SXSW Film Review: More Than Robots

Sweet family doc profiles STEM dynamos

More Than Robots

Can I tell you a secret?

Docs about kids taking part in competitions – that’s my Kryptonite. I see young people earnestly applying themselves, striving for greatness – in a spelling bee, a step contest, a wild mustang-training competition – and my inner blubberer is unleashed.

The family-friendly More Than Robots falls nicely into that lineage, as it follows some remarkable teenagers and their mentors in a quest to make it to the annual FIRST Robotics Competition finals.

Best known for her acting credits (Community, Winning Time), Gillian Jacobs builds on her previous experience directing documentary shorts to mount this feature-length look at a handful of teams participating in the 2020 competition. (The documentary was produced by Lucasfilm, which partnered with FIRST Robotics Competition for the 2020 season as part of its Star Wars: Force for Change Initiative. Nothing about More Than Robots feels like sponcon or appears compromised in its vision, but that, erm, synergy, is something to note nonetheless.)

Embracing standard sports doc tropes, Jacobs hones in on a handful of teams – from Mexico, Japan, and two California teams, the underdog TeraWatts from Watts and powerhouse Vitruvian Bots – and finds charismatic personalities on each team to hook into. But Jacobs also doesn’t frame the competition as the end-all, be-all, taking a cue from FIRST itself. As explained by founder Dean Kamen (also the dude who invented the Segway!), FIRST is more of a “coopetition,” putting as much emphasis on the cooperation as the competition.

If you clocked earlier that this is the 2020 competition, then you’ve already guessed at some of the late-breaking drama in the film. Did the montage of these STEM dynamos turning their talents to home-manufacturing PPE and no-contact temperature-taking stations just about break me? Yes. But what a sweet coda. More Than Robots’ raison d'être may be the uplift of science and engineering, but there’s a worthy civics lesson to be had there too.

More Than Robots debuts on Disney+ on March 18.

More Than Robots

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Tuesday, March 15, 6pm, AFS Cinema
Wednesday, March 16, 7:15pm, Alamo Lamar
Online: March 15, 9am-March 17, 9am

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