Review: ‘More Than Robots’ Gets to the Heart

Without preamble, we are led gently into a world of mass excitement. Who are all these people? Why are they all so worked-up? What are those mechanized things whirling around the floor?

In her feature-length directorial debut, Gillian Jacobs beckons viewers into a world that revolves around robots. The unassuming Jacob appears to be an ordinary teenager, living comfortably with his loving family in Los Angeles; he just happens to be completely obsessed with robots: how they work and how he can make them work better. 

Engineer, inventor, and businessman, Dean Kamen is a founder of the non-profit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which organizes various challenge competitions that are less about competition, per se, than they are about teamwork. He provides an overview of his organization’s worthwhile hopes and worthy goals, and reappears throughout the documentary to explain and expand upon what FIRST wants participants to achieve. 

The adolescents who form teams have adult mentors, who guide and advise them as they build robots from scratch. Well, almost scratch. Each team, which varies in size and resources, is given a box of supplies and goal at the beginning of the weeks-long competition, but without instructions. 

They must figure out, on their own, how to build a robot that will meet the assigned goal on the prescribed day of competition. On that day, they compete against other teams, sometimes working with and sometimes working against each other. 

With this in mind, the doc follows four teams as they race against — and around — the clock to build their robots. Jacob is a member of a suburban team that is very large (60 or 70 people)

and located in a very decently-heeled community. One of their mentors is married to a mentor who works at a school in Watts, which has far fewer team members (13 or 14) and far fewer resources. On that team, we meet Aaron, who may be their most brilliant and valuable member. 

To provide a taste of how the competition has expanded worldwide, the film also taps into the story of Kanon and Mariana, the former an exceptionally bright and capable leader in Japan the latter an exceptionally bright and capable leader in Mexico. 

The four teams are compared and contrasted in the company of these four intelligent, well-spoken teenagers, who are willing to talk about their wildest dreams and express their personal insecurities throughout a marvelously engaging film. 

Brisky told, More Than Robots begins just as the worldwide pandemic gained traction in early 2020. The pandemic itself, and how it shut down the world, looms in the background, even as the young people work frantically to finish their robots. Just when it seems that the film will end, inevitably, with disappointment, the final segment pulls it back from the brink with a truly inspiring conclusion that could only have come from real life.

Good for you, all you motivated youngsters! And good for us. More Than Robots serves as a lovely testament to the better side of humanity. [Disney Plus