Rooster Teeth wants gen:LOCK (premiering January 26) to be its mainstream breakout. The studio behind the long-running machinima series Red vs. Blue and the anime-esque cult hit RWBY clearly sees gen:LOCK as a potential blockbuster, using big name voice actors and widespread marketing to build this mecha series beyond its pre-established fanbase. The promise of the world's favorite celebrity weeaboo Michael B. Jordan starring in his own animated series alongside Dakota Fanning, Maisie Williams and David Tennant might attract viewers who've never even heard of Rooster Teeth's other work, but how long will these potential new viewers stick around?
Judging from the first five episodes provided for review, gen:LOCK's ability to hold onto those new viewers outside of the built-in cult following will depend on whether the audience is captivated enough by the action and the cast to be patient with the show's struggle to find its focus. There's enough potential here that the show might ultimately find its way by the end of the season, but from the early episodes it's hard to say what, if anything, this series is even going to be about in the deeper sense.
The pilot episode drops you into the show's world. After a brief introduction to fighter pilot Julian Chase (Jordan), his partner Miranda Worth (Fanning), his mother and sister, the latter of whom's digital pop idol status is thus far a rather extraneous detail in the episodes screened, it's off to battle against the mysterious forces of the Union. It's that mysteriousness that's one of the first major issues with investing in the show. Creator Gray G. Haddock describes gen:LOCK as being akin to Gundam as a grounded, political war drama, but to get involved in such a narrative, it helps to have at least some idea who the sides fighting are. Gundam shows might keep some details mysterious, but the basic nature of the conflicts are established right from the start. In gen:LOCK, however, we barely get any idea what the Union is or stands for in the first five episodes.
The most intriguing plot point in the pilot is one which the marketing has cleverly hidden, and which we won't spoil here. It is enough of a wild cliffhanger to make you curious enough to watch the next episode even if you weren't fully on-board with the rest of the pilot. Disappointingly, the emotional fall-out of this twist, potent enough to be the potential heart of this story, ends up taking a backseat to its technological explanation (from which the show gets its title) and using that to set up the next big shift in focus.
Midway through the second episode, four new recruits for the gen:LOCK program arrive: teenage Scottish hacker Cameron MacCloud (Williams), Japanese tank driver Kazu Iida (Koichi Yamadera, the original voice of Spike from Cowboy Bebop), genderfluid Ukranian spy Valentina Romanyszyn (Asia Kate Dillon) and another character whose identity is a spoiler. With these new arrivals joining Julian and fellow candidate Yasamin Madrani (Golshifteh Farahani), the focus of the show becomes training the recruits as giant robot pilots. Julian and Miranda's personal drama in regards to the episode 1 twist takes a backseat in episode 3 and only briefly comes up in episodes 4 and 5.
The diverse group of pilots are roughly sketched at first, but they do grow on you. Cameron is easily the stand-out character at this point, funny and foul-mouthed and headstrong. Episode 4's big mecha battle is as intense as it is largely because the show's done the best job of making us care about her out of the cast. A lot of credit goes to the show's character designers specifically in regards to the costumes; just from looking at the show's cast, you know these heroes are gonna make some awesome cosplays and inspire some interesting fan-fiction regardless of how well developed they actually end up being in the show itself.
One character we're not so sure how to feel about at this point is the trainer, Dr. Rufus Weller (Tennant). He has one of the biggest personalities, but that personality is basically just the bargain basement version of Coran from Voltron: Legendary Defender. The one thing that might make him more than a mere annoyance is if the show leans into the doubts about his methods expressed by Colonel Raquel Marin (Monica Rial). In a show with such obvious Evangelion influences, it would be fascinating if Dr. Weller ends up less Coran and more a secret twist on the Gendo archetype.
Visually, gen:LOCK's a step up from RWBY's PS2 cutscene animation. Shot in a 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, the cinematography and lighting is impressive. Only the first two episodes screened had completed animation, but some of the extended mecha battles in later episodes are so well-choreographed that they're exciting even in unfinished form and should look amazing in their final renders. While the robots look great in this show's style, however, the human characters still look unfortunately robotic. While it doesn't have the distracting framerate issues or glitches of other CG series, there's a stiffness and inexpressiveness to the character animation that's distancing.
gen:LOCK has enough going for it early in its run that the Rooster Teeth fanbase as well as mecha nerds should find some enjoyment out of it. Whether or not the show is going to be worth the investment for anyone else depends on how well it manages to find a thematic payoff to its unfocused and sometimes vague storytelling.