Review of “More Than Robots”: An International Battle
The documentary “More Than Robots” (which airs on Disney+) centers on an international high school robotics competition. Despite the film’s title, robots are actually the subject and spectacle of this lighthearted film.
Working in groups over several weeks, young inventors compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition to create industrial-scale robots complex enough to move automatically, fire projectiles and even climb. The organization that runs the competition was founded by inventor Dean Kamen, who wanted to organize an event that would develop the skills of young engineers. (The competition’s international reach has attracted powerful patrons: when tournament organizers present the challenge of the season, they acknowledge that the competition is sponsored by Lucasfilm.)
The documentary follows four teams in early 2020 as they prepare for regional competitions in Japan, Mexico and California. The most memorable scenes come from the two Los Angeles crews, each led by their teachers Fazlul and Fatima, who are also a married couple. Despite the apparent differences in funding between the two schools, the two mentors encourage their students to build robots that withstand the hard knocks of engineering battles.
The film is the first feature-length documentary directed by actress Gillian Jacobs. As a filmmaker, she made the wise choice to feature bright-eyed inventors who are able to make technical innovation accessible in talking-head interviews.
Ultimately, however, the documentary lacks balance and growth in its storytelling. Jacobs has more streak to show from the Los Angeles tournament than either Japan or Mexico, and that imbalance has the unfortunate effect of making international storylines feel overlooked. Like many of the young inventors she documents, Jacobs has created a project that doesn’t fall apart on first contact. But his film does not reach the bar of excellence either.
More than robots
Unclassified. Duration: 1h29. Watch on Disney+.