The world is a highly competitive place. Amidst our rivalries, we have become a tribalistic society. Fans from opposing sports teams become more interested in humiliating their fellow man rather than enjoying the art of the sport overall. We place each other in different financial classes, spreading race disparity across the nation—the optimism for a functioning community dwindles with each passing day. More Than Robots is one of the few glimmering displays of hope for humanity.
The First Robotics competition is a unique competitor event. As First’s founder Dean Kamen put it, First isn’t a competition, but rather a co-opetition meaning everyone works together. The teams for the event travel across the globe to California in a game of ingenuity. The teenage students are to build a robot out of a random bag of spare parts.
The items contained within the bag have no instructions because that’s where the fun begins. It’s up to the kids to figure out how to build a robot with their given parts. The robot’s task is to score a basket and grab a ledge above its head. In writing, the mechanics of the game sound far more simplistic than they are. Creating a droid from scratch is something only a gifted mind can handle.
More Than Robots feel like a commercial. Everything is pristine, the music plays uplifting beats, and everyone in the film gets along swimmingly. Not a negative thought is uttered, nor a moral gray area examined, and I’m glad for it. If MTR is an ad, then it’s advertising wisdom. Not a bad thing to teach American children if you ask me. At First, children learn to become future engineers. Without engineers, we wouldn’t have the automobile, television, or computer. First isn’t merely a competition to root for your team, but to cheer on the future of civilization. Each team member we’re looking at in the movie could be the designer of the next spacesuit, automobile, or fuel-efficient planet saver.
As the title indicates, More Than Robots isn’t only about the androids but the young engineers behind them. The film follows four different students from four different teams. Each subject has a unique personality. The first competitor we follow is Jacob, the prototypical awkward genius. When we first see him within his neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jake’s hands lay to the side, not moving along with his body as he walks home. On his fingers, Jakub is counting silently to himself. As Jacob says himself, he sees the world through a mathematical lens. Where some see the number two, Jacob interpolates the numeral as the corner of a building. Although socially awkward, Jakob has a home at First, forming alliances with equally gifted children.
Aaron is better adjusted with human interaction yet has oddities like Jakob. My favorite subject in the film has to be Fatima, a school teacher who collaborates with her husband for every First event. Having been a teacher, I can connect to Fatima’s tireless effort in educating and engaging her students. Living in a medium-income neighborhood, Fatima may not have the resources that the more wealthy competitors might have, but more on that later. Marian, a teenage girl from Spain with the work ethic of a CEO, assists in managing the entire event. Mariana isn’t the relatable subject to follow since she’s a genius who’s also very rich. Watching Marian descend from her spiral staircase doesn’t scream underdog the way it does for the other characters.
Despite financial background or team affiliation, all competitors at First are placed on an equal playing field that encourages cooperation. Remember that co-opetition term I threw out earlier? The entire idea of First is team cooperation. No matter what group you’re in, each engineer is encouraged to help a team in need. For instance, if a Robot breaks down before a big game or someone is having difficulty constructing one of their bots, an opposing team member can provide you with the help you need so everyone can have a productive, enjoyable learning experience. It kind of makes you wish the world would operate more like that.
Within our tribalized society, More Than Robots aspires towards communalism. Through science and compassion, the world can overcome its most significant hurdles. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Because of the pandemic, our young geniuses become superheroes themselves by designing robots that could help deliver groceries and PPE equipment to those in need.
More Than Robots isn’t without its faults. Some of the picture is reasonably choppy. There’s a particular interview with Jacob towards the end of the film where the audio from two different clips are combined, and it sounds as bad as when they try to merge interview clips on reality TV. Another instance that threw me off in the picture wasn’t a technical issue as much as a tonal one. In this instance, a teen’s robot fails her during a necessary trial. What should be quiet and subdued to capture her anxiety is instead played with cartoonish whimsicalness. It didn’t seem like a funny moment to her.
Despite its choppy editing and commercial nature, More Than Robots says something about how we can use resourcefulness and wisdom to inspire humanity to do better. We can use First as an example of how sporting events should be held. Instead of drunk Bears and Packers fans slugging it out, maybe they can share in the enjoyment of football altogether. We can aspire to act a little kinder towards each other instead of painting oppositions. Striving for knowledge and empathy is a message I can get behind with any movie. Heavens knows we need more of it these days.