It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 21st century Homo sapien in possession of good fortune, must be in want of dependable Wi-Fi. Take that away, and chaos reigns. The result of a rogue A.I. kickstarting the singularity in earnest by switching off wireless internet access isn’t the funniest scene in The Mitchells vs. the Machines — there’s a lot of competition for that honor — but it might be the one extended joke that cuts deep enough to hit bone. Ding goes the giant button as it slides from on to off. Garrgghh replies humanity, as folks run around flaming streets, clutching laptops with no signals and phones that [gasp] can only make calls! Shirtless men with feral streaks across their faces demand a sacrifice to the almighty router. A woman tearfully asks if someone, anyone, wants to take pictures of her food. Dozens of people sprint toward glowing blue boxes with “Free Wi-Fi” signs; they still cram themselves into these hovering squares even after they realize it’s a trap. This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a “No network in your area” notice.
An animated movie at least partially (one assumes) made with digital software, now playing on a globally recognizable streaming service (Netflix), which people will likely watch on a laptop or an Apple TV or a Roku, critiquing our collective tech addictions — well-played, sirs. Take away the serrated satirical edges of this showdown between suburbanites and self-aware smart devices, and you’re still left with a surprisingly delightful, moving story about a dysfunctional family learning how to connect again. But the way that writer-directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, and their producers/patron saints Phil Lord and Chris Miller, embed these jabs at an undeniable social dependency on screens into such an innocuous delivery system feels more than a little subversive. Embed and, when The Mitchells vs. the Machines is hitting on all gears, make them feel organically intertwined. Early on, Dad (voiced by Danny McBride) asks that everyone put down their respective cells, tablets, etc. and try to make 10 seconds of “unobstructed family eye contact.” You’d think the limb-trembling, teeth-chattering trio staring back at him around the dinner table were heroin junkies.
There is no “we” in iPhone, the movie keeps reminding us, though a musty, fussy Luddite manifesto this is not. The internet is where Katie Mitchell (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) puts up her goofy short movies, most of them starring the family’s pike-eyed pug Doug as a crime-fighting canine known as “Dog Cop.” After getting into the California College of Film via an online application, she communicates with her fellow undergrads — including one young woman Katie is particularly keen to meet in person — through social media and Facetime chats. It’s how she’ll keep connected with Mom (Maya Rudolph) and her younger brother, a dinosaur-obsessive named Aaron (Rianda, doing double duty), once she leaves for school.
Katie is close to them. Her father, Rick? Not so much. She thinks he’s distant and a doofus. He thinks she spends too much time making those ridiculous shorts and has no faith that she can make a career of this folly. It pains both of them that neither gets the other. Which is why Pops decides that, instead of flying to Los Angeles, the whole Mitchell clan will pack themselves into the station wagon and do one last family road trip. So what if Katie will miss her much-desired orientation week, and this change of plans only serves to make her hate Dad more?
Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, Pal Labs, whose name does not resemble an anagram of a real-life tech giant whatsoever, is about to make a big announcement. CEO Mark Bowman (Eric André) upended the industry with innovations like the PAL, a digital assistant app with a British accent, a face comprised of hyperactive punctuation and an ego that suggests Siri can go suck it. She is blessed with the voice of Olivia Colman, and this is a good time to point out that she is not only the finest actress working today but a) probably smells like homebaked cookies at any given moment and b) should get nominated for an Oscar for her work here if there is a God lurking in the heavens. Bowman brushes off his former superstar algorithm for his latest leap forward, a humanoid version that renders PAL 1.0 obsolete. She responds by turning all of these gleaming white servants — and any other product with compatible software — into an army.
With every mobile device now mobilized, the machines can finally rid the world of those soft, squishy, pesky carbon-based life forms. Including the Mitchells, who first encounter their new robot overlords at a tourist trap with a dinosaur theme. (Metaphor alert!) And as the Good Book says, the family that battles on the frontline of the robot apocalypse together stays together.
Rianda and Rowe both worked on the cult TV series Gravity Falls, which united small-town Americana and underage misfitdom under the umbrella of prodding the prepubescent years’ pressure points. The Lord and Miller team have given us The Lego Movie and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, as well as having a hand in the Sony Animation high point that is Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. Absurdity suits all of them well, as does underlining everything with a sense of poignancy. Add in what feels like the pre-millennial tension everyone experienced at the end of 1999 — what happens if it all just powers down? — and you have what could be a lot of tones jockeying for pole position.
Yet it all seems to flow naturally from one thing to the next without breaking a sweat, transitioning deftly between heartfelt family drama, deadpan gags (a Rudinesque rage spiral that translates as a phone buzzing and flopping on a desk) and, say, a shoot-the-moon set piece at a mall (at the risk of ruining it, we can only say it involves a Hitchcock reference, a well-known toy and some beautifully baroque dialogue). And it’s this specific mix of the sensitive and the ridiculous, of love and anarchy spread over the commentary, that somehow papers over the weak spots. You can stomach the heavy, sad-sack BDE — Brooklyn Dad Energy — and the occasional ADHD online-vocab + squiggle-drunk style of the animation, with its appeal to Generation Meme’s hyperactive mindset, when so much care is put into contours of the father/daughter rift, which the movie’s knows is its emotional center. No sooner are you convinced that Rudolph’s mom is suffering from Underwrittenitis then we get the candy-colored carnage of the climax, and the character makes up for being sidelined with a vengeance. Also: If the minions can get spin-offs, why can’t Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen’s dingbat ‘bots have their own buddy comedy? Null and Droid, Summer 2024. Make it happen.
Back to that earlier scene of the Wi-Fi going down: Right before throwing the world into an abyss of wirelessness, Colman’s imperial A.I. asks her maker to give her one reason to not wipe out our species. André’s tech-bro thinks for a second, and then self-satisfyingly says, “Because humans have the power of love.” Then he’s kicked in the nuts by a robot. It’s a sentiment that’s played as the sarcastic set-up for a physical-comedy punchline.
But then, over the next 90 or so minutes, the damnedest thing happens — The Mitchells vs. the Machines makes the case for him. Yes, humans are indeed fucked up. They’re also able to come together in times of crisis, even if this past IRL year often made you think they couldn’t. They wallow in nostalgia, but eventually let go of the past in order to embrace the future. They can be wrong, spectacularly so, then work hard to repair damages in order to make things right. They can make you laugh, and cry, and somehow tell you to put your phones down and talk to people while also extolling the virtues of kitty-face filters. They can pin all of their hopes and dreams on the idea of expressing themselves through art even when others think they’re crazy. The machines have a point about us being in need of help. But this oddly touching, animated family movie suggests reasons for why we may have temporarily earned a stay of execution.