‘Molli and Max in the Future’ review: ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ in a galaxy far, far away

Romantic comedies are built on cliches, from Big City Girl finds love in a small country town to rivals to lovers, tricky love triangles, opposites attract, and climactic kisses (often in bad weather). This isn’t a glitch, but a design meant to comfort us with its predictability. To reinvent the wheel of the rom-com would be to miss the point: We want a ride that might be a bit bumpy but promises to roll us into a cozy, happy ending.

To keep things exciting on this journey, little tweaks are all we really want. And thankfully, Molli and Max in the Future gets that, unfurling a familiar rom-com plotline while boldly going for a sci-fi setting that offers fresh fun. 

What’s Molli and Max in the Future about? 

Zosia Mamet and Aristotle Athari in “Molli and Max in the Future.”
Credit: Level 33 Entertainment

Written and directed by Michael Lukk Litwak, it’s basically When Harry Met Sally... But instead of the titular twosome road-tripping, hitting diners, and strolling around New York City, they’re cruising in spaceships, checking out “mega mech fights” where towering robots do battle in a gladiator arena, and bopping around the universe to quirky planets and even a troubling alternate dimension. 

Zosia Mamet stars as Molli, a hopeless romantic pursuing spirituality and space magic. Aristotle Athari plays Max, a career-focused inventor determined to build a bot that’ll make him a mega mech megastar. Their meet-cute comes through a spaceship accident where no one is hurt (beyond Max’s pride). The spark between the two is immediate. Over a montage of tours around spacey destinations and winding conversations, they forge a powerful friendship. But then fate comes crashing in, pulling the pair apart for years. 

The film’s story arches over 12 years, during which Max and Molli chase their dreams and suffer some rude awakenings. But again and again, they collide, depending on each other in a wide galaxy full of frustrations, sex cults, chaotic demi-gods, mind-bending tech, genocidal demon tyrants, and achingly human problems like crushes and self-doubt.

Science fiction brings a unique whimsy to Molli and Max in the Future. 

Zosia Mamet and Aristotle Athari in "Molli and Max in the Future."

Credit: Level 33 Entertainment

Litwak’s world — or worlds — blend the familiar with the futuristic. Rather than a squawking TV screen, hovering taxi cabs project advertisements for Glorp Cola via hologram. An AI girlfriend (a terrifically on-point Erin Darke) looks human enough, but has flashes of metal and a sharp diction as if her code had been snatched from a fast-talking dame in a 1930s screwball comedy. In Megatropolis and Oceanus, humans interact with “fish people” and other interstellar creatures who come alive by applying sparse but effective prosthetics to human faces. 

Like many an MCU movie, much of this film is shot against a greenscreen. But unlike the MCU’s blockbusters, Molli and Max in the Future can’t compete with the budget or effects that a hulking franchise can. The CGI that builds its settings is more reminiscent of 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with a self-aware slathering of Tron.

Neon lights radiate across distant cityscapes and punctuate sportswear for a retro-futuristic flare. Combined with the shrewd use of costumes and prosthetics, the movie brews a low-fi charm reminiscent of a history of scrappy sci-fi films. The spectacle — like robot fights and interactions with a horny space critter — have the guileless verve of Saturday morning cartoons. And frankly, it’s fine that these effects aren’t extraordinary, as the core focus is the romance that plays as winkingly familiar. 

Molli and Max in the Future has bouncy banter and big ideas, for better and for worse.

Aristotle Athari and Zosia Mamet in "Molli and Max in the Future."

Credit: Level 33 Entertainment

Litwak clearly relishes showcasing glimpses of his lovestruck galaxy, but he refuses to dillydally. Molli and Max in the Future moves, smartly trusting in the chemistry of its stars and the anticipation of its audiences. Montages jauntily carry us through the getting-to-know-you stage before plunging us into a complicated relationship of repressed lust, commitment fears, and endless possibilities. Employing parallel universes to give their could-be relationship a test run is a particularly clever intersection of sci-fi and rom-com. In this bit, Max and Molli call their alternate selves for a catchup that is as comedic as it is emotionally fraught.

Litwak also works in daffy spins on drama cliches, like a snarling blue-collar father demanding his son abandon his lofty career ambitions and join the family business working at the “rock ‘n’ roll factory.” But the biggest laughs come from the zippy banter, deftly volleyed by Mamet and Atharia, as well as apparently timeless one-liners like the scorching exit line, “Have a nice life — living in Midtown!” (Ouch!)

Where the film fumbles is in a second act that juggles political satire, working in thinly veiled satire about President Trump (a bombastic demon called Turboschmuck, played with churlish moxie by Michael Chernus) and the Climate Change Crisis. While Max and Molli gawp in the face of their interstellar stressors, the lightness of the rom-com suffers under the too-real reminders of actual horror. Storywise, it makes sense, as our heroes — who like Millennials and Gen Z now — grapple with their identity and priorities in the face of political upheaval and overwhelming global catastrophe. But this detour derails the fun and verve Litwak and company had rolling along. A bold third act aims to reconcile this sharp turn, but your mileage may vary. 

Despite its wobbly second half, Molli and Max in the Future is an inventive, endearing, and entertaining movie. Blending sci-fi details with rom-com tropes and a sharp self-awareness, it charts a daring new path that makes it well worth the watching. 

Molli and Max in the Future opens in select theaters Feb 2.

UPDATE: Feb. 2, 2024, 12:22 p.m. EST “Molli and Max in the Future” was reviewed out its World Premiere at SXSW 2023. This review was republished to coincide with its theatrical premiere.