Molli and Max in the Future had its world première at SXSW 2023
Two strangers get to know one another on a journey to the Big City, and then intermittently reencounter one another over the course of twelve long years during which the circumstances of their separate lives evolve with the times even as their on-again off-again friendship with each other gradually matures into something else. Writer/director Michael Lukk Litwak’s feature debut Molli and Max in the Future scoops up the flotsam and jetsam of this plot, very familiar from Rob Reiner’s classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… (1989), and launches them – like space junk – into a retrofuturist world of tomorrow that is also very much a post-millennial today.
Here the meet-cute is a literal collision in space, as Max (Aristotle Athari), out riding a clunky, custom-built spaceship of his own design, crashes into the magic power crystal that Molli (Zosia Mamet) is illegally harvesting in an asteroid belt, and ends up thrown onto her small vessel’s windshield. So she gives him a lift to Megalopolis, where she lives and where he hopes to catch a stadium mecha fight, and then back to his home planet of Oceanus. He is practical, into robot building and sports and fighting, while her interests – love magic and interdimensional gods – are more abstract. She is human, he is half fish-person (a persecuted species, mirroring Harry’s Jewishness in the Reiner film). And yet there is a definite spark between them, and as they hang out, bicker, share personal stories and even establish a secret handshake, they are also negotiating just what their relationship is – until Molli gets a call to join the loved-up tentacular demigod Moebius (Okieriete Onaodowan) and his cult of Passionauts on a mission (part cosmic battle against the forces of death, part sex orgy), leaving her friendship with Max in limbo.
Over the years Max and Molli’s paths will cross again, even as their lives and aspirations change. Max becomes a superstar on the mecha circuit, and then a public hate figure. Molli grows disillusioned with the cult, and returns to Megalopolis, even though she retains her acquired spacewitch powers (including astral projection). Both have relations with other people (Arturo Castro, Paloma Garcia-Lee) – and even with deities and androids – but keep returning to each other. Yet in a universe governed by idiocy, commerce and chaos, can love find a way?
Set in a neon-lit universe constructed of dials and valves, VHS cassettes and bulky monitors, and beautifully realised with DIY models and the odd 3D digital effect, this is a future that is charmingly passé. Even the ball game that Max and Molli regularly play together is like a mix of old-school arcade game Pong and Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), while the sentient robot Mar14 (Erin Darke) that Max creates (and for a time dates) delivers her rapid-fire lines as though she were Rosalind Russell or Katherine Hepburn in a screwball comedy, and Alex Winkler’s jazzy score – all piano and sax and double bass – evokes a New York comedy from the peak era of Woody Allen, or indeed of When Harry Met Sally.
Yet despite this merging of future and past, Litwak is very much using his sci-fi trappings to satirise the here and now – everything from the horrors of online dating to the stupidity of social media, and from the panic of pandemic to the blithe dismissal of impending disaster. This is a dumbed-down, decidedly Trumpian universe where everything is branded and corporatised, where everyone is distracted by mass entertainment, where politics is reduced to the manufactured polarisations of reality TV, and where even an openly malicious and bullying demon (Michael Chernus) can be elevated by a bamboozled public from minor television celebrity into Emperor of the Galaxy (on a platform of wanting to kill as many people as possible, and to turn our reality into trash). All the scenarios in this tomorrow look uncannily like today’s – but as Molli will later put it, “we have to go in a circle to move forward”. In such bleak times, be they past, present or future, love may be the only comfort (as well as “the opposite of capitalism”), even if the love goddess Triangulon (Grace Kuhlenschmidt) Herself is as flawed and lost as everybody else.
No matter how absurd the flights of fancy in Molli and Max in the Future, it is always grounded in character. For everyone here is schlubbily human – including the aliens and gods – and even if the central couple must go through parallel universes (via a ‘PU box’), spiritual realms and the quantum zone to find themselves and each other, the results turn out to be surprisingly like any earthbound romantic comedy, only with quirky space opera to paint everything in surreal, subversive colours. This is a true labour of – and about – love that is out of this world.
strap: Michael Lukk Litwak’s feature debut is a retrofuturist lo-fi sci-fi romantic comedy satirising the here and now
© Anton Bitel