For whatever reason, this is not what I would have imagined for Gillian Jacobs’ feature directorial debut. It’s not a criticism at all, just an observation. I would have suspected her first film would be about two hipsters bantering in a Brooklyn bar for 80 minutes or something of that ilk. I just never would have expected the actress – best known for TV shows like Community and mumblecore-esque indies like I Used to Go Here – to make something so unabashedly nerdy. It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I learned her first directorial effort was actually an episode of Marvel’s 616, a series of documentaries about the resonance of Marvel Superheroes. Clearly, she loves the geeks.
The documentary focuses primarily on a small handful of robotics teams – among them teams from Los Angeles, Chiba, and Mexico City – as they prepare for competitions that will see teams tasked with repurposing giant buckets of metallic and electronic stuff into robotic creations that can accomplish tasks like doing a pull-up or getting a ball into various holes on a structure. The kids who do this are, unsurprisingly, enormous nerds. Jacobs crafts their interview segments in a warm, uplifting manner. She’s careful to depict them in an aspirational light and, bluntly, I think that makes for a really pleasant experience.
Fascinatingly, the competitions see rivals forced to work with one another as part of the rules. It’s a really interesting structure that in some ways grapples with the complexities of how scientific progress works in the real world. I’ll admit I found the film more enjoyable than captivating – it was an interesting glimpse into a world I know little about, but not much more.
It’s only in the film’s unintentionally heroic last act where the story truly came alive for me. Faced with their competition’s cancellation as a result of the early days of the pandemic, it’s genuinely heartening to see all our young scientists repurpose their technical skills towards creating PPE and no-contact robotic delivery systems. It really does take the nerds to make a difference.
More Than Robots premiered at SXSW ‘22. It is now available on Disney+.