Everything about Gen:Lock feels like a conscious marriage of east and west. Whether it’s modern military blockbusters mixed with the Japanese mecha genre or western computer animation mixed with the sensibility and attention to detail of hand-drawn anime, everything feels like a lovingly crafted amalgamation. And, for the most part it works really well, but some of Gen:Lock’s identity seems to get lost between the cracks of where the show’s two halves meet.
Gen:Lock is the second original animated series from Austin-based production company Rooster Teeth — whose first series RWBY has six seasons already. The show follows a band of young adults who have been tasked with becoming the first test pilots of new state-of-the-art mechs. The giant robots will provide a last line of defense for a rebel faction inside a future United States that seems to be ruled by a new mysterious government.
While it’s evident from the earliest moments that the show is set in the future of a slightly alternate world to our own, Gen:Lock plays things shockingly close to the vest with the story, keeping its details almost entirely hidden for the three episodes I watched. While further information about the world is sure to be doled out to the audience as the series continues, in the first few episodes the secrecy over the basic plot started to wear and become a source of irritation rather than intrigue. It’s difficult to care about saving the world when we don’t really know what that world looks like.
Thankfully, the pilots themselves prove far more interesting. Each one has a complex and growing relationship with the people around them and plenty of personal issues around the idea of piloting their mechs that they have to work out. The characters’ individual emotional arcs are made even better by the series’ all-star cast, including Michael B. Jordan as Julian Chase, the gifted and reckless leader; Maisie Williams as a pilot in training, and David Tennett as the scientist behind the new mechanized war machines. The actors seem more than happy to put their name behind the series and lend strong performances.
As with any show about giant fighting robots, spending time with the characters as they learn to trust one another and themselves is really only half of what the series has to offer. The other half, is all about robots hitting things.
In the best mecha series these moments of combat are really just a conductor for characters to channel their strongest emotions or come to personal realizations. The fights themselves revolve around the characters and the curve of the action bends itself around the arc that’s necessary for the characters. Instead, Gen:Lock’s fights in the first few episodes feel more like brief interludes.
Thankfully, at least, the fights are fantastic to look at, carefully planned and intricately choreographed by director Gray Haddock. They’re sequences that could have been taken directly from the blockbusters that helped inspire the series. But it’s a shame that they feel so disconnected from the character interactions that really make the series enjoyable.
To some extent this is due to the action-movie pieces of Gen:Lock’s DNA. In a blockbuster that only lasts a couple of hours, the idea of a plot that boils down to saving the day from the bad guys and their evil empire works perfectly. But a series that is a little more sparse with its details and asks audiences to stick around for hours on end has to have some kind of larger arc between the characters, or at least some kind of personal stakes.
The most interesting fight in Gen:Lock’s first three episodes comes with no robots in sight, as the series’ main characters are suddenly thrown face to face with a far stronger foe than themselves. It lends the conflict some actual stakes and lets the charming cast convey the very real fear of danger.
During the mech fights, Haddock does an excellent job of framing the conflicts from the perspective of some of the ordinary citizens the main characters are fighting to protect. It plays as a stark reminder of what the cost of these fights could be and the world the characters are fighting to protect. The only trouble is, the world isn’t what’s worth caring about here, it’s the characters fighting to protect it that really matter. As the young pilots continue to train in their mechs and grow in their abilities, some of these more personal narratives are sure to come out. But without some overarching thread of these characters’ growth it’s going to be difficult to care.
Like Neon Genesis Evangelion telling the stories of teens struggling with adolescence as they save the universe, the mecha genre has always been — like the giant robots themselves — a vehicle. A sort of trojan horse designed to tell smaller, more intimate stories disguised as world-ending battles. Gen:Lock already has the hard part of this down. At its heart, the show has a cast full of extremely likeable and interesting characters that already make it well worth watching. But it’s still missing a larger story that’s worth letting those characters tell.