(SPOILER ALERT: This is a full breakdown review for “The Pilot”)
First, I must point out how funny it is that gen:LOCK, Rooster Teeth’s mecha anime web series, was created and written by Gray Haddock, because I had already been so familiar with him as the voice of the criminal Roman Torchwick in RWBY (you know how much I love that series if you’ve read my other posts). He also voices Leon August, a Unit Leader of the Vanguard. A couple other RWBY members are part of the cast as well — Miles Luna as tank mechanic Miguel “Migas” Garza and Lindsay Jones as Vanguard pilot Razzle.
Now, as for the show itself, I had seen many trailers and knew it would involve a smorgasbord of mechs similar to Cordovan’s humungous clunker. I was anxiously waiting to see what would unfold, crossing my fingers and hoping that the story and the characters have as much heart as RWBY. After beginning to watch the series, I think it’s pretty great, shining the most when it focuses on the nuanced characters, but at the same time it can’t top Ruby Rose and her companions’ quests. I’ll get back to my personal opinions on the matter later.
“The Pilot” is the first episode of gen:LOCK and lasts thirty-two minutes. The first scene brings us to New York City in the year of 2068 as Vanguard pilot Julian Chase (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther, Creed) and his girlfriend/fellow soldier Miranda Worth (Dakota Fanning, Charlotte’s Web, Please Stand By) are at the dinner table while his mother Roberta (Shari Belafonte, daughter of the King of Calypso, Harry Belafonte) whips up dinner. She’s telling a story from his childhood (he tried to make his scraped knee feel better by rubbing a cookie on it), which embarrasses him. We also meet his sister Drianna (G.K. Bowes, Bleach: Memories of Nobody, Durarara!!), who is in the middle of live-streaming a virtual reality pop concert. To her dismay, Roberta changes the TV to a speech being given by Patricia Bartlett-Young, President of the Polity (I like that word, “polity”). Drianna makes sly remarks about her brother and Miranda that progress to the likelihood of their getting married, which makes him squirm even more.
I initially thought it was rude for Roberta to not set out food for Julian and Miranda, and I noticed a strange blip where Miranda and Drianna’s hands passed through each other a little when they fist-bumped. As it turns out, Julian and Miranda are actually stationed at a military base called the Anvil and had joined dinner as holographic projections. This handy tech pops up again later on. Soon after they say their goodbyes and disappear from the room, an enemy organization known as the Union begins assaulting the city by releasing dark purple clouds of nanotech.
At the Anvil, we’re quickly introduced to Migas, Leon, and tank pilot Jodie Brennan before the alarms start ringing. Julian jumps into his fighter jet, Miranda takes a seat in her Strider mech, and the two of them head for NYC. This is the scene that introduces Colonel Raquel Marin (Monica Rial, Dragon Ball Super, Fullmetal Alchemist), who stays behind at the Anvil to give her commands. When Julian arrives, Union drones open fire at him and his squadron. In the city below, people are hurrying to flee Union soldiers and arachnoid mechs. An interesting part is when a soldier is about to shoot a family, but then moves on when the father flashes a badge with a squarish icon — the same icon emblazoned on the armor of all the Union soldiers. As nebulous as they appear, I feel like this part insinuates there’s more to this organization than an invading army of spider mechs and nanotech clouds.
In the sky, Julian and Razzle, after defeating several drones, see a massive, long-limbed machine heading towards the city. One of its legs even knocks over the Statue of Liberty. After a few failed attempts on it, Razzle plans to fire an ESD to cripple the nanotech protecting the walker. However, it identifies the ESD and shoots her down before it can detonate.
The fight on the ground doesn’t get any less nastier. There’s a brief magnification shot of the swarming nanotech — essentially tiny robots that resemble viruses — as all of it engulfs everything in its path. A Vanguard soldier tries to spray foam over the openings in his Strider’s broken windows, but the nanotech leaks through anyway and eats him alive. Miranda, who has been deployed within the area, manages to rush away in her Strider. Julian urges her over the comms channel to locate his family.
Marin orders Julian to retreat, but he instead attempts to detonate his fighter jet’s ESD to buy more time for the evacuees to escape. He succeeds in charging and launching his ESD, causing the nanotech clouds to collapse, but he gets shot down and crashes, and his signal goes dark. Everyone is being evacuated out of New York City, which the Union is now conquering despite the Vanguard’s efforts.
It’s quite the shock when the story skips four years ahead to the Anvil, zooming out from a picture of Julian’s face to show a wall of medals in remembrance of the NYC battle’s fallen soldiers. A grim-looking Miranda walks by and is ordered by Marin to welcome Dr. Rufus Weller (David Tennant, Doctor Who, DuckTales), Yasamin “Yaz” Madrani (Golshifteh Farahani, The Patience Stone, Boutique), and the droid Caliban. The three newcomers represent the Experimental Science Unit and are moving their headquarters to the Anvil. As they walk through the base, Dr. Weller asks Miranda how her battalion has been faring, and she answers that they could just barely hold the border at the 88th.
Soon afterwards, Marin gives a briefing on Operation Coyote, a small mission to rescue a group of refugees who have fled the Union by traveling through the Underground Railroad — a reference to the secret path used by slaves in the Civil War. Miranda, along with former squad mates Leon and Jodie, are among those sent on the mission. However, as they’re loading the refugees onto a Razor airship, the Union attacks and shoots down one of the Razors. Miranda and her fellow Strider pilots attempt to hold back the enemy but get pushed back gradually. Miranda in particular is taking the heat, but she glances at the side mirror and sees the refugees, and she mutters, “You only live once.” She moves her Strider forward, absorbing more gunfire, but then she hears Julian’s voice say, “Let the good times roll, am I right?” — a callback to the jazz tune that played during her dinner with Julian’s family four years back. Suddenly, a pair of humanoid mechs appear to stop the Union, giving the refugees time to escape, and the Vanguard forces retreat.
Back at a debriefing session at the Anvil, the pilots demand to know who were in the mechs. Marin responds that the ambush interfered with their plans to properly unveil the true purposes of the ESU. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Julian holographically materializes beside Marin in a manner reminiscent of the family dinner. “Hey, gang. What did I miss?” he casually greets. I like how most of the scene fades to black but focuses on Julian and Miranda for a split-second, the two of them standing opposite each other, before they disappear.
“The Pilot” concludes with the opening theme, which gives off a Power Rangers air with its vividly colored mechs, the characters zipping through a rainbow tunnel, and a generally bouncy tone that contrasts with the episode’s solemness. The accompanying song is “Belgrade” by the Los Angeles-based electronic rock band Battle Tapes, which has composed several tracks for gen:LOCK. “The Pilot” featured two other songs, “Let The Good Times Roll” by Louis Jordan, AKA The King of the Jukebox, and “Who Do You Think You Are” by Lydia Harrell. I was pleasantly surprised to find RWBY‘s Jeff Williams credited as one of three songwriters for the latter.
So far, gen:LOCK has a good amount of potential. In spite of all the fantastic sci-fi tech it seems more clever and grounded than your average mecha anime, able to deal out plot twists like Julian’s resurrection. I’m intrigued by how his relationship will develop with Miranda. The animation is gorgeous, the best I’ve seen from Rooster Teeth. The actors — especially Jordan, Fanning, and Tennant — are keeping their vocal performances surprisingly subtle. And I’m still astonished that Rooster Teeth was able to grab as many big names as it did. Technically it still defines itself as an indie company, although it has gained significant clout for its quality work since it began in 2003 with the machinima series Red vs. Blue. On top of that, Jordan, a huge anime fan, has been with gen:LOCK for a while, being one of two executive producers.
The four-year time skip is not only a smart plot twist but also an allusion to RWBY creator Monty Oum, since he passed away on February 1, 2015, almost four years before the January 26, 2019 premiere of “The Pilot.”
The fight scenes are entertaining enough, but they pale in comparison to the fast-paced combat and creative weaponry of RWBY. In general I keep comparing the two shows, and I find that the first episode of RWBY, “Ruby Rose,” has better action but is as enthralling as “The Pilot” when it comes to building up the story and the characters. The serious tone and bits of wry dialogue distinguishes gen:LOCK from the irreverent humor and energetic attitude of RWBY.
If gen:LOCK can develop its characters and its mech-filled world well, I can easily see it become as enthralling as RWBY. Let’s see how things progress over the next seven episodes.
Windup score: 90/100