Though we continue to see movies with ’80s-inspired aesthetics, we’re starting to see modern films embrace the 00’s, and even the 2010s, especially in how they deal with social media and our relationship with it. The problem is that the use of current references in a movie, like the use of memes or viral songs, can make a film feel dated or even gimmicky by the time they’re released. That’s not the case with The Mitchells vs The Machines, a film that perfectly brings the Extremely Online Generation to life and captures the look of YouTube videos from the early 2010s without feeling like a relic.

The (absolutely wonderful) film follows Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), who was always considered odd by her family and classmates, so she starts making short films and uploading them to YouTube to express herself. One example: she airs her frustrations with her dad through a film about a dog cop. Having Katie be a filmmaker is not only a cool way to cram in random movie references and jokes about films — like Katie having a Mount Rushmore Of Director Heroes that includes Greta Gerwig, Céline Sciamma, Lynne Ramsay, and Hal Ashby (a joke that seems made specifically for Film Twitter) – it allows us access to the character’s thoughts and passions.

“I’ve always been a fan of creative protagonists because it’s a way that they can express themselves in a way that’s unique,” co-writer and co-director Mike Rianda tells /Film, who compares Katie’s filmmaking to the character of Mabel in Gravity Falls, a show on which Rianda worked. “Just like Mabel was always making sweaters or something, Katie has filmmaking to express herself in ways you might not necessarily have seen in a movie before.”

Katie’s filmmaking isn’t just about informing her character, but about giving the film a unique look that echoes the way Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse combined comic book aesthetics with traditional animation and CG animation. In the case of The Mitchells vs The Machines, the film uses illustrated line work and sometimes crude drawings in order to make the animation feel handmade and human, with watercolor textures, pop-up 2D animation, and even live-action inserts creating a unique look, almost as if the film we’re watching was edited by Katie herself. There are even small animation effects commenting on what’s happening, with title cards showing up at cool and emotionally important moments.

“There are these cartoony drawings that are a little naive in a way,” explains character and production designer Lindsey Olivares. “I played with a lot of collages to make it feel current and young, while still feeling like something Katie would make. We then used this to support Katie’s emotional journey, tracking her emotions with little animated details like she’s screaming and there’s like little Katie heads coming out.”

This way of tracking Katie’s journey through 2D Flash animation pop-ups also helps give the film a grounded look, as it feels like capturing a very specific kind of YouTube video aesthetic from the early 2010s. You remember that time. Back when the internet was dominated by flashy, colorful videos that embraced a sense of randomness like Nyan Cat, alongside “YouTube Poop” videos, which heavily remixed existent content for humor with autotune melodies and flashy effects, like the Double Rainbow song or the Bed Intruder song.

In Mitchells vs The Machines, Katie is seen remixing small videos, mostly involving the family’s dog, Monchi, adding sound effects and 8-bit animation in a way that’s specific enough to feel like an actual teenager making internet videos a decade ago, but still vague enough that even those who can’t differentiate TikTok from Vine can recognize the videos as just something modern. This works in part due to the film not making that many references to modern things. Instead, many of the references, like Nyan Cat or the film’s main song, “Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna (which itself interpolates and samples the viral song “Dragostea Din Tei,” arguably best known from the YouTube viral clip Numa Numa), come from a previous generation of the internet.

“If you throw a Fortnite reference in the movies, it explodes like it’s a tinderbox,” Rianda explains. “We ended up looking at things that everyone could understand and relate to, because even though people don’t necessarily use memes with impact fonts anymore, everyone knows what that means. We tried to reference this Vine I thought was hilarious involving Arthur’s sister, and it got a big laugh in test screenings, but all the kids were like, ‘this is so old, dude, what are you doing?’ so we cut it.”

“We definitely wanted to be modern about it, but we wanted it to feel real and familiar,” Olivares adds. “But real people don’t have all brand new things, as we show with the very old car that the family drives.”

The Mitchells vs The Machines could have easily become a film about why the internet sucks and we spend too much time on our phones — which the first trailer heavily indicated it was going to be about. Thankfully, that’s not the case. On the contrary, even if the film is about an apocalypse brought upon by an evil phone AI hellbent on destroying humanity, the day is saved by Katie’s dad using YouTube and learning to appreciate his daughter’s creative side.

“I just hate getting preached to in movies,” Rianda says. “And in my experience, I grew up using the internet to learn how to make cartoons using Flash when I was 15. Growing up, the internet was this place of opportunity, but also now as an adult I sometimes see my nieces and nephews using technology to distance from each other and their families, which seems like a bad thing. So it’s really about presenting both sides of the argument and I think we end up on the side that this is a tool that could be used for good or evil.”

As Rianda says, the film portrays technology and the internet to be an evil thing mostly when used by a corporation rather than a person. And even then, the script deliberately points out how many wonderful things we can do because of our phones, like being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, or be creative in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be able to be. “Ultimately we were trying to just celebrate what’s funny to us about the internet and hope that people got it,” he says.

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