- Netflix Release Date: Feb. 11, 2022
- Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
- Stars: Isabelle Nanty, Elsa Zylberstein, Claude Perron, Stéphane De Groodt, Youssef Hajdi, Alban Lenoir, François Levantal
When French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet burst onto the scene with Delicatessen in 1991, not only did it quickly become recognized as one of the most promising directorial debuts in history, but it also did something rare: It managed to capture the world’s fragile social and political state through fiction. Delicatessen takes place in a dystopic near-future metropolis where food is scarce, and the most desperate have resorted to cannibalism. For the past century, there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of dystopian films, but Delicatessen set itself apart from the crowd by crafting a world that effectively satirized an increasing presence of political greed, through its unique sardonic and surrealist sensibilities.
This is why, when word got out that Jeunet was teaming up with Netflix for a futuristic, artificial-intelligence-based dark comedy, it was by all accounts an exciting thing. Set in 2050, Bigbug imagines a future where humanity has co-opted A.I. as friends, romantic partners, helpers, and everything in between. Things take a dark turn, though, when a subset of robots called Yonyxs attempt to eradicate humankind, forcing the good robots to dutifully lock humans in their own houses for their protection. Caught in the crosshairs of this takeover is a quirky cast of characters who are stuck in a house together against their will: Alice (Elsa Zylberstein), her lover Max (Stéphane de Groodt), her ex-husband Victor (Youssef Hajdi), his lover Jennifer (Claire Chust), their kids, a nosy neighbor and a handy robot named Monique (Claude Perron) (Claude Perron).
This is undoubtedly a compelling premise, and the film is immediately paced well enough to consistently move the action forward and engage the viewer. But where Delicatessen carved out a new, original kind of dystopian film, especially in its nuanced characters and their complicated motives, Bigbug, unfortunately, falls quickly into the realm of the predictable.
From the outset, the film doesn’t seem to take itself, or its message, seriously. And while this isn’t inherently a drawback, in Bigbug’s case, it undermines its potential deeper meanings. We see this self-sabotage primarily in a cast of overwrought, archetypal characters. Jennifer, for example, is a whiny, materialistic brat of a millennial whose hysterical reaction to trivial things, like not being able to go on a luxury vacation, reduces her to a tired teenage-girl trope. Victor, too, is nothing more than a haughty, money-hungry divorcée, the likes of which we’ve seen a million times before. Perhaps most dire, though, is a lack of nuance provided to the robots, who are either quirkily wide-eyed and sterile or Disney-villain evil. Despite the fact that Jeunet is clearly attempting to satirize a specific breed of individuals—and at times succeeds—his proclivity to fall into archetypes prevents him from discovering anything new about them in the end.
The premise of the Big bug raises a problem that is similar to the previous one. An easy-to-follow storyline is followed: there is artificial intelligence (A.I.) takeover, which results in a battle of wits between good artificial intelligence, bad artificial intelligence, and human beings. Not everyone appears to be who they appear to be, and the resulting chaos and hilarity are both unpredictable and entertaining (who doesn’t want to watch someone try to take out a robot’s eye with a laser beam?). However, where a viewer might expect the film to reach a more comprehensive conclusion about modern man’s complex relationship with technology, we are never given anything more than the tired old “people are too obsessed with their devices” resolution. In a similar vein, one might expect to be given some kind of hypothesis on what it means to be human, and while the film does touch on the premise that man is more complex than technology could ever be, the characters don’t have enough depth to teach us those lessons.
In the end, I was left scratching my head, wondering not only what this film is trying to say, but also for whom it is intended. Indeed, Bigbug is not only morally ambiguous, but he is also tonally ambiguous. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that its performances frequently switch between serious and theatrical in nature. Some of it, too, can be boiled down to the way the film is presented visually. Its bright pastel colors, sleek, sterile, animated look, and frequent use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) are intended to transport the film into the futuristic or the uncanny valley; in reality, they give it the appearance of a cotton candy-infused videogame.
Despite Bigbug’s outlandish appearance, however, we are constantly reminded that this is the work of an artist who is known for his visionary aesthetic. In his meticulously designed suburban hellscape, Jeunet includes houses decorated by mid-century modern’s rebellious cousin—and who can forget a handcrafted, paneled robot that looks like Albert Einstein but has spider legs—and other quirky elements. The robots also have innovative features such as an on-switch that is hidden beneath the fingernail and hands that can adapt to various tasks such as opening cans and whisking egg whites. Were it not for the fact that Jeunet instilled a little more of that ingenuity into his story and characters, Bigbug might have been a more substantial watch.