When the film begins, oddball meme artist Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is headed to film school, where she’ll finally find a tribe of her own: members of the Snapchat and TikTok generation whose weird and clunky creations scream virality. She hopes to escape her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), who just doesn’t get what she’s going for. He’s an outdoors type, more comfortable around a belt sander than iMovie.
In order to reconnect with his daughter, Rick grabs Katie along with wife Linda (Maya Rudolph) and younger son Aaron (Mike Rianda) and declares they’re driving Katie across the country to school. Along the way, they’ll see America’s natural splendor, check out some roadside stands and, oh yeah, try to survive the robot apocalypse kicked off by Apple-esque mega-corporation PAL Labs, whose AI program PAL (Olivia Colman) has decided humanity must be destroyed.
The source of both the Mitchell family’s internal tension and external strife is the dread menace of technology. This manifests in fairly typical, yet humorous, ways.
At one point, Rick demands phones at the dinner table be put down so the family can have 10 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact. Aaron and Katie are twitching like junkies needing a fix at the end of the silly exercise.
If the scene is on the nose in depicting smartphones as modernity’s drug, it isn’t wrong. Studies have shown that teens tend to get “panicky” when their phones get taken away from them. Smartphone addiction can lead to poor sleeping habits. Our work-life balances are all skewed now that we’re tethered to a device that lets our bosses and our underlings email us and text, Slack and Signal us 24 hours a day.
Like Rick, I also resent the pull of the glowing endorphin-delivery device in my pocket. Instead of enjoying time with my young children, marveling at their silliness and growth and sweetness, all too often I find myself obsessively checking email or Twitter or Slack, counting likes and retweets, replying to friends and enemies alike with all the speed I can muster.
But our screens are simply tools, and one thing “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” does is remind us that our tools can be just as beneficial to familial togetherness and understanding as they are destructive. Yes, Rick is distraught to see his daughter’s frustrations with his lack of support through a homemade film uploaded to YouTube. Sure, Katie is horrified to see her disdain for her father plastered on a video screen for the world to see.
Still, it’s a screen that helps bring the two together. At one point, depressed at the thought of losing his daughter, Rick looks back at some old home videos for reminders of his daughter’s youth, their happiness, their togetherness. That stash of tapes shows Katie something even more profound. They help her understand the sacrifice her father made when he moved from the countryside that he loved to a more suburban dwelling better suited to a family with small children.
This glimpse back through the window of time helps father and daughter understand each other; their unity helps the family destroy the artificial intelligence menace that has captured humanity and prepared to exile it to space in a sort of horrifying “Wall-E”-esque cleansing of Earth. Most important, though, it reminds us that the screens we sometimes use to isolate ourselves from our families and our loved ones — to distract from their annoyances and their embarrassments — are also tools that can bring us together.
After all, how are the Mitchells going to stay connected, separated by the vastness of the American landscape? It’s not going to be via phone calls or AOL Instant Messenger like some sort of primitive off-to-college in the year 2000. It’s going to be by FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc. It’s going to be through a screen, one that helps them see each other and understand that the world is smaller now than it ever has been, because technology can bring us closer together than ever before.