In the year of Spielberg, a reminder of his most shameless imitators

Mac and Me. ()
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Simon Abrams

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2011 just might be Steven Spielberg’s year. He’s directed two films that will be theatrically released in a couple of months (War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin). And there have been at least two other films made by accomplished directors that pay homage to his style and his films’ suburban milieu (ex: Super 8).

Unfortunately for us, Spielberg’s films are just as often the inspiration for crappy knock-off artists as they are for genuinely talented filmmakers. For every Attack the Block, there’s a Mac and Me, one of several shameless rip-offs of Spielberg’s period-defining E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

Mac and Me, which screened Friday night at 92YTribeca, is symptomatic of a time when Spielberg sparked the nonexistent imaginations of more dimwitted opportunists than creative types. Everyone wanted to make the next E.T. It inadvertently set the formulaic standard that other kiddie films aspired in vain to recreate. Between 1982, the year E.T. was released, and 1988, the year Mac and Me was unleashed, a slew of lame kiddie pics were released, many of which centered on childlike humanoids that made new friends while learning what its means to be human, whatever that means.

The longer the '80s wore on, the more derivative and desperate many of these films got. In 1986 you get Short Circuit, a movie in which pop culture-obsessed robot Johnny 5 replaces the doey-eyed alien, running amuck in urban San Francisco instead of Spielberg’s Everyburb, USA. It was hip where Spielberg’s film was cynical and that was kind of the problem. Spielberg’s films are always sincere, particularly in their firm belief that children and families are the zenith of man’s potential.

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The creators of Mac and Me didn’t get Spielberg’s idiosyncratic kind of square but overwhelmingly resonant kind of optimism. After all, Mac and Me is a film where Coca Cola has magical healing properties that can resurrect dead aliens. Writer-director Stewart Raffill and cowriter Steve Feke effectively reduced Spielberg’s love of Americana to bad kitsch.

In Mac and Me, a nuclear family of aliens that look like coked-out Sea Monkeys crash-lands somewhere in California. Mama and papa alien are separated from their sonny alien, renamed Mac (Mysterious Alien Creature), who winds up running around the West Coast, creating trouble for his human surrogate family.

In theory, the fact that Mac is a troublemaker but is too innocent to know it is the most Spielbergian aspect of the film. Practically speaking, Raffill and Feke make Mac look like a rejected Looney Tunes character afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. The best example of this is when he Mac flies into an electrified fence and then crashes into a moving car’s windshield, causing a fatal accident. Yes, someone dies because of Mac’s negligence. And don’t even get me started on the notorious wheelchair scene, which is so bad that it went on to inspire a running gag on Conan O’Brien’s show featuring comedian Paul Rudd.

On top of that, Raffill and Feke just don’t seem to get a central tenet of Spielberg’s films: the unknown must remain unknown. You can’t assimilate aliens into normal society: E.T. goes home and the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind leave Earth with obsessed scientist Richard Dreyfuss in tow. Conversely, the aliens in Mac and Me become U.S. citizens in an utterly meaningless finale that suggests that even creatures from beyond can become junk food-guzzling Americans (Mac has a thing for Skittles, Coca-Cola and McDonald's hamburgers). If that finale doesn’t make you violently angry, you probably have ice in your veins.

And yet, as spectacularly awful as Mac and Me is, it’s not even the worst E.T. knock-off made in 1988. That dubious honor goes to Nukie, which is also probably the most incompetent E.T. ripoff of any time period (unless you count Extra Terrestrian: Die Ausserirdische, the 1996 German E.T.-inspired porn; don’t ask). Nukie is a South African kids’ film that follows a midget-sized alien that looks like a cross between a Care Bear and the Elephant Man.

Nukie isn’t just incoherent—it’s also crazy. Nukie, our misshapen alien hero, has crash-landed in the wilds of South Africa. Nukie struggles to get to America, where his lost companion Miko is being held captive by evil scientists. The trouble is, Nukie’s very weak and doesn’t have the strength to transform into a star and fly over to America (Did I mention that he can transform into a star and fly places?)

Meanwhile, somewhere in America, Miko is hurt and alone, save for Eddi, a hyperintelligent but emotionally stunted computer that runs the medical facility Miko’s imprisoned in. Oh and Eddi is armed with an “auto-hypnotic defense system.” There’s also a talking monkey named Charlie in the film. No, this never made sense. Yes, you may laugh now.

While Mac and Me was just rotten and ill-conceived, Nukie is uniquely perplexing. The most head-scratchingly traumatic scene in the film has to be the one in which Eddi hypnotizes Miko’s evil human captor and forces him to regress to his childhood when he (the evil human) wanted to be a clown. This scene is especially terrifying because once he’s become hypnotized, the evil guard starts to strip his clothes off. For a moment, it looks like the film is about to transform into a sick South African version of Demon Seed. Thankfully, Nukie’s filmmakers never go down that road.

Nukie is an unwelcome reminder of just how awful films “suggested by” Spielberg can get. In a weird way, 92YTribeca and its programmers did us a huge favor by unearthing Mac and Me before either War Horse or The Adventures of Tintin came out. Right now, comedies like Gregg Mottola’s Paul are great reminders of just how inspiring Spielberg’s movies can be. But sometimes, the best way to really appreciate artists is to gawk at their worst imitators.