‘Molli and Max in the Future’ Review: Two-Handed Space Opera Is a Striking Display of Indie Film Craftsmanship

Despite the fact that much of its plot takes place in a futuristic city called Megalopolis, not a single winery was liquidated to finance “Molli and Max in the Future.” That only makes the existence of Michael Lukk Litwak’s debut feature more remarkable, as his futuristic rom-com creates an expansive sci-fi universe that spans four planets and three dimensions on a fraction of the budget of the studio blockbusters it tries to emulate. Written like a throwback Woody Allen movie — complete with rapid-fire quips and a jazz score —and shot like a stage play that relies on rotating backdrops, “Molli and Max” blends the scale of a space opera with the best and worst clichés of independent film.

Set one billion years in the future, the film begins with the reassuring news that the invention of flying cars has not reduced the prevalence of meet-cutes sparked by minor accidents. A harmless intergalactic fender bender introduces Molli (Zosia Mamet), a free-spirited crystal hunter who is incapable of not speaking her mind, to Max (Aristotle Athari), a slightly misanthropic athlete who dreams of competing as a mech fighter in a “Real Steel”-esque robot gladiator league despite his family’s objections. They quickly develop a rapport based on lightning-fast banter that playfully reveals the differences in their worldviews in classic rom-com fashion. But as soon as the friendship begins, they part ways for five years.

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When they meet again in the first of many, many time jumps, Max has achieved his dreams of mech fighting stardom while Molli has been roped into a sex cult. Gods and other divinities are real in this world — rather unsurprising given that magic, fish people, muscular androids, and countless other genre film staples walk among the humans — but they’re happy to partake in the same grifting behavior that our cult leaders do, coercing women into sex acts with them in exchange for sacred “revelations.” Max and Molli’s “Before Sunset” reunion sees them picking up exactly where they left off, even if adulthood has worn down a bit of their vibrancy. But despite their impeccable chemistry, they’re still just good friends — though the universe has plans to change that.

The endless banter between the eponymous couple can be grating as they meet up every few years on their gradual journey toward romance. Litwak’s dialogue is often too fast and clever for its own good, borrowing too heavily from ’90s indie film aesthetics while presenting a fairly standard friends-to-something-more story. But any tired writing tropes can be forgiven due to the film’s charming visuals, which never fail to immerse us in a world that is simultaneously retro and fresh.

Litwak and director of photography Zach Stoltzfus crafted their sprawling world by combining the best of vintage practical effects and cutting-edge technology. Virtually everything shown in the film was shot in-camera, largely due to the film’s virtual production in front of LED screens that featured homemade digital backdrops. By pairing that with three-dimensional props and puppetry, the film achieves the tangibility of a vintage space opera with enough modern touches to feel fresh despite its winking nods to genre film history. The small scale means that the film is short on set pieces and visual depth, with almost every shot consisting of two people having a conversation while standing side-by-side. But the blocking serves as a meta reminder of the film’s budget constraints, which only makes what it does achieve more impressive.

“Molli and Max in the Future” offers a story you’ve seen many times before in a format that you almost certainly haven’t. Even if its script hits familiar lulls and the actors lack the chemistry it would take to compensate, the mere fact that it got made is a testament to the type of indie film craftsmanship we should all be celebrating. Litwak’s ability to put such a fresh spin on a classic rom-com structure is evidence of both the genre’s enduring adaptability and his bright future as a filmmaker.

Grade: B-

A Level 33 Entertainment release, “Molli and Max in the Future” is now playing in theaters.

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