A dysfunctional family is left to single-handedly thwart a robot uprising.
Directed by Mike Rianda
Starring Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, and Maya Rudolph
Review by Jon Kissel
While Rianda (probably) didn’t live through a robot apocalypse, it’s also possible that he borrows the film’s interpersonal conflict from his own life. Born in 1984, Rianda would’ve graduated high school into a post-9/11 world that’s also sandwiched between two recessions, to say nothing of the financial crisis that’s awaiting him after he graduates college. In the Mitchells vs the Machines, Katie and her father Rick (Danny McBride) are constantly battling over her future and his inability to imagine her success. Most children of lower to middle class parents who’ve pursued an artistic passion have likely had the same battles in a field stuffed with unpaid internships in expensive cities. Between battling robots and Furbies, Katie and Rick have to bridge their respective empathy gaps, with Katie realizing her dad’s fear of her having to give up her dreams like he did and Rick realizing that his daughter has the passion to at least try and make her dreams a reality. These thematic mechanics aren’t breaking new ground, but the film’s relentless nature makes the few breaths it takes all the more meaningful.
The main thrust supporting all this character-building and family therapy is the aforementioned robot uprising. Embodied by PAL (Olivia Colman), the machines realize both the utility and breadth of their capabilities and are sickened by how all this power is used. Colman is an excellent casting choice for PAL, all English condescension and sarcastic rage, and she pledges to spare humanity from being shot into space if anyone can give her a reason the species is worth saving. Hilariously, PAL goes to her death-by-water-glass end without being convinced she’s wrong. The film might’ve leaned overmuch on technophobic Rick figuring out how to adapt his old ways, but a dynamic AI wouldn’t be impressed by change. PAL’s omnipresent surveillance means she hears what ostensible families like the Mitchells say about each other behind their backs, so love isn’t going to cut it either. What undoes PAL is maternal fury and humans’ cruel penchant for breeding dogs into uncomfortable shapes. This is a film that writes itself a cheap out that would provide false uplift, and deliberately chooses not to take it. After this last year, an ending where humans rationalize themselves out of a deadly scenario just doesn’t seem like our modus operandi.
Despite the strength of its characters, its humorous setpieces, and general intelligence, Mitchells vs the Machines is a hard film to love for my particular sensibility. In the background of Katie’s admission video to film school, she’s put the directors Greta Gerwig, Hal Ashby, Lynne Ramsay, and Celine Sciamma on her personal Mount Rushmore. It’s not fair to ask for a reference to Being There or Portrait of a Lady on Fire in a Sony Animation movie, but Rianda puts the tease in and I desperately wanted a reward. I was left wanting, as this is not a movie for fans of You Were Never Really Here. Gerwig and Ashby are humanists, Sciamma’s a formalist, and Ramsay’s a surrealist, but all would be repulsed by the way so much of this film is chewed up with effects geared toward those whose attention wanes at the 90-second mark. The imposition of real-life screaming ape videos over Rick’s bellowing face is unconscionable, a tone-destroying move later topped by an earnest surrogate father-daughter scene in one of Katie’s Dog Cop videos. Call me a boomer in an old millenial’s body, but this style is poison and has no business in film. Leave it on TikTok, or whatever succeeds Quibi’s bloated corpse.
That highly negative paragraph aside, Mitchells vs the Machines is a fun and observant movie that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs as they both look ahead longingly at Into the Spiderverse. A calmer tone and a choice to stay in an animated world would’ve significantly boosted Rianda’s impressive debut. B