Bigbug represents a fusion of what might happen if French director / co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet attempted to ape The Matrix and that franchise’s co-creator, Lana Wachowski, attempted a farce. With its Frankensteined stitching, Bigbug trades the humanity for which either filmmaker is known for a ceaseless hustle of finger-wagging sci-fi satire that’s intermittently engaging but often simply exhausting. (The French-language film is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.)
Circa 2050, mankind exists under the yoke of the Yonyx, a hive-mind singularity of artificial intelligence embodied in cyborg form with toothy malevolence by actor François Levental. (In one of the depressingly few laugh-aloud scenes, the Yonyx debates a contender from another presumed political party in what is clearly a proxy popped up to sell the illusion of choice.)
As the Yonyx litigates all intellectual, emotional and occupational pursuits, it’s also angling to crowd out inferior forms of AI invented by mankind. That didn’t stop recently divorced Alice (Elsa Zylberstein) from keeping as many outlawed books on hand as possible or her ex-husband, Victor (Youssef Hajdi) from cobbling together droids on the down-low like Einstein (a talking bust that’s sort of like a cyberpunk Mr. Potato Head) or Monique (Claude Perron), a housekeeping robot with a human face … and increasingly human desires.
When the Yonyx decides to obliterate all humans in a hostile act, Einstein, Monique and the other droids in Alice’s home choose to lock inside everyone there — including Victor and his new fiancée (Claire Chust), Alice and her new boyfriend, Max (Stéphane de Groot), Max’s son (Hélie Thonnat), Alice and Victor’s daughter (Marysol Fertard), and a nosy neighbor (Isabelle Nanty). These droids have done so out of love for the humans they serve and a desire to get up close and personal with the human experience. Of course, the people don’t know that, and their continued escape attempts eventually draw the attention of a rogue, angry Yonyx soldier.
Jeunet’s idiosyncratically immersive approach to the details of dystopian stories is at peak effect in Bigbug — from the Fifth Element meets mid century-modern Miami look of Alice’s house and the impeccable droid design, much of which is achieved through practical effects. A cleaning droid especially takes on sort of a Nick Park collegiality in a body that seems borrowed from Pixar’s WALL-E. Meanwhile, Levental and Perron embrace a fierce commitment to their humanoid expressions of AI cruelty, curiosity or compassion. There are also amusing anecdotes about this society’s austerity anxiety, and Jeunet’s knack for sight-gag timing powers a dog named Toby’s persistent intervention on escape plans.
But for all its visual aplomb, Bigbug has a mouth that constantly reminds you that you could be rewatching Jeunet’s better works in this vein like The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen or Micmacs. That’s because the joke of humans literally held hostage by technologies benign and malignant is the only one Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant have to tell, and the obvious symbolism of this finger-wagging approach yields the driest, most dispassionate Jeunet film yet. At one point, the Yonyx demands that Alice and her guests trade their safety for dignity by carrying on like circus animals for a TV show called Homo Ridiculus. It’s the same sort of very loud klaxon Jeunet has hit for the previous 80 minutes and simply repeats again until the end.
There is also no semblance of emotion or longing from the human characters here, who generally alternate between horny and harried; it’s like The Terminator if it played out with revolving-door absurdities. You could argue Jeunet and Laurant’s indifference to depicting people of complexity suggests we’re simple creatures unworthy of salvation, but the doofus ex machina conclusion upends that notion, too. Bigbug’s staunch avoidance of the heart that ultimately enlivened Jeunet’s wildest Rube Goldberg-ish machines of the past is also amplified by a barrage of overly antiseptic third-act CGI. When a Yonyx soldier says something Einstein tells him is neither paradox nor joke but just a stylistic device forming an antithetical proposition, you think: Yeah, that’s Bigbug in a nutshell.