There’s always been a place in SciFi for dumb fun. If we are going to be carried away into a world of aliens and lasers, then why not make the trip a little easier by not expecting us to take everything so seriously. There is something about Rooster Teeth’s first feature LAZER TEAM that makes it more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “Contact.” When we do make that first contact with an alien species, I don’t expect us to last too long, so let’s just embrace the ridiculous and pit us against them in a one-on-one duel smackdown. Or so Lazer Team would have it.

Years ago, according to the film, we learned that we were not alone and that conflict was coming. The aliens were going to prepare us for our defend-the-planet match with another world by sending us an ultra-powerful spacesuit of lasers and invisible shields. The US government keeps this a secret but initiates the Perseus Project, named for the gifts from the gods we were about to receive, and trains a super soldier to be our champion. Unfortunately, when the spacesuit arrives, it is accidentally hijacked by a group of rejects who try on the ‘toys’ and cannot take them off. Calling themselves ‘Lazer Team,’ they must be trained by the now shoved-to-the-side champion Adam, to prepare for the arrival of our alien combatant.

“That’s really the basis for everything that we make at Rooster Teeth,” says writer/actor Burnie Burns, “ordinary people in extraordinary situations. To us, ordinary people means, maybe, a little bit below average.” I had a chance to speak with Burns and three of the other main actors of the film, Alan Ritchson, Michael Jones, Gavin Free at Fantastic Fest where the Austin-based film made its World Premiere. Ritchson plays the perfect specimen of manhood Adam, whereas Burns, Jones and Free represent three-quarters of the titular team (with Colton Dunn, a regular on Key and Peele). “Half of the cast was Rooster Teeth personalities, and the other half was people who had more established careers in Hollywood,” says Burns, “faces people would recognize on a broader basis, like Alan, Colton, and Allie [Alexandria DeBerry, who plays Burns’ daughter in the film], who was coming off of years on a Disney show A.N.T. Farm.”

Burns cofounded Rooster team with LAZER TEAM director and cowriter Matt Hullum. The Austin-based team has a YouTube channel with 8.2 million subscribers and over 4 billion video views, with films ranging from live action shorts, to voice-over enhanced video gameplay to the award-winning science fiction series Red vs. Blue, now in its 13th season. “We have a big online audience,” says Burns, “but, we’re very objective about that, we’re objective about the way people consume media. There seems to be a very hard line, and it’s maybe an age or generational split, where people younger than that watch all their content online, and everyone above that doesn’t, and those groups don’t mix a whole lot.” However, those in the first group are all about sharing, and love to show off the things they love. Sharing ‘Rooster Teeth’ is a bit difficult. They have well over 5000 videos, what do you show someone? The feature film is the perfect introduction to their particular brand of comedy, something that crosses that split. “LAZER TEAM is  very shareable,” says Burns, “if they want to introduce the thing they love to the other people in their life, then Lazer Team will be a great way for them to do that.”

Nowhere is this particular gap better demonstrated than in the December 2014 South Park episodes about the PewDiePie phenomena where Kyle and his friends cannot understand Ike and his friends’ fascination with watching someone else play videogames. “And we get that, too,” says Gavin Free, “we skew slightly older than our audience. So I wouldn’t necessarily watch other people play games. But, just from being in this close group of friends and the fans we have, I can see why people like it.  They make more friends, I guess, just in watching us.” PewDiePie is the most subscribed to channel on the YouTube, with 39 million in his ‘Bro Army,’ as he calls them. But instead of wondering ‘how are these people famous?’ which was my initial reaction, more interesting is what other people are responding to. This is essentially a new form of performance. It’s being yourself in front of an audience. You still have to be entertaining.

“We don’t have scripts, we don’t have something planned,” says Michael Jones, “it’s usually like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna play a game, hit record.’ And then the next 30 minutes is whatever comes out of it. And then that gets edited down.” Michael Jones and Gavin Free are most familiar to Rooster Teeth fans for their involvement in Achievement Hunter, a ‘Let’s Play’ style of video channel hosting a wide variety of video game content including the play-through commentary PewDiePie has made famous.

“They make what they do sound very simple,” interjects Burns, “But two million people show up to watch them play video games.  They just did a live event at the Moody Theater [in Austin]where they filled 2,500 seats where people just showed up and paid full ticket price to come sit in a theater and watch them play video games together.” Free says the experience of that is very different than the videos online, but the community is the same. “It just says so much about that generation of audience that we can almost be rock stars up on the stage,” says Free, “I mean, we had the lights and everything. There’s sound, smoke.”

So Lazer Team gave the community something new, but something very recognizable. “At our heart, we’re hardcore nerds and geeks,” says Burns, “the early days of the internet catered mainly to people who were steeped in technology, which also meant there was a lot of video game culture as well, because there was a lot of crossover. … when we were making this movie, we wanted to make a film that people could come in and see and that it was a comedy at its heart, with Sci-Fi elements.”

Free relished the change of pace. “We’re very personality-based, so we just are ourselves typically, in all our content,” he says, “it’s hard to have judgment, because I’m in the movie, but I’m totally buying us as characters, and I was worried that the audience would keep seeing us for ourselves. … I’m happy that paid off.” Jones agrees. “I’m a nerd, I just play video games all day, you know? And they’re like, ‘now you’re gonna be the star quarterback.’ Sure, okay,” he says, adding, “it was fun just to play someone who’s not named Michael.”

With so many independent films turning to crowdfunding, at least to start the process, it is starting to feel silly to point out a film that did, but Rooster Teeth set a record with $2.4 million raised to produce LAZER TEAM. That comes with a lot of pressure, like people depending on you to film something worth $2.4 million of other people’s money. “The best part is the movie only cost a million, so…” jokes Jones. “Matt’s on his way to Tijuana right now,” says Free, referencing director Matt Hullum. Free continues, saying the most important thing for the team was giving the donors their money back to them on screen. Jones agrees “ I had a like a ticker in the back of my head where every time I fired the laser I could see dollar signs shooting out.”  2.4 million is a decent amount of money to make an indie film on, but not this film.  It’s not the typical kind of movie that people make at this budget level.”

He’s right, of course, but part of the joy of LAZER TEAM is that it embraces that. It never looks underfunded, but it never intends to look like Avatar. It’s a popcorn movie, a fun trip to cinema. If I had to compare it to anything recently, I would say it felt a lot like “Turbo Kid,” a movie that takes you to a very particular reality, but doesn’t drown you in scientific actuality. The heart of the film is not the lasers and aliens, but the humor and the tone, something they have honed through years of content and in knowing exactly what they were going for. “I’d say if we have to pinpoint one thing when we were writing the movie,” says Burns, “Ghostbusters was a big influence, because we were a little concerned that people would think it was a parody of superhero movies.  Superhero movies are so big right now, comic book movies like Marvel and Avengers and everything else, but that’s not what we’re doing. We focused on Ghostbusters as an inspiration, because nobody would have walked out of Ghostbusters saying ‘I just saw a great parody of a horror movie.’ It’s a comedy and it’s got supernatural elements. This is a comedy at its heart and it has SciFi elements.”

LAZER TEAM screens next at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and will have a theatrical release sometime in the future.  Rooster Teeth is already planning their next feature project.


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