Who in the world is Lazer Team?
While Austin-based digital entertainment company Rooster Teeth and its first feature film “Lazer Team” may not be on everyone’s radar, its sci-fi sequel is a sharp and entertaining follow-up worthy of attention — and a testament to the fact that storytelling care can transcend any sort of low-budget limitation.
After the team of losers-turned-superheroes bested the Antarean aliens in the first outing, “Lazer Team 2” picks up with Zach (Michael Jones), Hagan (Burnie Burns), Herman (Colton Dunn) and Woody (Gavin Free) post-fame and power, split up and back to being losers. That is, except for Woody. While the pieces of their super suit — Zach’s arm canon, Hagan’s shield and Herman’s damaged speed boots — don’t serve much purpose anymore, Woody’s helmet of intelligence lands him a position as a scientist for government space division DETIA. He and fellow scientist Maggie (Nichole Bloom) develop the technology to create a wormhole, but when Woody is sucked through and kidnapped, Maggie has to assemble the idiots again to save him.
Both science-fiction and comedy sequels often struggle to dynamically raise the stakes and to avoid rehashing the same story. But in impressive fashion, “Lazer Team 2” steers clear of both pitfalls. Like a sentient machine, and a la “22 Jump Street,” the writing is self-aware of both its genres and the fact that it’s a sequel.
The typical sci-fi exposition dump is hilariously acknowledged. The notion of jumping from an Earth-based story in the first film to a massive space-set one now is mined for a perfectly timed joke. Some genre tropes, such as the people of Earth looking up to space in fear of an enemy, are flipped on their head — after a moment of confusion, these people give the finger to space. Video game elements are brought in for visual comedy, especially to temper what might’ve been an over-the-top action sequence. It’s refreshing and brings a sense of control to some of the more absurd elements of the narrative.
While the film can be classified as satirical, “Lazer Team 2” also executes some genuinely engaging character work, showing that writers Burns, Daniel Fabelo and Matt Hullum — with Fabelo and Hullum as co-directors — are in tune with the superhero aspects inherent in their story. With this endeavor, the filmmakers investigate who these characters are without the power and status the suit afforded them. Even though Zach and Woody are the only members of the team who are given full arcs, the film still has some key moments for the others as well.
These moments simultaneously act in a rather complex examination of masculinity, specifically with the loss of power acting as emasculation. In Zach and Herman’s case, the film then shows the over-performance of masculinity that men put on in response.
This is where “Lazer Team 2” offers what the first film was thin on: female characters with palpable agency. Without Maggie, this story couldn’t happen. It’s she who gets the team back together, during which she uses her sexuality to regain control when toxic masculinity arises. When the four guys are physically outmatched by villain Major Kilborne (Victoria Pratt), Maggie uses her intellect to win the fight. But she is not without faults. Maggie makes mistakes and learns from them, as well-fleshed out characters should.
The film itself, though, is also not without faults. The world-building is expansive and brings new light to the universe. However, when the team boards an alien spaceship, which should be full of serious and overwhelming security at every turn, there are moments — particularly when the team comes upon a very important room on the ship — that feel too easy.
While Rooster Teeth’s comic sensibilities chew on the potential of the film’s space setting, some of the jokes fall flat, as they either simply don’t work or their absurdity isn’t tempered. And in all the work that it’s doing elsewhere, the film rushes its middle section. The energy doesn’t let up, but the story could’ve used further rumination in the second act to fulfill each character’s arc. It’s here, during these momentary slip ups, where some of the CGI becomes distracting.
Visually though, the sequel is a step up from the first. Rooster Teeth started as a company through video games and, thus, video games, specifically the “Portal” series, influence production design and sci-fi elements. And as expected from a satirical sci-fi comedy, sci-fi references abound. One is an inside joke that fans of the company will lose their minds for. But there are also nods to “Star Wars” all over the place, a “2001: A Space Odyssey” allusion rendered comedically and more. It feels like the writers, still relative newcomers to feature films, were waiting for a story ripe for these and, when given the opportunity with “Lazer Team 2,” admirably geeked out.
That’s what makes a film like “Lazer Team 2” so lovable — that the filmmakers, actors and crew seem unabashedly geeky and self-aware of it. They can make fun of themselves, yet they rarely lose sight of the story they want to tell. Like the team itself, it’s a scrappy combination that finds a way to work.
“Lazer Team 2” premieres on YouTube Red on Nov. 22.