Per Matt
Positive reinforcement of STEM education doesn’t receive a lot of airtime at the box office — and rightfully so. It can seem boring to audiences and students alike. And who needs a snoozefest when they’re hoping to be entertained? But if children truly are the future, waiting in the wings to govern our country when their time comes, it’s time they finally learn More Than Robots…

Director Gillian Jacobs followed four teams of teenagers from different corners of the world as they preparedĀ for the 2020 FIRSTĀ® Robotics Competition. Each group is given the same supplies with the goal of building a robot that can perform two separate tasks: Picking up and firing small, plastic balls into a target and performing a pullup on a metal bar.

While attempting to overcome a variety of obstacles, teams of schoolkids from Los Angeles, Mexico City and Chiba, Japan must work together to design fully functional robots without any instructions provided. The FIRST program doesn’t tell or show the kids how to deal with the initial problem, but lets them figure it out on their own.

Within six weeks, they must learn to overcome limited resources, too few female role models and communication problems to take their creations to the highly competitive global championships. But when the worldwide pandemic interrupts those plans, they choose to pivot toward helping their communities come together.

“The way my brain works, I can’t think of things in words. I think in feelings and numbers…”

I absolutely enjoyed watching this documentary. Back in the day, when I was the age of these children, I was reading Transformers comics, imagining my LEGO creations were autonomous robots, playing with ROBOTIX. To say that I saw a bit of myself in the geeky kid of “The Vitruvian Bots” is an understatement.

This platform, which combines science, technology, engineering and math with the highly competitive sports world and “coopertition” among different teams creates strong learning situations for these prospective engineers (among other hopeful job types). And the fact that it’s supported by Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Force for Change Initiative was just an intradepartmental reason to explain Mark Hamill’s appearance that didn’t quite feel forced (pun intended).

I guess I’ve been hiding underneath a rock for way too long. I’ll admit, I didn’t recognize Jacobs’ previous accomplishments. I never watched Community and wasn’t interested in Invincible, but I have seen quite a few projects where she has briefly appeared as an actress. That being said, this isn’t her first company appearance as a director, with Marvel 616 premiering in 2020. This is her feature-length documentary directorial debut and she does a great job here, featuring The Virtubots, Terawatts (Team 6904), Sakura Tempesta (Team 6909) and Nautilus (Team 4010).

It’s stressful to watch these kids pour their hearts and souls into building these projects, only to fail time and time again. But it’s a good setup for the finale, which proves the whole process is not about the robots but creating a global community.

After watching this movie, I’m inspired to change the lives of many people for the better, but maybe I’ll start building that project tomorrow. Much like this film, it’s about more than just robots.