The Zeros

Mac and Me Should Have Been a Horror Movie

Instead, it's just a cynical exercise in product placement full of inexplicable choices, and it never rises to achieve any more than that.

by | September 26, 2018 | Comments

Behind the Zero

Orion courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by Orion courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1982, something wonderful and miraculous happened that changed the art and business of film forever. Steven Spielberg’s beloved 1982 masterpiece E.T. integrated Reese’s Pieces into its instantly iconic story of a homesick alien’s friendship with a little boy in a way that was organic and unforgettable and, naturally, sold a lot of Reese’s Pieces.

E.T. also had a few other distinctions, of course. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards in big categories like Best Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay and triumphed in four technical categories. Oh, and it was the top-grossing film of all time before Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park bested it and became a beloved, iconic, essential piece of Americana in its own right.

But as far as the makers of the exquisitely misguided 1988 knock-off Mac and Me were concerned, all that mattered was that Spielberg’s box-office champion used a heart-tugging tale to sell an unhealthy consumer product by linking it forever in the public mind with a successful motion picture.

E.T. illustrated that, when creatively and naturally implemented into a story, product placement could be big business and, perhaps even more remarkably, capable of enhancing the experience. It was an insanely lucrative and influential afterthought for the master craftsmen behind E.T., who were primarily concerned with making a great film. In Mac and Me, however, product placement became the entire point.

The thinking seemed to be that if a perfect showcase like E.T. could do huge things for a then-modestly popular candy like Reese’s Pieces, then just imagine how massive, blue-chip global giants like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola could benefit from a similar movie. Crafted in the E.T. mold, Mac and Me existed, more or less, to brainwash impressionable, easily entertained children into equating the two corporate behemoths — both major sources of tooth decay and childhood obesity — with pure joy and happiness. Coca-Cola is depicted as an elixir of the Gods that can literally revive the dead and bring about intergalactic harmony, and while the “MAC” of the film’s title supposedly stands for Mysterious Alien Creature, we earthly consumers know what it really represents: it begins with “Mac,” ends with “Donald’s,” and slings burgers with the help of a clown mascot named Ronald.

This cynical exercise in crass commerce is guilty of many, many crimes — aesthetic, commercial, and otherwise — but it cannot be accused of false advertising. Mac and Me promised to be Product Placement: The Movie starring Coca-Cola and its good friend McDonald’s, and it delivered.


The Zero

Orion courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by Orion courtesy Everett Collection)

M&Ms notoriously turned down the opportunity to be featured in E.T., understandably worried about their product being linked to a character they saw as a hideous garbage monster who would terrify and traumatize small children. Of course, E.T. ended up charming and enchanting youngsters instead, so it initially seemed sane and business-savvy for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to hitch their wagon to another hideous garbage monster who, ultimately, did actually terrify and traumatize small children.

The title character is less a cute E.T. knock-off than a figure of Lovecraftian horror with a puckered anus for a perpetually cooing mouth, scrotum-like wrinkles across his bulging forehead, boils for eyes, and fingers like diseased phalluses.

Mac is chilling on his home planet with his even more viscerally repellent, equally disturbing, and distractingly nude family when an American spacecraft sucks them up and transports them to Earth, where the shadowy, sinister United States government has set out to capture and imprison the titular space creature, and kill him if necessary.

He eventually joins forces with wheelchair-bound moppet Eric Cruise (Jade Calegory), who has recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with his girl-crazy older brother Michael (Jonathan Ward) and single mother Janet (Christine Ebersole). But before they can enjoy a mawkish friendship, Mac spends a disturbing amount of time lurking outside the little boy’s home and spying on him like a creepy intergalactic stalker in need of a space restraining order. It would only take the elimination of a few scenes of ebullient brand worship and a completely different score — maybe one by fright master John Carpenter rather than Alan Silvestri — to transform this from a hilariously inept knock-off into a terrifying horror film about an innocent, vulnerable boy being menaced by a monster from another world.

That said, Silvestri’s score is easily the best element of Mac and Me. It’s a first-rate approximation of E.T.‘s score, and it single-handedly lends an element of otherworldly, twinkly wonder to a movie that does not deserve it, or the thin, deceptive sheen of professionalism Silvestri’s work gives it.

And while Mac and Me could be a deeply unnerving horror movie about nightmare-inducing beasties from another world, that fright flick is undercut throughout by the movie’s need to shill for its corporate masters as blatantly as possible. No one involved with the production made even the faintest attempt to differentiate it from the masterpiece it so shamelessly and incompetently rips off, or to make Mac someone children would love and want to befriend, not run away from in mortal terror.

N/A

All of the filmmakers’ time and energy instead clearly went into making a quasi-religious reverence for its big-brand sponsors the central narrative thrust of the film. The cute girl next door Eric has a crush on spends the entire film in her lime green McDonald’s uniform, prompting her obnoxious younger sister — who, like Calegory, delivers all her lines in a migraine-inducing chirp-yell — to make offers to the boys next door that they cannot refuse, like “Why don’t you stop by for a Big Mac?”

Then, there are exchanges like the following:

Michael: You know what I feel like?
Eric: A Big Mac?
Michael: The man is a genius!

The Coca-Cola plugs also begin early and never let up. Despite being presented as heroic, child-like heroes, for example, Mac and his family have no respect for private property when it comes to their beloved Coca-Cola. In an unintentionally horrifying set-piece late in the film, Mac’s father and his hideous brood enter a grocery store where they procure mass quantities of the drink, and he ends up in possession of a gun. He’s only been on Earth for a little while, and already he’s waving a gun around and shoplifting with his whole family. And we’re supposed to be on his side!

The rightly mocked plugs for caffeinated sugar water are subtle and artful compared to the most notorious scene in the film, during which Eric’s family and Mac attend a birthday party at a McDonald’s. From b-boys to football players, everyone is so overjoyed to be in the house that Ray Kroc built that they break out in a series of intricately choreographed dances. Not to be outdone, Mac, wearing a filthy teddy bear suit, dances on the McDonald’s counter in an appalling display of disregard for health codes.

The movie ends with the entire extraterrestrial family being granted American citizenship in recognition of their extraordinary and exemplary consumerism, as well as their commitment to Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and, to a lesser extent, the values and principles laid out by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Like a surprising number of movies I’ve covered in this column, Mac and Me teases that the whole gang will be back in a sequel. It was not to be. The movie was a notorious flop, and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola went out of business shortly after the film’s failure. That’s not true, of course. Both franchises continue their ubiquitous existence despite their regrettable involvement in Mac and Me, not because of it.


Final Verdict

Mac and Me might have seemed like the most garish and ephemeral of pop nonsense upon its release, but in its own strange, tacky way, it has endured. For years, American treasure Paul Rudd has prankishly presented an appropriately iconic, unintentionally hilarious excerpt from Mac and Me — the scene in which wheelchair-bound Eric plunges off a cliff to his apparent death before Mac’s hideous head climactically pops up — as a clip from whatever film he’s promoting as a guest on Conan O’Brien’s talk shows. It’s one of contemporary pop culture’s most effective and inspired running gags.

And the nostalgia merchants over at Shout Factory recently answered angry public demands by releasing a 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, complete with an audio commentary from director/co-writer Stephen Raffil and writer and historian Marc Edward Heuck.

Mac and Me is good-bad trash cinema at its best/worst. It’s an endlessly, perversely re-watchable exercise in crass commerce cynically masquerading as family entertainment that exists in a world beyond self-consciousness, beyond shame, beyond irony, and, ultimately, beyond self-parody. It’s a true Zero whose breathtaking audacity and incompetence deserve to be mocked, but also celebrated.


Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

disaster Mudbound trailers remakes halloween tv ABC Family The Purge facebook Amazon Prime National Geographic Esquire Tarantino dc A24 Summer Paramount Superheroes IFC Films PaleyFest HBO Max Red Carpet quibi The Walt Disney Company Starz independent police drama Brie Larson festivals latino ratings spinoff 2015 Television Critics Association cartoon canceled GoT casting 72 Emmy Awards Pet Sematary Chernobyl FX crossover Marvel sequels Masterpiece nature toy story GLAAD Martial Arts Showtime jurassic park superman video Lifetime Christmas movies ESPN DirecTV godzilla Sundance Election foreign obituary Broadway south america Hear Us Out DC Comics dark king kong Shondaland best E3 elevated horror what to watch Disney Plus LGBT MSNBC worst movies Disney streaming service BET New York Comic Con Film Festival toronto Shudder ABC Best and Worst criterion tv talk versus Emmy Nominations singing competition Hallmark screen actors guild 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards target nfl VH1 GIFs comic ViacomCBS period drama Photos Character Guide anthology dceu CNN RT History Nominations NYCC comedies TruTV Podcast aapi E! golden globes President slashers technology science fiction james bond Pride Month Pop Women's History Month VOD docudrama medical drama political drama TV One critics television new star wars movies Certified Fresh TNT spy thriller The Walking Dead Rocketman TCM 93rd Oscars Star Trek Britbox Columbia Pictures CBS fresh Academy Awards discovery Ghostbusters Extras RT21 21st Century Fox cancelled television SundanceTV WarnerMedia Lucasfilm AMC romance anime Pacific Islander OneApp Winter TV Walt Disney Pictures Universal Warner Bros. adventure Infographic women laika Calendar Creative Arts Emmys Amazon nbcuniversal rt archives Spectrum Originals BBC WGN game of thrones Trailer Epix cults Elton John Christmas PBS crime Turner Classic Movies Year in Review Set visit Writers Guild of America australia Mary Poppins Returns Apple superhero new zealand saw Interview batman chucky Tubi werewolf Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 2016 Musicals monster movies LGBTQ transformers VICE green book 2017 Video Games emmy awards rotten movies we love Discovery Channel Anna Paquin directors Freeform hollywood mutant telelvision Heroines adaptation cooking pirates of the caribbean Star Wars war MCU strong female leads Tomatazos Comedy HBO Go cancelled TV series Rom-Com Chilling Adventures of Sabrina sequel Grammys screenings HBO 2019 unscripted Classic Film travel teaser thriller Mindy Kaling The Academy Awards Logo dragons 007 DC streaming service Vudu Legendary Spring TV FXX japanese Food Network book renewed TV shows prank stoner 71st Emmy Awards CMT Sony Pictures BBC America BET Awards DC Universe stop motion deadpool Comic Book universal monsters Superheroe boxing kaiju zombie TCA Awards Music Television Academy TV Ovation Pixar richard e. Grant Fox News Mary Tyler Moore book adaptation hidden camera psychological thriller cinemax composers kids OWN supernatural Opinion video on demand SDCC Apple TV+ documentary Film die hard heist movie jamie lee curtis APB Hulu Awards Tour cops Tumblr politics Fantasy binge TCA 2017 Cartoon Network Reality Quiz fast and furious Exclusive Video X-Men breaking bad Image Comics aliens Disney+ Disney Plus zero dark thirty Crunchyroll worst Amazon Studios Avengers crime thriller Baby Yoda cats American Society of Cinematographers BBC One cars The Witch comics comic books El Rey Song of Ice and Fire zombies Disney Lionsgate psycho streaming TIFF BAFTA Polls and Games Marathons name the review Binge Guide 2021 indiana jones ghosts sports all-time YouTube Rocky finale History sag awards 2018 Turner serial killer dramedy based on movie marvel cinematic universe cancelled 24 frames hist Adult Swim TCA Winter 2020 NBC Peacock dogs golden globe awards space Fall TV razzies diversity spanish language Premiere Dates Bravo Valentine's Day Netflix Christmas movies crime drama Alien Syfy YouTube Red award winner First Look classics Acorn TV social media 99% Ellie Kemper Marvel Studios a nightmare on elm street Holidays joker 2020 canceled TV shows Animation Family venice animated ID Toys romantic comedy Marvel Television franchise mission: impossible festival child's play robots Black History Month Kids & Family spanish new york scorecard See It Skip It harry potter natural history Reality Competition Sundance TV docuseries Captain marvel reviews ITV Musical streaming movies Horror Trophy Talk kong Cosplay Travel Channel Sneak Peek A&E scary movies movies Dark Horse Comics indie game show Oscars witnail Lifetime revenge Arrowverse Sundance Now FOX archives vampires Cannes news Box Office comiccon Apple TV Plus Endgame Fox Searchlight The Arrangement SXSW twilight rom-coms Holiday Funimation Countdown MTV Mary poppins Pirates historical drama movie rotten true crime know your critic french parents boxoffice Sci-Fi Country PlayStation TV movies scene in color YouTube Premium Stephen King 45 international Nickelodeon San Diego Comic-Con FX on Hulu Watching Series series italian stand-up comedy IFC blockbuster films free movies reboot TV renewals Trivia blaxploitation christmas movies doctor who USA football spain Nat Geo miniseries Hallmark Christmas movies blockbusters Pop TV Amazon Prime Video hispanic halloween live action TV Land CW Seed Comedy Central The CW Crackle First Reviews TBS talk show Spike Black Mirror Paramount Plus Paramount Network Comics on TV CBS All Access spider-man popular theme song Teen satire children's TV 4/20 sitcom Thanksgiving cancelled TV shows biography YA asian-american Emmys mockumentary Super Bowl justice league documentaries 20th Century Fox black high school Western DGA concert Action Mystery USA Network Biopics Netflix Schedule Disney Channel Drama TCA Winners lord of the rings Rock ABC Signature TLC