Your friend has just made their big screen premiere. You love them, and you think they’re talented. You want the best for them. You’re proud that they made it this far. Then they have to go and ask you if you liked the movie. It’s a dire moment, especially when you’ve shelled out evening ticket prices and are wishing you’d gambled on the rescreening of Rifftrax Live: The Room instead. At any rate, Lazer Team is a movie that exists. I’m still working out my feelings beyond that point.
At this point odds are good that if you’re reading this you’ve at least heard of Rooster Teeth in passing. They’re one of the oldest and most entrenched internet comedy groups at this point, having gotten their start with the machinima series Red vs. Blue when the internet was young. The core group of six dudes in a spare bedroom have grown out to a corporation with more than a hundred employees and arms in gaming, sketch comedy, machinima, animation, and now film. That last is a dream the central crew has talked about for a long time, and it’s hard not to be happy for them after six years of fandom.
You begin to see, perhaps, why this is a difficult affair. Rooster Teeth functions in that very Kevin Smith-esque zone of selling an approachable persona as much as the content itself. It’s a tactic that engenders incredible loyalty when pulled off well, and it permanently affects interactions with their work. And that contributes to the very weird place Lazer Team has ended up in: not the first internet persona-driven film (that’d be the Angry Video Game Nerd movie, and arguably the Channel Awesome specials before that) but certainly the widest in release thanks to its wildly successful IndieGoGo campaign and position as the first product of YouTube Red, and halfway between being persona driven and wanting to fall into line with the mighty Blockbuster Structure, clearly wanting to branch out further into wide appeal but also bearing the bones of the company’s oldest work.
So in 1977, Earth received a coded message from a friendly alien race called the Antareans warning of a dangerous race who would one day come to challenge the “champion of Earth.” And they want to be good bros about this, so they’re sending Spartan Armor a Suit of Power for the chosen hero to wear when the day comes. The government chooses a candidate and trains him from birth to be the perfect warrior….and naturally when the payload actually arrives, it gets accidentally diverted by a quartet of idiots fighting over some fireworks, and said idiots each wind up with one of the suit’s pieces genetically fused to their body. From there it’s more or less the same script Burnie Burns has been writing for the last decade: a small group of bickering misfits irritate the hell out of the super soldier who’s been saddled with them, and eventually come together to save the day through teamwork (also featuring the usual nigh pathological fear of including more than one prominent female character).
When it works, it’s a great ride. As you’d expect, they have a sharp eye for how to present social media in a vivid, interesting way onscreen, though those moments come at the cost of stamping a clear date on the film. And in spite of my gripes about the repetitive script, the scenes that recall the Rooster Teeth wheelhouse or incorporate cameos from the studio are by far the most enjoyable: a training montage recalling Immersion or moments of banter between Michael and Gavin (they have character names, but the charade is so thin it feels disingenuous to play along) that make use of their considerable honed skills as a comedic duo. Individual moments soar (including a fantastically kinetic car chase sequence), with Key & Peele veteran Colton Dunn rising above and beyond the challenge of being the Outside Guy to a practiced dynamic (even when he is frequently limited to “heeeeeeeeee’s fat” level jokes), and Alan Ritchson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) managing to wring some excellent deadpan reactions and genuine pathos out of a fairly flat straight man role.
The trouble comes when the movie rouses itself to be A Hollywood Film, at which point it mostly falls flat on its face. Ritchson aside, the shifts from thrown insults and by-necessity camaraderie don’t shift well into openly emoting, and moments that are meant to be moving or tragic wind up feeling awkward instead (there is one particular moment for which the concept of secondhand embarrassment may have been invented). Dunn and Ritchson are the only two who feel like they’re playing real characters in the world of the film, and the “hey, it’s those guys we like but on the big screen!” joy of the effective comedic scenes come around to shoot the dramatic proceedings in the foot.
Given the rampant success of the film’s funding and presales, it seems inevitable that they’ll be making more films in the coming years. And that will be their biggest hurdle: attempt to push the personalities (there’s no doubt the Rooster Teeth crew can act, but they are primarily selling an exaggerated version of themselves) and adhere to a looser format that embraces that meta-narrative; or push the mainstays to act outside of the established personas that the fanbase might well be coming to see, incorporating more outside actors in an attempt to make a movie that functions on its own two feet without the need for prior knowledge. Caught between those two impulses, Lazer Team is a learning experience that’s difficult to recommend but not outright bad enough to condemn. Worth recommending if you’re a curious fan who’ll be able to access it on streaming at some point. If you’re curious about Rooster Teeth and haven’t watched anything they’ve made before, I really can’t beg you enough not to start here.
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The gags worked best when the characters were being audience proxies, reacting to events as we would. Screaming in horror at probes drilling into Gavin’s head. Screaming at the disappearance of limbs in stealth mode. Trivializing events into fodder for the social media popularity machine. Contagiously thinking about sex in a telepathy session. Not being able to eat through an unremovable helmet.
Anything that relied on their paper-thin character types tended to fall flat, because those gags aren’t rooted in the “it’s funny because it’s true” category, and the characters don’t exist enough to generate their own jokes. Though I think Burnie did a good job with doing put-upon Hagen, the film’s priorities didn’t allow it to examine the football-centered culture in the way that would give that subplot heft. I think even more anger might have fixed some of it, especially in the final battle. Demarais is good at doing that just-above-bathos type stuff. But Rooster Teeth ultimately has a fairly positive outlook on humanity, so I can see why they wouldn’t want to go all mean humor in their feature film, compared to, say, 10 Little Roosters.
Maybe Miles and Kerry would have made the transition to proper teamwork more plausible, but the animated series aren’t as all-gags-all-the-time, either.
(Also I’m not sure they made proper use of Gavin. There’s no real payoff to his redneck set-up, and then once he’s smart he’s just an exposition bot. More snark like the ending starvation line would have done wonders for his character. Let him go full self-aware, on the verge of fourth-wall breaking, and then deflate with well-timed squawk slapstick, or go full circle into incomprehensible abstract-ness, provoking a “What does that even mean?” from Burnie.)
Oh yeah, Gavin’s character doesn’t GO anywhere. I think that’s why he comes closest to working. (Personally anymore the stuff Burnie’s heavily involved with tends to be my least favorite stuff, because he pretty much embodies the unchanging bro-ness of the company at this point. Nothing against him as a human person, I just can’t. I get no joy out of it (and it’s not some “PC” terror either – I love the hell out of anything Geoff’s on, and even Michael, because while they’re blue as can be they’re also thoughtful and sharp as fuck).
Miles definitely has a better hand on writing believable emoting – it’s clear as day, looking at RvB 9/10 versus 11 and on. With his own fondness for certain well worn tropes, but at least an emotive range outside of pure snarky jackassery. And ladies. Ladies existing.
Burnie’s strength is in the shortform of humor, when you don’t have to redeem the subjects later. He’s also good at the commentary-type of snarking on details, but, again, that’s not as compatible with regular redemptive storytelling. He prioritizes the gags first, with story accumulating over time as he starts pulling patterns out of the details.
That’s where the genre aspect of Rooster Teeth’s output start clashing with their comedy intentions. Lazer Team is unable to go full comedy, because the blockbuster structures they’re aping demand a modicum of inspirational sports movie. They can’t go screwball trainwreck climax, but instead have to shoehorn in “teamwork” for the final dark matter laser. At that point, the film kind of needs to care about its story a little more than it did. If they ignored the blockbuster aspect, and went all farce, I think it would have worked better.