceptance and helping those in need. This, understandably, is a message that can easily get lost amongst the somewhat overbearing product placement. Well, that is if you find product placement an issue. In this modern society where the over-consumption of brand name products is reaching plague like proportions, it should theoretically be easy to then accept that characters in cinema would consume the same products as us mere mortals. But, isn’t the cinema a safe place that is far away from the badgering of endless advertising? Aren’t you supposed to sit down and watch a film without being reminded to just do it and eat fresh? In a sly homage to the ultimate 80’s takedown of consumerism, John Carpenter’s They Live, Eric’s brother initially only sees Mac while he’s wearing his sunglasses.
Of course. the argument could be presented that if a group of characters are using iPhones and driving a Prius’, then that’s simply a fair representation of those sorts of people in real life. Now, in the case of Mac and Me where the character of Ronald McDonald (who won a Razzie for ‘Worst Newcomer’) is a part of the ‘plot’, and Coke is consumed at a frequency that would make the most cynical dentist smile, it’s hard not to find the product placement a bit on the nose.
As an imitation of E.T., Mac and Me delivers highly accentuated product placement notes as if it were aiming to be a parody, with its existence further informing the parodic tone it may have been aiming for. E.T. famously asked the Mars company if they could use their M&M’s in the film, which of course, Mars declined, paving the way for Hershey’s to step in with their similar crispy shelled candy. Reese’s Pieces took the place of M&M’s and their sales increased after the film was released. Besides the fact that the ‘Mac’ in McDonald’s makes up part of the title (the and Me part stolen from a working title for E.T. – E.T. and Me), there is the ludicrously glorious dance sequence at a kids birthday party that announces the end of the second act that essentially takes the concept of product placement and says, product placement getting you down? Ok, fine then, here’s a ten minute ad for McDonald’s birthday parties. (Full disclosure: I used to work at McDonald’s and run kids birthday parties and they never, ever involved singing and dancing and flying aliens in bear costumes.)
Part two can be read here.