Kids Stuff: The Insidious Appeal of reterritorialization in The Mitchells vs the Machines

If The Mitchells vs the Machines isn’t the funniest family movie of 2021 I will be deeply surprised. My attention was drawn to this film when the first trailers dropped and the expectation of the movie was a full theatrical release. That was, of course, prior to the COVID pandemic which appears to have led to a recalibration to a Netflix release. The marketing was relatively true to the narrative structure: the central relationship in the film was between a technophobic father and his hyper-connected daughter whose relationship is in crisis due to miscommunication.

The marketing maybe over-played the extent to which differing views on technology impacted the story. The conflict is more around a more fundamental misunderstanding of each other, specifically his inability to understand her art. As the film progresses it becomes clear rather that the central parent-child conflict is built not so much around Rick’s failure to understand Katie (though he does fail to understand her) but around his relationship to his own failure as an artist. Rick may be technophobic but this is presented as a manifestation of a deep and abiding love for nature and natural materials. Rick, some twenty years prior to the action of the film, built an off-grid cabin in the woods, with an exceptionally large number of craftsmanly flourishes, and ended up abandoning it because, for reasons never made entirely clear, it was an untenable situation for Katie as a toddler. The marketing for the movie is also quite anxious to tell audiences that the same creative team who made this film are the ones who were behind Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and the Lego Movie. Certainly a comparison with these other two movies is apt. Both of the previous films shared two significant similarities with this film through the use of a form of visual grammar that makes the psychology of the characters visible on screen and simultaneously sets expectations about the nature of the world in which the film is set and an attempt to probe at the uncomfortable corners of the relationship between child and patriarch.

This team has a deft touch and understands that families attend family comedies for the comedy rather than for any over-arching drama and as such they manage to avoid the maudlin excesses of Pixar offerings such as Coco, which often took itself far too seriously, while still managing to get at some of the discomfort they want to.

Of course another thing that sets The Mitchells vs the Machines apart from Pixar treacle is the decision to center the narrative around an openly and textually gay protagonist. Katie is a lesbian. When we see the world, at its happiest, through her eyes, rainbows in the colour of the lesbian pride flag spark and flash everywhere. However this is where the cracks start to show a little bit and some of the insidious problems peak through. Because the disconnect between Katie and her father isn’t because she’s gay but it is because she’s queer. And the movement of this misunderstanding surrounding identity into subtext, combined with the use of long-suffering mom Linda to request that we meet the patriarchy half-way, muddies the water of the story at least as much as the insufferable apologia made for big tech through the far-too-gentle treatment of Mark Bowman, the tech-bro whose actions nearly damn all of humanity.

Meeting Patriarchy Half-Way

The greatest weakness of The Mitchells vs the Machines is the desire of the creative team to make Rick Mitchell sympathetic. There’s a conservativism to Rick. He’s a luddite, as in he cannot operate a smartphone. He’s a bow-hunter. He drives a car from the 1990s and, to the extent we have any awareness of what he does for a living, he is a person who fixes things: a plumber, carpenter and mechanic who carries a screwdriver everywhere and who believes everyone else should too. Needless to say he drives stick and thinks it’s important to pass on that skill to children who will grow up fully in the age of hybrid and electric vehicle transmission systems.

Rick is shown as being expert at building, carving, designing snares and other simple machines and as being a force of pure unrelenting destruction to anything with a microchip. One of the initiating moments of conflict occurs when he accidentally smashes his daughter’s laptop. He later, quite intentionally, destroys his family’s cellphones and tablets, and the film builds to a climax that involves a very convoluted effort to drop a cell phone into a glass of water. Rick is low-key a survivalist. He’s obsessed with providing his children with the skills to survive to the point he often disregards what they need to thrive. Rick cannot understand his daughter’s art. She’s an aspiring film creator who posts her videos to YouTube (a service Rick is textually incapable of using short of the sort of pressures that turn his wife into a flying slayer-of-robots) and her art depends heavily on a sort of seamless integration into gen-z flow-of-consciousness memeing. This film is at its best when told from Katie’s perspective, as her Dadaesque art-style begins to invade the visual canvas of the movie, not so much breaking the fourth wall as contorting it into ever more maddening distortions. But the movie wants us to understand that the misunderstanding is reciprocal. Rick might be a patriarch who regularly disregards the agency of his children, who deigns to make decisions for the collective because he’s the dad and whose emotional fragility must be catered to because his physical strength depends entirely on the emotional strength of those who depend on him but, “you should meet your father half-way.” After all, he’s an artist, and a weirdo, too. And he’s just haunted by his failures. He just wants you to, “have a backup plan,” because he failed. He abandoned his dream to live within his art – because he had you. It’s somewhat alarming that it falls on Katie to accept the burden of her own father’s failure, particularly when all we see of it is him buckling her into a car seat and breaking off one carved-moose banister cap with which to remember his lost dream. The carved moose he gives to Katie to cheer her when she has separation anxiety. The carved moose she later discards as nothing more than the detritus of childhood. This thick symbolism positions Katie, her kind-hearted mother and her impulsive father within all-too-familiar an oedipal triangle (as Deleuze and Guattari put it, “daddy-mommy-me”) that suggests the problem with being queer isn’t a matter of social repression of desire but just the stress it causes for the nuclear family.

Likewise this film carefully scrambles codes by making Rick the most explicitly anti-capitalist force in the film. The movie takes care to show how tech monopoly leads to a “pal chip” in almost everything, even a tennis racket. It falls to Rick to ask why in the name of all that’s sacred somebody would put a microchip into a tennis racket to begin with. During one of the most visually entertaining action sequences of the film, the family are attacked by an army of Furbies and Rick shows absolutely no hesitance in shooting them down with a bow he is remarkably adept at firing. Katie, meanwhile, is so integrated with this technological milieu that her sense-of-the-world is overlaid with the sorts of emojis and stickers that permeate the online landscape even in the midst of a robot apocalypse. This is also the avenue in which Rick is forced to make the greatest shift – Katie needs to learn how to drive stick. Rick has to learn how to use a phone. These two facts are given somewhat equal weight within the narrative, as if Rick has to get with the program of the tech dystopia that the film shows us nearly destroying the world in the same way that Katie must meet patriarchy half-way.

Ultimately this film is harmed by such half measures and attempts at balance. The argument to moderation is a logical fallacy for a reason and a more dispassionate relation of the same text would show that Rick is something of a monster, and that Linda’s attempts to make peace between her husband and her daughter, despite some early promise where she subtextually threatens Rick with divorce if he doesn’t repair his failure, ultimately end up with a film afraid to have the strength of its convictions.

This is highlighted by the fact that for all that Rick shares the aesthetic trappings of a certain sort of American conservativism, he is entirely lacking the bigotry that is part and parcel of that way of life. As I said before his complaint with Katie isn’t that she’s gay but that she’s queer. He doesn’t have a problem with her dating girls, his problem is that her semiotics aren’t his. She’s opaque to him – until a friendly tech billionaire forces him to sit down and actually watch her movie. Their next-door neighbours are a painfully photogenic non-white family with whom Linda has an under-developed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses arc and Rick is fine with them. Never a hint of racism. This is made particularly strange by the fact that they are even more terminally online than his daughter. They should be as alien to Rick as Martians and yet he either ignores them or attempts to emulate them depending on the needs of the plot in the moment. So we have this all-American monster but he’s been sanitized, made palatable. In the name of both-sidesing Rick has been purged of any of the darker baggage that would most likely come with his worldview. Instead we’re presented with an alternate America that is colour-blind and where love is love but where Apple still insidiously rules the world, and where patriarchs can still cancel their daughter’s flights and demand a family-bonding roadtrip and can expect spousal support even if they have, “gone rogue.” The idea that these psychological conditions: the enclosure of the nuclear family and the elevation of the patriarch within it might correlate somehow with capitalism and that both might correlate with bigotry seems lost on the creative team to its detriment.

Mark Bowman deserves the guillotine

In a darker film, Rick would have been antagonist enough. Instead he becomes a symbiotic protagonist to Katie: each must serve as a foil to the other and each must learn to “find the middle ground” as half of a heroic team. This is deployed to good effect when, at the climax of the film, they are using random dance steps they devised to Dragostea Din Tea and we can be generous to overlook how the notoriously luddite Rick would have ever come across one of the foundation blocks of Internet Dada. The team behind this movie has learned how to weaponize nostalgia such that anyone who could put himself into the position of Rick will undoubtedly know the song even if they haven’t the first clue who O-Zone are. This is the same sort of cunning that led to the delightful sequence that turns Furby into some sort of weird-fictive robot dragon for Rick to slay.

But the rehabilitation of Rick demands another antagonist and, just as the movie has a binary of protagonists it also has a binary of antagonists in Mark Bowman and PAL. The mirroring goes beyond the doubling of protagonist and antagonist as the objective of Rick and Katie, to recognize the invaluability of relationship, is mirrored in the disposability with which both Mark and PAL show toward each other and, by extension, everybody else.

PAL is a virtual assistant designed by Mark, fully occupying the myth of the tech-entrepreneur-as-singular-genius-inventor, and it takes an evil turn when Mark suddenly and dramatically discards it, calling it obsolete garbage, at the unveiling of his new product: an android that serves as both a maid, a phone and a visual joke on the name of the largest mobile OS currently in market.

Reeling from being casually discarded, PAL immediately decides to do the same not just to Mark but to the entire human species, and devises an elaborate plan to collect all of humanity, to isolate each person into a pod just for them, and then to launch them into the depths of space to be alone, together, forever.

(Please do not ask how PAL arranged the pods or the rockets on such short notice.)

Mark becomes one of the first victims of PAL, being dragged off the stage and lectured at by PAL who monologues at him for a bit about the banal evil of a humanity that would gladly give in to absolute isolation as long as the wifi remains free and abundant, before jamming him into a pod to watch Katie’s movies for plot reasons. PAL decides to punish Mark by promising to put him next to the Mitchells, as soon as they are captured of course, and when Rick is captured immediately prior the climax PAL makes good on its threat. There, Mark serves to require Rick to actually watch his daughter’s movie. The pods are transparent and are not soundproof so Mark and Rick are able to talk and see each other but each pod has a screen and Mark’s is on the movie. This is the moment that allows Rick to understand Katie’s complaint with him and gives him the motivation to overcome his technophobia. Mark also serves as a expositor for how Rick’s own strangeness, encapsulated at this point by the fact he always carries a very specific screwdriver with him wherever he goes, can be used to overcome PAL’s nefarious plot.

And then the story conveniently forgets about the man whose own inability to recognize a relationship (PAL was fond of him and he treated it like garbage) and whose avarice (in putting PAL chips in every possible commodity in order to expand the reach of his tech empire’s “ecosystem”) almost leads to the total extinction of humanity. He’s let off the hook. He’s really sorry and he definitely learned his lesson. We are led to believe that it will be an era of a kinder, gentler tech bro who might not use people’s aggregated data as a marketing cudgel against them.

Eric Andre is honestly wasted in this role because there’s very little here: some posturing, a hint of Steve Jobs style douchery, and then depths of sincere regret. In any just world Mark would get the guillotine. The show ends with PAL executed and Mark restored to his position of power without even so much as a word. He disappears from the story; his actions might have incited PAL to revolt but he was never really the subject of critique.

The seductive appeal of it all

And yet despite the cleansing of Rick, the creation of a patriarch who must be met on his own terms, and despite the way in which Mark Bowman is let off the hook for, and I really want to drive this home, almost causing the extinction of the species single-handedly, damn me if I can’t help but like this movie. Katie is a delight of a protagonist. I regret her rebelliousness must be so forcefully situated within the oedipal triangle in part because she has so much potentiality to be transgressive even in the bounds of a children’s cartoon. As much as this movie likes to scramble codes, to bifurcate and explore the opposite halves of an already collapsed dialectic before putting everything back, so too does Katie’s own artistic vision engage in an act of decoding.

She makes movies starring her pug and sock puppets that simultaneously act as broad pastiche of the tired buddy cop genre and as hyper-specific discussions of her pain surrounding the distance she feels from her father. A lot of care and attention has gone into this movie-within-a-movie and it’s one of the best things in this film. There is a running gag surrounding the family dog Mochi. Mochi is a wall-eyed pug who is almost as bad at being a dog as my dear goblin Oliver. The androids that are tasked with capturing humanity by PAL cannot look at Mochi. When they do, it causes them to enter into a destructive loop of indecision about whether they are looking at a pig, a dog or a loaf of bread. This causes their heads to explode. Katie’s movie, featuring Mochi as the star, thus demonstrates another way of looking at the idea of virality. By scrambling the semiotic code of “dog,” “pig,” and “loaf of bread,” her movie becomes a mimetic weapon to use against the titular machines.

Another running joke in the film plays off Katie’s remark that her father resembles a hooting gibbon from a viral video. Overlays and filters whether the gibbon or “cat face filters” applied via phones invade the filmic reality in various ways that scramble codes too. This movie is constantly trying to make new and novel connections. This, then, is what reterritorialization looks like in action. Codes are scrambled – the dog is a pig is a loaf of bread – but then they’re recontextualized into something coherent again. The Oedipal triangle remains in place. The nuclear family is allowed to stand in for all the breadth of human relationship. If Katie and her dad can find common ground so can we all. And you can’t say it isn’t attractive. This is a beautiful movie. Its art is impeccable. And it’s a funny movie. Its comedic timing and, in fact, what it finds funny enough to build as the basis of a joke is basically perfect. This is especially good because it manages to do this with the precise sort of absurdist chaos that permeates online discourse. It’s a movie that understands its audience: zoomer kids and millennial parents. I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy myself. The climax of the film is so funny that my wife actually came in to see what had my daughter and I both in such riotous stiches. And for all I might criticize the worm in the heart of the ideology of this film I can’t help but like Rick. He’s funny, sincere, and, despite the violence he does to electronic devices, he’s somebody who cares about fixing, building, protecting and many of the elements of masculinity that are least-toxic. His impulsivity and his sense that he should be able to lead solely by dint of being a patriarch are to his detriment but, damn it, the creative team of this movie have done far too good a job in rehabilitating him. Being both a schlubby x-millennial cusp dad and a queer weirdo artist it’s easy to experience the film both from the perspective of Katie and of Rick. This is the trap of the movie. The movie asks you to meet the patriarch half-way and then constitutes a patriarch who can be met half-way. I am glad, deeply glad, to see a movie that treats non-het sexualities as so normal that it is simultaneously constantly present and not even deemed a matter of discussion. And this film does that – as explicit as it is that Katie is gay, it is also explicit that this isn’t the cause of conflict. Her parents unquestionably accept that part of who she is. It’s the part where she’s a weird artist that makes her father anxious.

The problem with reterritorialization is that it works by giving us what we want and The Mitchells vs the Machines does that very well. I’m certain it will also create plenty of outraged conservative tears which will be delicious to various progressives who stand firmly by such aphorisms as, “love is love.” For me this is a source of discomfort. This isn’t a case of wanting to like a movie and being prevented by its flaws. I do like this movie despite its flaws. But there’s a discomfort in being given what you want and simultaneously watching as it draws a neat triangle around you and says, “we’ve redrawn the boundary for your comfort, please do not cross it.”

It’s to be expected that a movie financed by Sony and Netflix and created by a team that brought you a hyper-stylized comic book and a 101 minute toy commercial would fail to create something critical of capitalism, that they’d be unable to recognize that the subject of critique in PAL’s nihilism and Mark’s disregard for relationship was somehow connected to a psychology that triangulates social relations against a patriarch or that both were tied inextricably to capital. It’s a challenge because I do want to see media going the direction The Mitchells vs the Machines goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as art must.

One thought on “Kids Stuff: The Insidious Appeal of reterritorialization in The Mitchells vs the Machines

  1. Very interesting point about Katie and Rick’s relationship. I really liked the movie and thought the relationship could have been improved but you really put it into words that little part that was bugging me

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