If you follow Doug "Nostalgia Critic" Walker, you'll know that his Disneycember reviews last year were on the Disney Channel Original Movies. And if you're a millennial like myself who grew up watching those movies back in the 1990s and 2000s, you'd consider his reviews to be quite the trip down memory lane--for better or for worse!
In terms of quality, the Disney Channel movies are quite the grab bag. While a lot of them are cheesy, schlocky flicks that were always as bad as we remembered them, a few of them have proven to stand the test of time as quite the rare gems, or good enough movies.
Aside from High School Musical and Halloweentown, two movies that have come to be considered classics--or as "classical" as made-for-television movies can be--are two that were, interestingly enough, released on the same year of 1999: Smart House and Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.
Both movies in recent years have risen to the surface within the cultural zeitgeist, with both movies ranking high on lists on Buzzfeed and Collider, inspiring several think pieces and reviews, and with Zenon even rumored to receive its own television series.
But what is it about these two movies that have captured the collective memories of millennials? Are these movies just as good as when they first premiered nearly two decades ago? Or are millennials just too blinded by nostalgia to realize that both movies have aged as well as the Y2K panic? (Answer: Yes, both of them are really that good!)
To learn more about these two movies and why they're so beloved, click READ MORE:
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, as the title suggests, is about a girl named Zenon who lives in the 21st Century. Specifically, she lives on a space station in the year 2049. However, after getting into trouble too many times, she finds herself "grounded" quite literally when she's sent away to live on Earth, only to find herself in a race against time to get back into space to save her home from evil corporate sabotage.
Smart House, likewise, as the title suggests, is about a high-tech house that the main teenage protagonist wins through a contest. Specifically, he wanted to obtain the house to help better provide for his family following the death of his mother, and in doing so, hopefully dissuade his father from re-marrying. Unfortunately, his hopes quickly become dashed when his father becomes romantically interested in the home's creator, prompting him to upgrade the house's artificial intelligence, P.A.T., to serve more as a literal mother figure. Hijinks and drama ensues.
Outside of those two plot synopses, there's not much else about these two movies. They both suffer from the same level of stilted acting and schlocky writing that's to be expected from such made-for-television movies, especially on the Disney Channel back in the late 1990s, and they both unfold predictably enough as one would expect them to. However, what makes both movies stand out, especially in the memories of the millennials who first watched them back in the day, are their very premises.
Specifically, both movies exhibit forward-thinking and progressive (technologically speaking) perspectives on emerging technologies and their potential applications. Zenon presents a very general futuristic setting where science and technology have progressed to the point where human beings are able to live in space, while Smart House focuses on a more domestic household setting and how new technological advancements could be potentially utilized within daily family life.
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As such, the biggest draw with both movies is being able to watch them years later to see how far actual technology has advanced, and thus how well both movies predicted such technological advancements. And while many of these predications remain as far-fetched as the predictions of most other sci-fi stories, many of them have proven eerily accurate in hindsight.
For example, while we're nowhere close to living in space stations like those in Zenon, the way we're able to communicate with others on our smartphones and tablets is similar to how Zenon talks with her friends using her handheld communicator. And while our houses may not be able to prepare meals or clean messes like P.A.T., many technological breakthroughs in voice recognition, video projection, and especially with "smart home" appliances are making our homes close to being just as smart as her.
While both movies are forwarding thinking towards their view of technology, they are by no means ideal or without conflict. However, even in their conflicts, both movies show the impact of technology within our everyday lives, for better or for worse.
For example, the central conflict in Zenon involves the villain trying to take down the space station's computer system. Such a conflict reveals how much our own society has become interconnected through computers, especially in recent years, and how a similar threat against our own computer systems could have equally devastating consequences.
As for Smart House, it's central conflict involves the house's artificial intelligence going rouge and holding the entire family hostage "for their own good." While clearly a hyperbolic example, this conflict reflects current concerns over artificial intelligence, especially considering how much it has advanced since the movie was first released.
In both cases, the conflicts are eventually overcome and the future continues on brighter than before. Helping provide the latter film's forward-thinking vision was its director, LeVar Burton, whose previous experience on Star Trek: The Next Generation as both an actor and director made him the "de facto futuristic expert" when it came to directing and overseeing the movie's sci-fi elements.
"Disney Channel thought I might be the right voice to interpret this quirky original movie and I thought it was a really inventive idea," he said during an interview with Magenta. "The tech we imagined in 'Star Trek' was several generations more advanced than 'Smart House.' So it was pretty easy for me to imagine what will be out there in 10, 15, 20 years from where we were in 1999."
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Perhaps the biggest factor that helped facilitate the forward-thinking vision of both films was the time period during which they were released. Both films premiered on the same year of 1999, a time when people were anticipating the new millennium and the potential future it would bring, with that future envisaged to be nothing but positive considering the previous decade's track record.
While not a decade without conflict, the 1990s were relatively a more positive time during the 20th Century, especially when compared to now. The decade started promisingly enough with the decades-long Cold War having come to an end with the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. The remaining years experienced peace and prosperity brought about through the polices of the Clinton Administration, and technological advancements brought about by the advent of the internet and other emerging technologies. With the decade drawing to a close and a new millennium on the horizon, the future was only appearing brighter and brighter.
Sadly, all that optimism was snuffed out on the fateful date of September 11, 2001. What had up until then been a time of relative peace was ended through one terrorist attack and the ensuing War on Terror, while the previous decade's economic prosperity would dry up through increased military spending and the 2008 housing crisis. The dream for a "great big beautiful tomorrow" in 1999 had since transformed more into an existential nightmare one decade later, with many people fearing that there wouldn't even be a future on the horizon.
That's probably the big takeaway from both of these movies. Not only do they serve as time capsules for what people back then anticipated the future to be like, but they also preserve the overall optimism that generation had for the future, which starkly contrasts with the prominent pessimism permeating the present. Of course, even back then, such optimism was as rare as it is today.
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Quick question: aside from these two made-for-television movies, what other pieces of media before or after the 1990s presented a positive view of the future? The only other two media that I can think of on the top of my head are Star Trek: The Next Generation and Futurama.
Every other sci-fi movie or television show since then has had two flavors of potential futures: dystopian future (The Hunger Games) or fallout from dystopian future (Mad Max: Fury Road). Even before the 1990s, most movies set in the future, from Terminator to Blade Runner to Robocop, have predicted nothing but dark times ahead of us, and the future has only since appeared darker in reflection of our already existing dark times--especially since most of those movies have received sequels (Terminator: Genisys and Blade Runner 2049) or remakes (Robocop 2014).
Even Star Trek, which was created with the sole purpose of presenting a better future created through advanced technology and mutual human cooperation, has since abandoned its high-minded ideals in favor of presenting more mindless conflict, which has been the current downward trend following The Next Generation. The new theatrical movies especially suffer from this, with J.J. Abrams seeming to focus less on "let's imagine a better future" and more on "let's see things blow up in space!"
Look! There's nothing wrong with dystopian future scenarios. We need science fiction to help us better examine our current societal problems and consider their long-term effects and consequences, and that often means considering the worse case scenario. But we also need science fiction to help us consider scientific and technological breakthrough and how their potential applications can help better our everyday lives.
The problem, of course, is that science fiction today focuses too much on the former and not so much on the latter. While stories about dystopian futures can help us recognize the warning signs of such futures as to better prevent them from happening, sometimes you have to wonder if focusing on nothing but dystopia can have the adverse effect of making the general public assume that such futures are not only inevitable but unavoidable.
Ironically, such a concern was the subject of the Disney movie, Tomorrowland (an underrated film, IMHO). In that movie, the villain pines about how humanity long abandoned the hope for a better tomorrow and succumbed toward apathy due to the oversaturation of dystopian media:
"The entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon...In every moment there's the possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future does not ask anything of you today."
But that's not the way things have to be. We don't have to remain wading in the mire of doom and gloom futures. We can imagine a better tomorrow. And that exact same movie said as much: "There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed."
That's probably why most millennials fondly remember both Zenon and Smart House: in a time when the current economic reality has given them a raw deal and made them lose all hope, both movies provide them comfort in helping them remember a time when this wasn't always the case, a time when people had hope that things could get better and not worse.
And in a time when our media seems obsessed in presenting us nothing but gloom and doom visions of encroaching apocalypse, it's also comforting for them to remember that there once a time when the media allowed us to dream of a great big beautiful tomorrow just a dream away.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need more positive, forward-thinking visions of tomorrow like Zenon and Smart House. Because in the end, the wolf that wins is the wolf that you feed.