With its all-star cast that includes noted anime fan Michael B. Jordan, as well as Dakota Fanning, David Tennant, Maisie Williams, and Asia Kate Dillon, gen:LOCK is guaranteed to pique the interest of anime fans and non-fans alike. Such an assemblage of voice talent is an impressive feat for an animated series from Rooster Teeth, home of the likes of Red vs. Blue and Lazer Team, and it’s one the series aims to continually remind the audience of as they watch the first few episodes, many of which, unsurprisingly, play out like lengthy cut scenes from a video game.
gen:LOCK unfolds in some uncertain far-flung future world where technology is so advanced it once again borders on magical. Jordan plays Julian Chase, a hot-shot pilot for the Vanguard, a military organization locked in what appears to be a never-ending battle with a faceless but technologically superior foe, the Union. Why they’re fighting is anyone’s guess, as the series premiere foregoes the usual explanation for a lengthy battle sequence that sees Chase, as well as his love interest Miranda Worth (Fanning), engage the enemy and all their toys, as the Union invades New York City for the purpose of… something.
While it lacks context and motive, the invasion is at times visually engaging. Though the series’ animation is rather flat when depicting its characters in a more domestic setting, its overly smooth two-dimensionality actually makes the action sequences move at an impressive clip, so that tracking absurdly maneuverable jets as they weave through the skyscrapers of NYC, dodging missiles and engaging in dog fights with drones, becomes a feat in and of itself. But the action isn’t just in the sky, while Chase is engaging bogies, Miranda is in her armored mech doing battle with foot soldiers who can hack the Vanguard’s equipment or send out a cloud of nanoparticles to wreak all sorts of havoc. This is clearly the show’s strong suit, and it makes sense that gen:LOCK would want to begin with a lengthy action scene to begin its story, but without the proper context to what’s going on and why, the attack, as well as Chase’s presumed death after disobeying an order not to engage a massive mech that would likely have wiped out his entire squad, feels as flat as the animation.
But Chase’s presumed death is just the beginning of the story, as gen:LOCK jumps forward four years, following a more hardened Miranda as the battle between the Vanguard and the Union rages on. Not that the audience would have any idea, of course, as the only thing that’s changed is Miranda now has a scar on her face. Other than that, there’s little indication that the war effort has improved or worsened, and the audience still has no idea why the two factions are fighting anyway. At this point, the Union is little more than a paper-thin avatar for evil, with its black-suited storm troopers and menacing-looking spider-mechs. The group doesn’t appear to have a leader — at least not in the first two episodes — which makes them even more of a cypher. Keeping the audience at arm’s length like that has a cascading effect that further removes them from engaging with the material, as early on gen:LOCK seem intent on selling the appeal of its giant mechs over constructing a story with compelling heroes and villains.
When Chase is first introduced, he’s a holographic projection (a future version of FaceTime) visiting his mother and younger sister for the purpose of introducing them to Miranda. The series uses this to ground Chase in some way: he not only has a romantic relationship with his fellow soldier, but he also has a family who cares about him. It’s the most basic of sketches, an outline of a character, really, and it does the least amount of work possible in telling the audience who Chase is and why they would want to care about him. As it turns out, little of the introduction even matters, as no sooner does the Union attack than gen:LOCK appears to forget about Chase’s family entirely, so that it can focus on his current status: a half torso in a tank that can project a holographic image of himself or link up with a giant mech.
At this point, the series introduces its most interesting character, Dr. Rufus ‘Doc’ Weller (Tennant), the head of a super-secret division that produced the mechs and the gen:LOCK technology that allows people to control the machines as if they were an extension of their own bodies. That Doc is the most interesting character isn’t really saying much, as he’s only interesting in that he’s the one guy who seems to have all of the answers, though he’s not exactly forthcoming with them. His purpose is to assemble a color-coded team of soldiers genetically predisposed to working with his gen:LOCK tech (if you’re not, you die trying to connect with the machine), to win the war against an enemy that continues to lack motive.
Though the series smartly emphasizes action and the appeal of watching giant robots fight, those lengthy battle sequences begin to feel like filler for a insubstantial story that lacks the basic necessities, like compelling, richly drawn characters, or a captivating reason why any of this is happening in the first place. While the addition of impressive voice talent like Jordan, Fanning, Tennant, Williams, and Dillion is appealing, it doesn’t do enough to enhance what is ultimately a flimsy story.
gen: Lock is currently streaming on Rooster Teeth.