Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 18th, 2022
More Than Robots (Gillian Jacobs, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Kids and robots. Sounds fun, no? Well, it certainly is for the kids (I don’t know about the robots). Some smart educators and engineers figured out in the 1990s that high-school competitions centered around the building of automated machines (partly automated, anyway) could lead to a lifelong engagement with science, technology, engineering, and math (i.e., STEM). The brainchild of American inventor Dean Kamen, the FIRST Robotics Competition has spent much of the past three decades instilling self-confidence and encouraging innovation among young would-be scientists across the globe. Now, in her debut feature, actress Gillian Jacobs (Come Play) steps behind the camera to document the last (for now) event held, in 2020, in the days before the world shut down.
Jacobs is an unobtrusive filmmaker, letting her subjects seemingly guide the narrative. Starting in Los Angeles in the months leading up to what was supposed to be the final round in March 2020, we meet two teams, each from very different schools, one rich, one not so rich. Interestingly, two of the assigned mentors for these teams are married: Fazlul and Fatima, he taking the Vitruvian Bots (the well-resourced ones) and she the Terawatts. Both groups, at least, irrespective of income, have a fair amount of racial and gender diversity. More importantly, they feature equally motivated students. Kamen likes to quote Einstein saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (knowledge is important, too), and that is on full display, throughout.
From there, we head to Japan and then to Mexico City, encountering a wide array of subjects to whom we will return, at intervals, Jacobs cycling through the teams one by one and then back again, keeping tabs on their progress. The goal, as it is every year, is to make a robot that can function both on its own and under the control of designated operators, fulfilling specified tasks that vary year to year (as does the assigned assembly kit). These machines then need to enter a sports arena-like setting and compete against the machines from other teams. In 2020, the robots had to shoot balls into a designated slot and climb a parallel bar. Not so easy, as it turns out.
It’s not all competition, though. In fact, Kamen calls it a “cooperatition.” Teams must form alliances, and though ultimately only one alliance can win, the ethos of the event is one of celebration that anything is happening at all. Go team, even if your robot doesn’t do all that it was supposed to. What did you learn? That’s what’s important. It is, in other words, “more than robots,” as Jacob (not Gillian Jacobs), a member of the Vitruvian Bots, articulates at the end.
Both the documentary and the FIRST Robotics Competition are sponsored by Disney and Lucasfilm, so there is a promotional feel to the piece that is (to me) occasionally off-putting. There is also a little too much forcefully inspirational music that is completely unnecessary. And then there’s the unavoidable fact that though we see some leadups to the big finale, we never get there, given what happened. Jacobs, however, pivots nicely, showing how all these intrepid young souls applied their skills to helping a world in need, making face shields, delivery bots, and more. Go team(s), indeed. Now that’s inspiring!