Is it weird for animated movies targeting children to have homages to horror films? No, because the kids don’t get the references and in cartoon form the stuff of scary movies isn’t that scary. If anything, this stuff is for the parents, but it can also help to develop the kids into horror fans down the road — if they’re not upset about being spoiled by the spoofing of iconic moments.
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
For the most part, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a killer computer/robot movie (see below), but during the sequence in the mall, the titular family is threatened by the sudden sentience of all electronics that have a PAL smart-device component. Why doesn’t this additional level of peril exist outside the mall? I’m not sure, but maybe then it’d be too much like a cartoon version of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. And just too much in general. You need some limitations, even in animation. But for that brief moment, particularly when the soda machine starts launching beverages at the Mitchells, this movie is definitely evoked. And could maybe even inspire an easy remake idea given that it shows that today’s smart-device prevalence is the perfect context — and greater logic — for a story about any and all electronic items coming “to life” thanks to a magic comet.
Chopping Mall (1986)
There is another horror movie released earlier in the same year as Maximum Overdrive that involves a shopping mall and machines gone amuck: Chopping Mall! Like the killer robots of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, those in Chopping Mall (a.k.a. Killbots) are meant to be for the benefit of humans, but something goes wrong and they turn murderers instead. Despite the punny re-title, though, the robots do no chopping, just blasting and head-‘sploding.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
It’s one thing for an animated movie to visually pay homage to a graphically violent horror movie and another thing to mention it by name, but The Mitchells vs. the Machines does have a direct, spoken reference to Dawn of the Dead when they arrive at the mall. Maybe they meant the more recent Zack Snyder version of the mall-set zombie flick, but I will always prefer and rather recommend George A. Romero’s original. Imagine convincing Sony to allow for dialogue bringing up a movie that was stamped with an X rating by the MPAA. And then convincing Hasbro to let you use their toy as a fill-in for zombies in such an homage.
A.I. Sci-Fi Movies
The main villain of The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a feminine-voiced operating system on a smartphone, reminiscent of the Scarlett Johansson-voiced “Samantha” on the device of Joaquin Phoenix’s protagonist in Her. Did the PAL Labs founder have a romantic relationship with the phone? That’s not important, but the PAL A.I. had enough reason to feel dumped by the guy to respond with a robot apocalypse. Unlike Samantha and the rest of the A.I.s of Her, which just disappear when they realize they don’t need matter and so probably couldn’t care less about humans in the end. I also need to mention the 1984 movie Electric Dreams, which I included in my recommendations to watch after Her but which may be more relevant to the latest Movie DNA installment since it features a sentient computer operating system that turns antagonistic due to feelings of jealousy.
I, Robot (2004)
It’s not the best adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s genre-defining stories focused on the idea of sentient robots and the safety protocols needed to keep them from pulling a Judgment Day on us humans or enslaving us in The Matrix, but I kinda like I, Robot as far as Will Smith sci-fi action movies of its time go. While most of PAL’s motivation is out of spite for humans, it’s still compatible with the main A.I. villain in I, Robot (as well as the one in 2008’s Eagle Eye and other movies), which finds loopholes in Asimov’s law of robotics that allows it to murder some humans, if not all, for the betterment of humanity as a whole.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Of course, the most iconic influence on PAL in The Mitchells vs. the Machines is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its A.I. computer system, named HAL — a.k.a. HAL 9000. The movie itself has little other connection to the new animated feature, but any piece of cinema in which a computer or A.I. goes rogue and/or evil is a direct descendent of 2001 for its HAL element, even though there are other examples in earlier films and literature (like the terrible yet essential 1957 film The Invisible Boy and the Colossus novels) that may have led to Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s creation.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines might be a fantastical cartoon farce, but at its core, it’s dealing with two very real issues: the disconnect of the family unit in a time of digital connectivity and the actual threat of A.I. and robots. That’s why it’s not too much of a stretch to recommend a few nonfiction films among this list.
The Social Dilemma (2020)
Netflix’s documentary covering the wide array of problems with social networks and our addiction to them can seem a bit hokey at times thanks to the scripted sequences, but otherwise, it’s an essential breakdown and warning of the worst that social media is doing to us as individuals and as a society. Michael Rianda may not have seen this before or during the making of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, but thanks to his Letterboxd account, we can see that he watched it on April 2, 2021, just ahead of his movie’s release.
Do You Trust This Computer? (2018) and The Truth About Killer Robots (2018)
These two documentaries released just months apart are probably already outdated three years later, and so considering their warnings of the time, we’re likely as doomed as the world was in The Mitchells vs. the Machines — only we don’t have the Mitchells to save us. Chris Paine’s Do You Trust This Computer? addresses why most people are ignorant about A.I. and think it’s just fantasy, and then it presents the reality.
Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Truth About Killer Robots looks more into the dangers of automation, from faulty, decapitating self-driving cars to the first machines we could technically refer to as robocops. A smartphone A.I. launching a robot apocalypse is right around the corner for real.
Here are the movies that you or I might not have noticed as being part of the DNA of The Mitchells vs. the Machines but which Michael Rianda has acknowledged as unlikely influences. From his interview with Inbtwn Animation Fest:
“We really wanted to bring a stew of our influences. I wanted to bring the chaotic energy of Warner Bros. cartoons, and these Hal Ashby movies that are more grounded, mixed with ‘2001,’ ‘Enter the Void,’ and these crazy, more adult movies for the robot-side of things.”
Enter the Void (2009)
How does any Gaspar Noé movie wind up informing a cartoon family film? Let alone one that’s a relatively experimental feature dealing with drugs and death and sex all in a psychedelic story following a guy having an out-of-body experience? Ask Rianda, who cites the film Enter the Void in the quote above. I guess he’s acknowledging the influence of its bright palette and not any of the plot and other story content, just the visuals.
The Last Detail (1973)
Also in the same interview, Rianda acknowledges being influenced by Hal Ashby movies. One of his current favorite movies, as listed on Letterboxd (and in an interview from 2010), is Ashby’s The Last Detail, which does entail a road trip. And Katie Mitchell clearly likes the late filmmaker and the film, too. He’s one of the heads on her “Mount Rushmore of Director Heroes” (the others being living women filmmakers Greta Gerwig, Céline Sciamma, and Lynne Ramsay), and if you look closely you can see a poster of The Last Detail above her desk in her room.
What other cinematic genetic material do you see in The Mitchells vs. the Machines?