It’s easy enough to write off Mercury Rising as nothing beyond a generic action thriller from the 90’s. But it only goes to show another reason as to why Mercury Rising is absolutely terrible, because of its approach to rather sensitive subject matter. Maybe it isn’t so much for an outsider but my personal experiences having grown up with autism have only made me all the more critical of how films depict people on the spectrum. Given how perceptions of people like myself who struggle within their daily lives as a result of their mental health have been shaped thanks to media, it was certainly never easy and films like Mercury Rising aren’t helpful to our cause. These aren’t films that know down to the bone how we can be like, it just feels more like a deliberate sidelining for the sake of schlock.
Being a story about a government code that has been cracked out of mere coincidence by an autistic nine-year-old boy named Simon, Mercury Rising isn’t even about the boy. Instead, the story is all carried by FBI agent Art Jeffries, played by Bruce Willis. After the coincidental code cracking results in the murder of Simon’s parents, Jeffries will do anything to protect the boy at all costs even if communicating him will have proven difficult enough. It isn’t so much the fact that the film is not Simon’s story that bothers me, but it’s the role that Simon is given that bothers me. It’s his role that bothers me because films like this evidently have his own condition featured as a mere gimmick or quirk, which really does not help with the perception of autism through media.
I’m merely speaking from my own point of view as I talk about the character of Simon. Simon doesn’t even need to be the lead character for the film to make him feel as if he’s a regular human being, capable of a lot more because of the fact he managed to crack an algorithm despite his social inabilities. Simon doesn’t even feel like a human being, rather instead just a plot device because of the fact he is on the autistic spectrum. There isn’t any background given towards his cleverness and his impaired social abilities, rather instead the film just relies on him being put in danger because that’s what I can only assume Harold Becker even thinks that’s how children on the spectrum behave. It feels outright insulting to someone like myself because this is an extremely broad painting of the spectrum, and Harold Becker’s evident ignorance towards their humanistic qualities only makes it worse. Nothing about Miko Hughes’s performance rang as authentic, it was only feels like an annoying stereotype at that.
For as aggravating as Miko Hughes’s performance can get, most of the cast members don’t offer much room for improvement. Whether it be Alec Baldwin’s villainous Nick Kudrow or Bruce Willis as the action hero we can already expect from him, but far less believable are Willis’s relationships with the other characters. When you note Simon’s social impairments it seems hard enough to believe that Willis’s Art Jeffries would find a way to get along with him so quickly and even the tension that should have been felt from him saving Simon from getting hit by a train feels nonexistent. There’s also the unnecessary love interest coming by through Kim Dickens’s Stacey, who he practically stalks for the sake of Simon’s safety. She somehow gets along with Simon and we don’t even get to see any of that because all we have is Bruce Willis shooting up bad guys because that’s what sells viewers in, I can only guess. There’s no purpose for her being in the movie, and it only makes the supposed action hero in Willis seem completely unlikeable.
As far as the plot goes, it’s as basic as many 90’s action films can get. But the very fact that the basic plot uses Simon’s autism as a scapegoat for where it starts to build up isn’t only something I find horrid, it’s just flat-out insulting. There doesn’t seem to be much purpose in Simon to have any sort of mental health disorder because it was hard enough to believe that right after he had only heard the murder of his parents as it was happening he does not ever appear to be in shock at the incident at any other point of the film. But who am I to believe that a government code would be placed within a puzzle magazine only for the smartest to solve, wouldn’t that mean anyone else who has taken time to assemble the pieces could solve it and the film would be about Bruce Willis protecting them? It seems awkward enough the film is stitched together in this way because it can’t even justify the sensitive material it happens to be touching upon, it’s merely about Bruce Willis saving the day because it’s any other action film from the 90’s.
Even if Mercury Rising seems to have been forgotten about by this point, it still insinuates the problem with how autism is perceived as a result of media. It’s the ignorance that Mercury Rising has for Simon and his condition that only made what could simply be just a generic action film feel as if it were degrading. It barely even feels like Simon’s story has light being shed upon in moments where it is most crucial to establish the relationship we should believe to be forming between him and Art Jeffries. It’s clear that because of how much Mercury Rising dedicates to Bruce Willis saving the day in the very end, Harold Becker is afraid to explore a greater realm so he took the dangerous route, to go for broad strokes. And that’s where the problem with people’s perceptions of autism can go, they only recognize such traits as “autistic” rather than human because films like this don’t even want to show how come they are as is.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Harold Becker
Screenplay by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, from the novel Simple Simon by Ryne Douglas Pearson
Produced by Brian Grazer, Karen Kehela
Starring Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Chi McBride, Kim Dickens, Miko Hughes
Release Year: 1998
Running Time: 111 minutes