I think I’ve demonstrated by now that I have great fondness for animation, and I tend to prefer an optimistic and positive outlook in fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that I rather enjoyed The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Despite ostensibly being a family-friendly movie about a robot apocalypse, it’s really an action comedy that at its heart is about a somewhat dysfunctional nuclear family finding ways to practice empathy to understand each other better and repair the faults in their relationships. The animation was fantastic, the art style had a lot of quirky flair, the voice acting was top-notch (though the younger brother was very distractingly voiced as Not A Child), the writing was sparkling with humor, there were some tremendously silly-yet-epic action sequences, and yet what stuck with me was the family’s struggle to bond and eventual ability to reconnect as the oldest daughter prepares to leave the home for college.
I could perhaps force myself to write a larger review of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. And I had originally planned to do so. But I write enough reviews already for a personal blog. What I found more interesting was what this movie says about me and my values, especially in contrast to the even-more-recently-released Army of the Dead. The latter film, a Zack Snyder feature, is nihilistic and amoral, unconcerned with presenting a clear message. The characters are broad tropes, entertaining at first but just blank enough that it is unsurprising when they die off one by one. Snyder ends his film by allowing two characters to survive–one sure to die but perhaps only after setting off yet another zombie outbreak. The film delights in stylized violence and gore, in big sweeping frames of zombie hordes rallying to battle, and I suppose I should expect as much and nothing more from a Snyder flick (although I’m one of those true believers in the artistry of Snyder’s directorial vision in his DC superhero movies, despite my reservations about that dubious distinction).
It is probably not very surprising to those who know me or have otherwise read this blog for a while that I am really disturbed by depictions of gore or prolonged physical torment. I don’t have the stomach for it. So zombie movies are usually outside of what I’ll watch. There are exceptions, just as there are exceptions to my general avoidance of the horror genre as a whole. I’d made the poor decision to make an exception for Army of the Dead just because of Snyder’s association with the project, coupled with the trailers that suggested this might be a little bit of a winking farce. I was clearly very mistaken, but I stuck the movie out, despite its bloated length for something that boils down to a story about a team of mercenaries fighting their way into a zombie-infested Las Vegas for a big score of abandoned loot and then failing to fight their way out.
What I want to emphasize, though, is that it wasn’t the gore that turned me off to this movie. That would be an easy, and wrong, assumption to make. No, it’s not as simple as Eric Can’t Handle Scary Gross Things. Rather, it’s the emptiness at the heart of the film. They’re fighting and dying for money, dealing with repeated betrayals, in the final moments before a nuclear strike makes the zombie threat irrelevant–or, you know, it would have become irrelevant if not for their fucked-up heist attempt and resultant infected survivor. The characters have no larger goals to fight for. Found family tropes are used sparingly, presumably in an attempt to make you care about the doomed team’s fates, and you could argue that this is a movie about a father reconnecting with his daughter–but if so, that fails too. The father and daughter don’t reconnect. The father dies saving the daughter, who was only at risk, at the end of the day, because her father got her involved in the first place. I refuse to accept that the daughter’s grief over losing her father–and having to put his zombified form down–represents a healing of the relationship. There is no relationship. The father failed to fix that relationship, only managed to even understand how he had screwed up their relationship toward the very end, barely managed to save the daughter but saddled her with a lot more trauma, and doomed everyone else on the team.
That’s a much darker, more depressing version of the apocalypse than a movie in which the tropes of apocalypse are used to metaphorically represent the fracturing and healing of family bonds as children mature and leave the home. And that movie about family, hell, it has an actual theme, an actual message, something to think on afterward. Something more than we can all be assholes or the desire for wealth makes us make bad choices or people can die at any time as life is unfair or some other tired trope requiring no deeper examination.
I don’t need happy endings or family-friendly ratings to appease me, though. The first two Alien movies rank high among my favorite sci-fi movies, despite their thematic (and literal) darkness, violence, and gore. Yes, they’re well-crafted movies with great special effects, distinctive settings, and actors that manage to sell the sheer horror and despair of the situation. But they’re also about scrappy, normal humans fighting for something bigger than themselves. In the first film, the team of blue-collar workers tries to clear out the xenomorph to keep each other alive. Sure, only Ripley makes it out, but not for lack of trying–and she even makes a point of returning for the cat! Then, in Aliens, she’s willing to join an expedition back to the planet that doomed her crew because she wants to ensure that any remaining threat is eliminated. And even despite her trauma and loss, she fights to save who she can. The suggestion of a found family in Newt, Hicks, and Bishop gives the movie some heart even amongst all the death. On the flip side, it’s one of two reasons that I’ve never been a fan of Alien 3. First, Ripley once again loses everyone she cares about in the opening moments of the movie. Second, she dies not fighting for someone but only against the threat of the xenomorph queen in her that would have killed her anyway (not to mention that even this sacrifice is undone in yet another sequel with Alien Resurrection).
Look, I get it. There are evil people who do evil things in the world. And many more people often make selfish, self-serving, amoral choices. And good does not always triumph over evil; evil often wins. Evil still wins day to day, in oppressive and corrupt systems of governance and in small-minded bigotry and in interpersonal hostility and in petty crime. But I try to act on my principles, and I like to look to people who made a difference by acting on their principles, and while I make many mistakes I still have something I strive for. I get that the world can be a dark place, and I don’t think it’s wrong that there is art, dumb and smart, that is dark and nihilistic. But nihilism repulses me, and even in darkness I look for light, I look for principles and guiding purpose, I look for what people are fighting for and not just the odds they’re fighting against. I’m uncomfortable with settling for meaninglessness. Maybe some people, maybe many people, think that reflects a naivete on my part. Maybe that’s what it really does mean. But I will still always favor stories that have heart, that have purpose, that aren’t just showcases of loss and suffering.
To be clear, I’m not trying to snipe at the horror genre as a whole. But Army of the Dead–which really isn’t a horror film, despite the use of zombies–uniquely highlighted the unsettling hollowness I find when pop art portrays atrocities for their own sake. Most fiction has some level of escapism baked in, anyhow. Please don’t begrudge me how I choose to escape.