I find that when I watch movies these days, I’m evaluating them by two different standards at the same time– collecting “good” or “bad” points related to feminism, and “good” or “bad” points related to more general movie-making principles. Race to Witch Mountain was exactly the kind of fun adventure story I was in the mood for when I saw it last week, so it did pretty well on my second scale, and it was much less sexist than most sci fi adventure stories, so it pleased me on the first scale, too.
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t comment on how this movie does as a remake, just how it does as a movie on its own. Also, spoilers ahoy!
So, starting with the “feminism good”– the first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t really much of a romantic subplot. There are a few hints of attraction between our adult leads, but it is never plot-important; more just a few jokes in a few scenes, laid on top of a story-important growing friendship and some highly-refreshing mutual respect. It’s nice to see men and women doing things together in contexts other than romance!
Dr. Alex Friedman is also, like Helen in the Day the Earth Stood Still, a pretty respectable scientist. Okay, so she gets a lot less respect than Helen did, but, uh, she’s arguing that wormholes and aliens exist. But the audience is clearly supposed to respect her, especially when she finally meets the alien kids, starts asking them all kinds of questions, and then gets so excited she’s finishing their sentences, like, “Yes! I was right!” It reinforces our impression of her as a Serious Scientist, since she does so in the context of papers she’d presented and so on, especially given the bit where poor Jack just goes, “uh, wormholes were my first guess too. Yeah.” It would have been easy, given the way that Jack had all the driving skills, for her to become something of a cute sidekick, but her experience with the scientific aspect of things make her valuable in her own right. Hurray!
I love action movies largely because I love those moments where the characters accomplish something through sheer badassery, so I also appreciated that they weren’t solely the province of men in this movie. Alex, at one point, bluffs a room of thirty hardcore scientists into evacuating their project by just walking up to them and saying, basically, “I am an Authority Figure and therefore you will Obey Me.” She just walks right into enemy territory, addresses them firmly, and it works! Sara, the female alien, also has a great moment where about fifty people with a lot of very big guns start shooting at her and the other main characters, and she stops all the bullets with her brain! They just squish up against an invisible barrier. Awesome!
I also kinda like the way that Jack Bruno totally loses his battles of will with Sara every single time. He’ll say something like, “We are absolutely not bringing the dog,” but always has to eat his words. I’m not sure if it’s subversive or not, though; somehow, the way we’re supposed to laugh makes me wonder. If we’re laughing because a man keeps doing the bidding of a little girl, is it good because we’re rooting for her to win (since she’s usually in the right), or bad because we’re laughing at him for failing to get his way anyway?
Which brings me to some of the more questionable aspects, feminism-wise. What’s up with the division of powers? Seth’s are extremely hands-on (well, sort of)– he can pass through things or make himself totally impervious to them. Sara’s are so much more “hands-off” – telepathy and telekinesis. It reminds me of the way that, in fantasy movies, women will usually have healing powers, or ranged attacks, that seem cool on an individual level, but form a pattern of women being kept out of the “real” fighting. But then again, Sara uses her powers much more often, and ends up coming across (to me, anyway) as being more powerful because of it.
Also, Jack Bruno’s first response to Alex Friedman’s attempt to “join the party” (as it were) was basically, “You’ll have to stay behind for your own good, little lady,” but he does get over it, and fairly quickly. He ends up being very protective throughout the movie, but it’s directed more at the kids than at Alex, and so for this, too, I end up feeling like it’s worthy of note, but not really worthy of outrage.
In terms of more general movie complaints, how do you get to be Guy In Charge Of Aliens without giving half a damn about the actual aliens themselves? Why isn’t Henry Burke more like Alex Friedman, excited and passionate about knowledge and looking to make a good first impression? At the very least, why doesn’t he care enough to not needlessly risk the aliens’ lives? 48 to 72 hours is really not that long to wait! (Well, except in the meta-sense that the Good Guys would be busting them out any moment…) Plus, they totally lampshaded the whole “why the heck are you human-looking?” question.
However, like I said at the beginning, I came away really impressed with this movie. It addressed a number of tropes that can be annoying– they gave us a reason for the random taxi driver to be able to out-drive the secret government types, for example. Plus, a lot of it took place at a sci fi convention, where it was fun to try to spot all the geeky references! Overall, it was a fun romp, and without any of those frustrating antifeminist moments that can pull me out of movies, so if you’re in the mood for something light and fun, check it out!