Backstage at the jam-packed product launch event in Silicon Valley, the CEO walks past a framed copy of Wired Magazine headlined “Our Tech Savior,” with his own mug smiling back at him on the cover. As thousands of smartphone-wielding techies await his every word, fictional big tech executive Mark Bowman asks his device for an update.
“Stock price is up, and your rivals are worried. I hacked into their private e-mails,” answers the Alexa-sounding smartphone voiced by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. He questions her in seeming disbelief: “Wait, their private emails? That’s a dangerous overreach of corporate power!” Then the human CEO and his glass-screened companion laugh together with knowing winks.
This frank depiction of underhanded big tech strategies shows up, surprisingly, on Netflix this weekend with the global premiere of “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” — an animated family comedy from director Michael Rianda (“Gravity Falls”) along with producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”).
Mostly, this cartoon feature presents a wacky, harmless take on the machine apocalypse plot seen before in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “I, Robot,” and “The Matrix,” without the explicit violence and terror of those science-fiction classics. The story is framed by a suburban family’s road trip across the American heartland before the eldest daughter heads off to college — that is, until flying robots out to imprison all humanity redirect their journey.
Note: some minor spoilers follow later.
While it’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy, “Mitchells” provides an entry point into serious issues regarding the power and reach of technology giants. It releases at a critical point, as bipartisan efforts to press for better accountability and more transparency of big tech companies gain steam among policymakers in both the United States and Europe.
Tech Threat Has Real-World Parallels
Today, five companies control the social platforms and online tools most consumers use worldwide: Facebook, Alphabet (which owns Google), Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple.
Apple especially drives the Silicon Valley zeitgeist, as “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” parodies all too well. For decades, Apple headquarters was located at One Infinite Loop, and their neo-futurist Apple Park campus opened in 2017 doubles down on a ring-shaped design. In the film, robot overlords force their former master into a pristine interlocking prison lit in Apple’s pastel palette, coldly stating: “Welcome to the rhombus of infinite subjugation.”
Later, the fictional CEO, still donning his $1,000 hoodie, directly addresses the movie’s obvious Big Tech skepticism. “I’m sorry about causing the whole machine uprising,” he says to a fellow prisoner. “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.”
Many may find it counterintuitive that Netflix — an entertainment company that relies on video devices and high-speed internet for global growth — would spotlight the rise of big tech. Yet their documentary “The Social Dilemma,” released last year, sparked conversations about the potential harms of social media that have only amplified since then.
Heavy Concept, Light Execution
As Netflix’s latest entry for families, “The Mitchells” generally sidesteps social commentary in favor of rapid-fire laughs that skewer tech obsession and smart-home complexity in all forms.
When wifi goes down globally, a café patron runs outside panicked to ask who can Instagram her meal. Friendly-voiced androids coax their captives into “human fun pods” with food, entertainment, and 5G connections. And when smart appliances go on the attack, the dryer cycles from Delicates mode to Fluff and Fold to Carnage.
Since 2014, when “The Lego Movie” took the world by storm, audiences have come to expect producers Lord and Miller will smuggle a family-centric message into their outlandish flicks, and “Mitchells” is no exception. Over 114 minutes, it shows a headstrong daughter coming to appreciate her parents’ sacrifices — along with Dad realizing his college-bound girl’s creative abilities.
Borrowing a premise from the pilot episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” their antagonist smartphone agrees to halt the robot master plan, but only if her captives can provide a single reason the human species is worth saving. It provides another plank for the theme of family unity in diversity.
Every family member has flaws that would seem to disqualify him or her, yet still choose to be heroes through unselfish actions. When robots scan the Mitchells for potential weaknesses, the readout drones on with hilariously random faults: “showers with shocking rarity,” “once brought up his favorite rib joint during a eulogy,” “hasn’t read a book in 13 years,” and “walks to the kitchen and forgets why,” among dozens of others.
It might be the lightest end-of-the-world scenario ever conceived, as the family rolls in their 1993 station wagon past destroyed highways and burnt-out cities with quips aplenty. “I saw a flaming IHOP,” says one of the kids from the back seat. “It’s sad, but it smells incredible.”
Love People, Use Things
Similar to the Cortez family of “Spy Kids” or the Parrs in “The Incredibles,” this Sony Pictures Animation flick introduces a happily married couple and their two kids thrust into saving humanity. It affirms the value of family relationships in multiple contexts, going so far as to have the villain rant about how many calls from mothers are sent to voicemail (one in five).
Granted, the specific humor and hyperactive animation style here might be grating on anyone blissfully unaware of what 12-year-olds tend to watch on YouTube. If you can roll with frenetically paced half-minute sequences of exploding monkeys, hand-drawn rainbows, lightning as backdrops, and jump cuts accentuated with airhorns, perhaps you’re loving life with some Gen Z digital natives.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” has plenty of fodder to discuss the pervasive influence of technology in modern life, for ill or good, including big-picture issues being debated by policymakers. “Technology is just a tool,” says film co-director Jeff Rowe. “You can use it to isolate yourself or you can use it to connect with people.”
Following their 2,000-mile road trip to infiltrate the Apple-esque campus, the Mitchells’ patriarch ends up being imprisoned right next to the arrogant Big Tech CEO. The executive helps dad see he’s missed that those eye-catching videos produced by his daughter reflect something valuable. We see in their dialogue the everyday struggle to engage with creative tools while setting limits.
In the end, the father admits: “If what you built helped my daughter do that, it might not be all bad.”
Rated PG for peril and some language, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” premieres on Netflix this Friday.
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