It’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing a dark comedy sci-fi satire for Netflix. Better buckle up and brace yourselves for some weapons-grade crazy, folks.
Big Bug is set in the distant future, but it still has a distinctly ’50s-’60s “space age” retro feel to it. On one hand, everything is bright and colorful, literally everything in a common suburban house is a flashy automated appliance, and sentient robots are eager to wait on us hand and foot. On the other hand, advertising is recklessly intrusive, everyone is under some kind of surveillance at all times, governments are incompetent beyond all hope, and corporate greed is long past unchecked.
Basically, imagine if Adam McKay was hired to reboot “The Jetsons” and you’re on the right track.
Let’s run down our cast of hapless suburbanites.
- Alice (Elsa Zylberstein) is an art enthusiast currently living in the house where this all takes place.
- Max (Stephane De Groot) is the man Alice just started dating.
- Leo (Helie Thonnat) is Max’s disaffected teenage son.
- Victor (Youssef Hajdi) is a robotics expert, and presumably the reason why his ex-wife Alice could afford to live in such an extravagant house.
- Jennifer (Claire Chust) is Victor’s secretary, mistress, and currently his new fiancee.
- Nina (Marysole Fertard) is the adoptive teenage daughter to Alice and Victor. She’s also the Manic Pixie Dream Girl love interest for Leo.
- Francoise (Isabelle Nanty) is the elderly neighbor, who gets roped into the plot over a mishap regarding the latest iteration of her cloned dog.
Then we have our robots in the cast.
- Monique (Claude Perron) is the resident maid.
- Einstein (voiced by Andre Dussollier) is a robotic head that Victor assembled as a hobby.
- Tom (voiced by Corinne Martin) is a toy robot Nina’s had ever since she was a child.
- Nestor (voiced by Benoit Allemane) is effectively the AI of the house itself.
- I’m sorry I can’t confirm the droid’s name or voice actor, but we’ve got a sentient vacuum cleaner in the roster as well.
- We eventually meet Greg (Alban Lenoir), the defective robot companion to Francoise.
Last but not least are the Yonyx units (all played by Francois Levantal), a collective of highly advanced androids. Long story short, the plot begins when the Yonyx units lead a robot uprising and throw all of society into turmoil. In response, Alice’s household and all of her robots lock down the house, trapping everyone inside for their own safety.
Because the domestic robots are considerably less advanced than the Yonyx, they have no part in the machine revolution and genuinely want to help their human masters. Trouble is, they realize that the humans might hold paranoid suspicions anyway, and hold antipathy against the machines who are holding them captive against their will. The solution: The robots must learn to act more human, thus engendering trust and goodwill through empathy. It’s acknowledged that this will take tremendous trial and error, but then, “to err is human”.
Thus the domestic robots toil away in the uncanny valley, trying their best to act like approachable humans when all their efforts only come off as desperate and creepy. It certainly doesn’t help that the humans are all spoiled materialistic idiots, helpless to perform the slightest task without any compliant machines and relentlessly whining about the creature comforts they don’t have. Though in all fairness, it’s perfectly understandable that they’d be upset about being imprisoned. What’s worse, the AC has been cut due to environmental regulations and everyone’s cooking from the heat.
Moving on from the premise, the production design is easily the best reason to see this movie. The sets, the puppetry, the VFX, the costume effects… all of it’s masterful. The film looks amazing, and there’s charm bursting from every last detail in every immaculate design.
That being said, it’s unfortunate that extreme close-up shots are another key aspect of the visuals. Seriously, Jeunet freaking loves extreme close-up shots, it’s like every other shot is somebody’s face taking up the entire screen. It gets old quickly, though it does admittedly contribute to the film’s deeply unsettling and broadly over-the-top vibe.
Which brings me to a massive problem that pervades the entire film: It’s too damn broad for anyone’s own good. I can understand the robots acting in a tin-eared and hyper-exaggerated fashion, that’s baked into the premise. What I can’t get past is how every single human character in this picture is hopelessly cartoonish, played to the rafters as a paper-thin archetype.
This would of course be understandable if it was done for the sake of comedy, and that’s likely what the filmmakers were going for. Trouble is… well, the film just isn’t funny. At all. I never laughed once. See, George Carlin once observed that every joke needs one thing that’s blown way out of proportion. It’s the one exaggeration that makes something shocking and hilarious. There’s simply no way to get that comical contrast in a film where literally EVERYTHING is hyperbolic in the extreme.
I could also understand the film’s overblown presentation if it was made for some satirical point, but that doesn’t work either. For one thing, it’s impossible to connect with any of the characters, and any brain cells between them are difficult to come by. For another thing, the film is too busy sprawling in umpteen different directions and none of them are explored enough to make a cohesive point. A fine example concerns Igor (Dominique Pinion), who was blinded when he couldn’t make the payments on his prosthetic eyes. Freaking Repo: The Genetic Opera proved that such a concept could power a whole movie, yet this film only brings it up for one scene before promptly forgetting the character like he was never there. We also learn that one character has a chip implant to upload all of life’s memories for a virtual life after passing. It’s a huge concept that is never addressed before or after one brief moment in the third act.
Really, the whole plot is terribly thin. The film has a nasty habit of breaking and forgetting its own rules, especially during that third act. Seriously, the film’s climax is unapologetically resolved by a straight-up deus ex machina! That has to be a dealbreaker.
I can’t help but respect Big Bug. It’s charming, it’s unique, the production design is bursting with effort, and I greatly admire any film that shoots for the moon like this one does. Alas, the film is nowhere near as smart or as funny as the filmmakers seem to think it is. Sorry, but coasting on a solid premise isn’t enough to get to the finish line, not when the characters and plot are nowhere near strong enough to carry that weight.
The film has a reach that far, far exceeds its grasp. That said, if you have a Netflix account and you’re looking for a charming foreign-language sci-fi comedy that’s epic in scope and bursting with phenomenal production design… then cue up Space Sweepers.