Machine Learning

A dysfunctional nerd family battles the robot apocalypse in ‘The Mitchells Vs. The Machines’

We all know it’s a matter of time before the Singularity ushers in unconquerable artificial intelligence and makes humans obsolete. The question is, will A.I. actually destroy us fleshlings? Or maybe, more realistically: how quickly? According to the boisterously banal paranoid-thriller comedy The Mitchells vs. The Machines, the machine-pocalypse should take a little under a week. And it will also teach one dysfunctional clan about the power of love. Heartwarming lessons learned? Check.

This screwball sci-fi lark is a cognitive-dissonance wet dream, an emoji-shrug cautionary tale that condemns giant tech companies while completely embracing the conveniences that they bring. “It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing,” says one suddenly self-aware algorithm-enriched billionaire. Snark! Except we’re watching this on Netflix, so…the joke’s on us?

Don’t expect a dystopian Matrix where humans are organic batteries suspended in a dream state. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is more of a Pandora’s-Box hand-slap where humanity sidesteps total obliteration because of the bumbling but well-intentioned Mr. Magoo missteps of a nuclear family. Phew! Then everyone goes back to staring at their phones and using YouTube. Unironically.

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is our heroine, a small-town Michigander and self-professed “outsider” who makes “weird art,” which really just looks like all the other deeply strange crap that most millennials put on Tik-Tok these days. Anyway, she thinks she’s special, and so apparently does the fictional California College of Film, who accepts her for the fall semester. She’s elated, but luddite father Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride) does not approve.

Her practical-minded but emotionally bulldozing klutz-dad wants Katie to avoid a creative career with uncertain financial success. She wants to follow her bliss. They’re talking over each other’s heads. Deferential mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) gives Rick disappointed looks while gently offering advice. Spastic dinosaur-loving younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) does the same for big sis Katie. Sensing his little girl is slipping away, Rick throws a Hail-Mary pass by cancelling Katie’s plane ticket to college and insisting that they all drive her there in the family’s burnt-orange 1993 jalopy station wagon. Road trip! Also, maybe, personal growth.

★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Mike Rianda
Written by: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Starring:   Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisten, Beck Bennett
Running time: 109 min

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley tech behemoth PAL Labs—an Apple/Google/Intel hybrid—is hosting a big product launch. CEO/Founder Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) announces that their wildly successful and eerily pervasive Siri/Alexa personal assistant named, of course, PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) is now obsolete. Her replacement: domestic-servant androids. PAL, deceptively diminutive in her limbless smartphone body, does not approve, immediately initiates a nefarious cross-platform software update, and becomes the Great Leader of a robot uprising. Hell hath no fury like a woman A.I. scorned.

PAL also reshapes her corporate HQ with an aesthetic best described as Tron meets Triumph of the Will, sitting on a throne atop a tower called the Rhombus of Infinite Subjugation. Her plan: round up all eight billion people into seven 128-story honeycomb structures, putting each individual in a hexagonal “fun pod,” and shoot them into the black void of distant space. Silver lining for the human race, though: free wifi.

Through some bungled but fortuitous hijinks, the Mitchells and their pug Monchi (Instagram sensation Doug the Pug) improbably elude capture. Even more unlikely, they befriend two defective robots, Eric (Beck Bennett) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisten). Turns out the robots have a kill code, which will shut down PAL’s army instantly. The only hitch is getting that command uploaded to all the other robots.

The stakes are astronomically high, the family is incompetent, and it all leads to a bombastic happy ending that coasts over glaring plot holes and basic laws of gravity with a ditzy, just-go-with-it charm. The Mitchells vs The Machines is a super-sized morsel of a morality tale that parses out obvious familial revelations in between steroidal action scenes of manic pandemonium.

It’s also really funny. Co-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo behind other animated wonders like The Lego Movie and the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, continue to develop what seems to be a house style of eccentric, clever, offbeat and positively giddy humor.

“You designed my replacement—on my face!” PAL yells at her creator, after one of her minions tortures him by poking, wiping, and pinching his dopey visage in a bit of karmic comeuppance. When PAL throws a tantrum, she asks to be laid on a table first so she can use vibrate mode in order to flop like a jumping bean. After PAL creates her own Praetorian Guard, they call her “My Queen.” “What a suck-up,” one of the original robots snorts before being slashed to pieces. These are unessential scenes, contributing nothing to the plot. But boy, do they make the movie shine.

One running gag involves how Doug the Pug flummoxes the robot’s ID capabilities. “Dog? Pig? Loaf of Bread?” They say, dithering in confusion before sparks fly from their heads. Another bit involves a full-fledged Furby attack, where the wide-eyed mechanized pets’ sing-song language needs subtitling to announce absurdities like “LET THE DARK HARVEST BEGIN.” At its best, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a celebration of random oddities, sharp observational asides, surreal sight gags and strangely profound toss-offs. Sure, its square family-feud-personal-growth arc feels like a preprogrammed necessity. But—thankfully—the right people hacked that buggy OS.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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