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.
Which 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).
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. Although Jeunet is clearly attempting to satirize a certain breed of individuals—and at times does so successfully—his impulse to fall into archetypes ultimately stops him from uncovering anything new about them.
A similar problem arises from Bigbug’s premise. The film follows a simple enough narrative: There is an A.I. takeover, which leads to a battle of the wits between good A.I., bad A.I. and humans. Hilarity and chaos ensue in ways that are both unpredictable (not everyone is who they seem) and engaging (who doesn’t want to watch someone try to take out a robot’s eye with a laser beam?). But where a viewer might expect the film to come to a larger conclusion regarding the modern man’s complex relationship to technology, we are never offered anything more than the same-old “people are too obsessed with their devices” resolution. Similarly, one might hope to be afforded some kind of hypothesis on what it means to be human, and while the film touches 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 themselves.
I was left wondering not only what this film is trying to say, but also who it is for. Indeed, Bigbug is not only morally confusing, but tonally confusing. Some of this can be attributed to its performances, which often flip-flop between serious and theatrical. Some of it, too, can be boiled down to the way the film looks. Its bright pastel colors, sleek, sterile, animated look and frequent CGI intend to transport the film into the futuristic or the uncanny valley; actually, they make it look like a cotton candy-infused videogame.
Despite Bigbug’s strange look, though, we are frequently reminded that this is indeed the work of an aesthetic visionary. Jeunet crafts his suburban hellscape with great care, with houses decorated by mid-century modern’s rebellious cousin—and who can forget a handmade, paneled robot who looks like Albert Einstein with spider legs? The robots also possess creative innovations: An on-switch that lives underneath the fingernail; hands that can adapt to open cans and whisk egg whites. If only Jeunet had instilled his story and characters with a little more of that ingenuity, then Bigbug might have been a more substantial watch.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillame Laurent
Stars: Dominique Pinon, Elsa Zylberstein, Isabelle Nanty, Youssef Hajdi, Alban Lenoir, François Levantal
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.