ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Who would have thought a tech company wouldn't have our best interests at heart!"
At its core, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about what brings us together and what keeps us apart, about human connection vs. disconnection, and about the roles that family and technology play in each. So naturally that leaves us in the potentially overwrought realm of the hyper-modern question "Is Phone Bad," and I think it's to the film's credit that it doesn't give us a simple yes or no. In one sense, yes, the big bad villain is a talking cell phone, and the evil machines that cause the apocalypse are that phone's next generation, but Eric and Deborahbot 5000 show how these robots have the potential to be good, and the film also goes out of its way to highlight the ways that the same technology that oppresses us in its cute HAL 9000 analogy also provides unprecedented avenues for interpersonal connectivity.
There's a conflict at the heart of The Mitchells vs. The Machines about the value of technology, and the film is smart enough not to be totalizing in its conclusions. Tech isn't the problem in itself, it's all about how you use it. Phone Bad if you can't pull your face away from it at the dinner table to spend time with your family, and Phone definitely Bad when it's used by evil corporate empires to collect our data and sell it to only god knows whom, but Phone also Good when it allows Katie to connect with her new college friends before she arrives at school through group chats and video calls, making friends with people she's never met in person — not to mention the opportunity it provides for budding filmmakers like her to experiment with filmmaking before they have the resources to make movies like, well, like The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
Because technology isn't the only thing causing human disconnection: Katie's father Rick is disconnected from Katie right from the start of the movie. He doesn't make time for her, he doesn't share in her interests, and that's certainly not because of his phone. It's because he has this trauma in his past, he had to give up his own artistic pursuit, and this sacrifice crushed him, it destroyed something inside of him, and now he doesn't want Katie to experience that same defeat. But this sheltering instinct almost immediately becomes overprotective when he applies it to her passions. He thinks he's telling her to have a "backup plan," but what he's really telling her is to never fully invest herself, to not really do anything that she cares about. Which is not only hard for Katie, it's impossible; she's at a point in her life where she's discovering who she wants to be, and Rick is telling her not to experiment, not to care too much about who she wants to be.
Rick gave up part of his personal individual identity to be a father, he gave up something of himself for the family, and he feels Katie is "rewarding" that selfless act with selfishness, that she's rejecting the family he sacrificed himself to create in her pursuit of selfish desires, but she's only so eager to leave home because Rick is pushing her away, because he won't let her be herself. Rick feels like his dream was taken from him, but it wasn't, he gave it away — which is a beautiful gift, but in order for that gift to have purpose and meaning, and in order for Katie to ever be able to give such a profoundly personal and meaningful gift herself, he has to give her the space to develop her own selfhood, he has to give her the space to reject the gift that he gave her, he has to give her the space to fail.
Rick sacrificed part of himself so their family could all be together, and the scariest part of making that impossible decision is that it won't always work, that he will still have to let Katie be herself by herself, that sometimes he will have to allow her to choose herself over the family. The sacrifice of the self for the other is what gives family its meaning, but that sacrifice is a decision that must be made freely, and Rick isn't allowing Katie to make that decision herself. The paradox of sacrifice is that nominally you do it for the other, but you also do it for yourself — sacrifice is in a sense both selfless and selfish — and this second dimension is what Rick is denying Katie. He chose the family over his own personal pursuits, and now he's making Katie's decision for her because he already made it for himself, but by denying her ability to choose the collective over the self he is invalidating his own sacrifice.
Conversely, the (inverse) sacrifice of the other for the self is what gives technology its (negative) purpose and meaning. Both family and technology are built on this tension and contradiction between individual and communal identities, and ultimately neither is singly good or bad in isolation. Technology is good if you use it for good, if you use it to make sweet YouTube videos and chat with your friends across the world, but it's bad if you let it come between you and your loved ones and if you use it to build an evil corporate oligarchy and imprison humanity in glowing hexagonal cells. And likewise, family can be bad when it's wielded as a weapon, when your father uses it to stifle your creative energy and hinder your individual personal development, but it's a beautiful thing when it brings weirdos like the Mitchells together. Sometimes it takes a machine (apocalypse) for your family to finally see you for who you really are.
feed that Sony Pictures Animation maximalist aesthetic directly into my eyeballs. two visual Speed Racer references; what more could you ask for?
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