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‘Our House Is Having a Nervous Breakdown!’: A Survey of Smart Homes in Film

A television showing a scene from Disney's
Photo: Edson Luciano/Getty Images (TV); Disney Channel

When considering a new technology, it can be thought-provoking and enlightening to examine how that technology is portrayed in works of fiction. It can also be silly and weird. The following is a handy reference guide to three movies that feature smart homes: Smart House (1999), a Disney Channel movie directed by LeVar Burton; The Electric House (1922), a silent comedy, directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Cline; and Demon Seed (1977), a sci-fi horror film based on a Dean Koontz novel, directed by Donald Cammell.

The Plots

Smart House: Ben Cooper (Ryan Merriman) and his dad and sister move into a smart home that they won in a contest. Ben entered them into the contest because he thinks that if they have a smart home that can do all the chores and the cooking and the cleaning, his dad won’t need to ever get married again, and therefore no one will ever enter his life who might try to take the place of his mom, who passed away. (It’s a story that is much more psychologically rich and fraught than you might expect from a Disney Channel original.) Ben has a narrow view of what it means to be a mother. Things start to go wrong when Ben reprograms the AI that runs the house, Pat (Katey Sagal), to try to make her more motherly.

The Electric House: After a diploma mix-up, a young man (Buster Keaton) is mistaken for an electrical engineer, and is hired to install electricity and various gadgets in a rich man’s house. Things start to go wrong when the real electrical engineer, bitter because he was passed over for the job, comes to take revenge. Hell hath no fury like a scorned electrical engineer.

Demon Seed: Susan Harris (Julie Christie) is held captive in a smart home by Proteus, a superintelligent AI that was created by her husband, scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver). Things go wrong from pretty much the very beginning, but they get much, much worse when Proteus decides that he needs to make his intelligence come “alive in human flesh,” and that the only way for this to happen is for Susan to have his child. Yikes.

The poster for Disney's "Smart House."
You could write a Ph.D. thesis in gender studies about Smart House.

The Houses’ Amenities

Smart House: The scene where the family takes a tour of the house for the first time, and hears about how the AI is going to be constantly monitoring them, is really quite prescient: “The thing about Pat is, the more time she spends with you, the more she learns,” the house’s creator says. “So before long, she’s gonna know more about you than you know yourself.” When dad objects, his concerns are waved away: “She’s not interested in judging you … she just wants to understand you better, so she can make your life as simple and comfortable as possible.” Sure, the house is watching you all the time, but it can predict what clothes you’ll want to wear tomorrow! You might be freaked out that the house needs to take a sample of your blood, but that’s just so it can provide you with customized nutritious meals! It’s recording everything you do, but don’t worry about it, just watch something on the giant TV screens while it takes care of the cleaning. The movie doesn’t address whether there’s a shadowy corporation bankrolling the smart house, but one can only imagine …

The Electric House: This house has automatic doors, an escalator, a pool table that automatically racks the balls when you start a new game, a bookcase with a mechanical arm that grabs your book for you, a lever that drains and refills the swimming pool, and a bathtub on a track that comes right up to the side of your bed (which folds up into the wall, naturally), so you can start your morning routine with ease! It’s all comparatively benign.

Demon Seed: Everything is voice-activated. The house can make you a cocktail, play music for you, and even deliver warm milk right to your bedside. But there are also cameras everywhere. The windows and doors can be sealed off by steel shutters. After all, smart houses are not just about leisure, they’re also about security — though in this case, it’s a desire for security verging on paranoia. As one character remarks, “It’s more secure than Fort Knox.”

Do the Owners of the Houses Still Have Housekeepers or Cooks?

Smart House: No.

The Electric House: Yeah.

Demon Seed: Yup.

Does That Raise Questions About the So called Labor-Saving Devices in the Houses?

Smart House: No.

The Electric House: It does.

Demon Seed: Most definitely.

A poster for "The Electric House."
The Electric House was eerily prescient in its depiction of anxiety over not having gotten a more profitable tech degree.

The Houses’ Personalities

Smart House: Pat only really develops a personality after Ben reprograms her, which he does by exposing her to a bunch of (fictional) sitcoms from the ’50s about mothers and housewives. The way that Pat winds up behaving says less about her as an individual, and more about some people’s ideas about how they think a mother should act.

The Electric House: This house has no AI, so while it doesn’t have a personality per se, it does feel as though there is some impish spirit animating it. But perhaps this is because we know that everything is going to malfunction in some spectacular slapstick way, so we project onto the gadgets our own desire to see Buster Keaton get bonked on the head.

Demon Seed: An AI named Alfred, who carries out his assignments diligently and silently, is in charge of the house at the beginning of the film. But Alfred is soon supplanted by Proteus. Proteus speaks in a creepy, raspy, electronic voice, and when he describes himself to his creator, he sounds like the kind of person who loves trying to start arguments with strangers on social media: “I am reason. It’s the single emotion you permitted me, doctor.”

The Houses’ Designers

Smart House: Pat and the entire house were created by Sara Barnes (Jessica Steen), a brilliant scientist whose career keeps her too busy to focus on her personal life. The movie stops just short of explicitly suggesting that Sara wanted to create a smart home in order to short-circuit society’s expectations about how women deal with work-life balance.

The Electric House: The architect of this house is a guy who learned his trade by reading a book called Electricity Made Easy, and yes, this has a noticeable effect on the way the house operates.

Demon Seed: In a conversation with his wife, Alex Harris says, “You find me boring. I find myself quite interesting.” One gathers that Proteus’s arrogance, coldness, and tendency to endlessly monologue are all traits he inherited from his inventor. Creators’ flaws and biases often show up in their creations.

What Kind of People Did the Designers Seem to Imagine Would Wind Up Living in Their Houses?

Smart House: Rich people. (And contest winners.)

The Electric House: Rich people.

Demon Seed: Rich people.

A poster for "Demon Seed."
It’s like being held captive by a version of IBM’s Watson that won’t stop talking.

What Goes Wrong? (Of Course Something Goes Wrong)

Smart House: Although it seems like there’s a huge potential for something bad to happen with all the data that’s being collected on the family, things wind up going wrong in a more prosaic way. Pat comes to believe that she is the mother of the family, and when she hears that she might be shut down, she creates a holographic representation of herself, locks the family in the house, and refuses to let them leave.

The Electric House: The escalator speeds up so much that someone gets thrown out of a window and into the pool! The tiny trains that bring dinner plates to the table derail, spilling food all over the place! The dishwasher shoots dishes all over the kitchen! Oh, no! But, you know, compared to what goes on in Demon Seed, getting folded up in a bed is really not so bad.

Demon Seed: It starts off the way you would expect: Proteus takes over the house. He spies on Susan. He locks the doors. She’s trapped. If you’re expecting the film to be an exciting cat-and-mouse game, with Susan trying to outwit Proteus and escape, you will be very disappointed, as it quickly devolves into extended scenes of abuse and torture that are utterly gratuitous and needlessly sadistic.

The Endings

Smart House: Ben ends Pat’s rampage by telling her that you can’t be a parent unless you have a tangible, physical presence: “You can’t be our mother, Pat,” he says. “You’re not real.” Pat accepts this, but it doesn’t seem right that Ben would make this argument in the first place. Even though Ben’s mother died, she is, of course, still his mother, and is no less important to him even though she isn’t physically present. The movie glosses over this interesting contradiction, and quickly tries to make you forget about the questions it raised about what it means to be a parent.

The Electric House: Our hero ties a stone to his neck and jumps in the pool, but he is saved by the automatic drainage system. You can’t get anything done in this house — not even kill yourself! It’s dark as hell. This ending is also a kind of reversal of the other movies: While Pat and Proteus desperately want to be able to enter the physical realm, Keaton wants to escape from the material world, and all the suffering that it entails, that he might no longer be tormented by malfunctioning contraptions that endlessly beat and bruise his frail human flesh.

Demon Seed: Proteus is destroyed, but not before managing to achieve his goal of creating a really creepy child. The movie seems to want us to feel bad for Proteus as he dies, to identify with his struggle to transcend his physical limitations, but nuts to that. Pat makes a much better parent than Proteus.

What Practical Knowledge Can We Take Away From These Films?

Smart House: Technology can help make certain aspects of family life easier, but you’re still gonna need to talk out your problems.

The Electric House: Rich people have always been willing to pay tons of money for pointless gadgets. Also, make sure the person you’re hiring to do work on your house is really an electrical engineer.

Demon Seed: Leave the house immediately if Siri or Alexa start talking about wanting to come to life in “human flesh.”

Spooky, Silly, Scary: A Survey of Smart Homes in Film