'gen:LOCK' Review: One Giant Leap for Mecha Kind
At the core of this cool as steel mecha anime is a show about characters with hearts of gold.
There’s an aura of “cool” throughout Rooster Teeth’s gen:LOCK. The speculative science is cool. The giant robots are cool. The action is really cool. The color-coded uniforms of the pilots, looking as if some Power Rangers were shoved through a Mass Effect grinder, are very cool. And its voice cast, including talents like Michael B. Jordan and David Tennant, is one of the coolest ensembles ever assembled, let alone for an anime.
But it’s the fleshed-out characters whose sentimentality glues them together, enduring through barriers like trust, ego, and even language that makes gen:LOCK transcendent. As nostalgic for ‘90s anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion as it is hopeful for the future like classic Star Trek, gen:LOCK succeeds entirely on its own terms while hitting familiar marks established by Rooster Teeth, a studio with aggressively humble origins on a path to its own major evolution. It’s just a little distracting to hear some very famous voices collide in the same space.
Premiering January 26 on Rooster Teeth’s own platform FIRST, gen:LOCK is a futuristic sci-fi mecha anime set amidst a global war. Four years after an attack in New York City, a breakthrough in mind-machine interfaces, “gen:LOCK,” spawns an elite breed of mecha that are stronger, faster, more nimble than anything state of the art. Anchored by Julian Chase (Jordan), a hotshot pilot who leads the “first class” of gen:LOCK, the show explores the melodrama and humor of young people trying to save the world.
The series is Rooster Teeth’s newest anime after RWBY and its most ambitious by far. It also couldn’t be more different in execution.
Though it took RWBY years to grow an audience and evolve thematically and technically — in its first season, extras were blacked out as shadows as a means to save budget — gen:LOCK pulls out all the stops from the get-go. Absent are RWBY’s cute “moe” anime gags, replaced by action as lavish as a Michael Bay production.
Rooster Teeth’s advantage over the Transformers director is its knack for well-designed choreography (a bar set by the late Monty Oum), which keeps attention focused on characters and not lost in the Bayhem of the set-pieces.
Rooster Teeth’s other major strength since its beginning has been character work, whether its ensembles are defined by gags (Red vs. Blue) or their emotions and interpersonal drama (RWBY). gen:LOCK is an outgrowth of both. In a style reminiscent of Chris Claremont’s X-Men, the core gen:LOCK crew are diverse, young, and helpfully color-coded in design. In true Rooster Teeth fashion, their amusing interactions will absolutely hook viewers; look to the rapturous, attentive audience of RWBY to see the fruits of those storytelling labors. I anticipate gen:LOCK will be much of the same, though Miranda — a prominent character voiced by Dakota Fanning — never evolves beyond “jilted lover” to Jordan’s Julian fast enough.
Also featuring Maisie Williams, Golshifteh Farahani, Asia Kate Dillon, and veteran anime actor Kōichi Yamadera (whose character “Kazu” has the swagger of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, and is my personal favorite), gen:LOCK has the most enviable cast in anime right now. It’s a cast that’s almost too famous for its own good, as it’s sometimes hard to get past hearing Killmonger talk to the 10th Doctor in the same auditory space. But no one ever complained that Tom Hanks voiced a cowboy doll in Toy Story, either.
Truthfully, the show’s bigger problems lie in its wobbly stakes and undefined antagonism. It isn’t really clear who is on the opposing side of this war. And we know they’re bad, but, why? What do they stand for that gets in the way of our heroes? These are questions left unanswered in the first few episodes, and we’re left inferring based only on glimpses of what they’re physically capable of, which are other giant robots. It’s a relief that everything else in gen:LOCK totally rocks, because the lack of intrigue could tune viewers out too early before they get to the good stuff.
Inverse previewed the first five episodes, with four in very early stages of the animation process. At this point, I can say with confidence that gen:LOCK is something special, its few lows not big enough to eclipse its overwhelming highs. Packed with fun, charming characters (everyone will have their immediate favorites) and some truly impressive action, gen:LOCK surpasses in realms its inspirations in the genre probably never imagined. gen:LOCK is the evolution of both mecha anime and Rooster Teeth, it just remains to be seen what its final form will take.
gen:LOCK premieres January 26 on Rooster Teeth’s FIRST.
Correction 2/7/19: An earlier version of this article stated that David Tennant is the 11th Doctor; he is the 10th Doctor.