Lazer Team (2015) or the Trouble With YouTube

YouTube is a career now, even if it’s not entirely viable yet. I suspect it’ll take a few more years before high school guidance counselors don’t suggest “Business” instead. But last year, the ten highest-earning YouTube stars earned a combined $70 million. Colleen Ballinger, better known as her creation Miranda Sings, is busy with production on the second season of her Netflix original series, Haters Back Off, and has already joined Jerry Seinfeld to get coffee by way of a car while also being a comedian. She even stayed in character as Sings, which she’s also managed on The Tonight Show. Every few months another YouTuber gets a collection of essays, fictional autobiography or (ghostwritten) young adult novel on the New York Times charts. There’s even a line of action figures and stuffed animals based on Minecraft-centric YouTube personalities currently warming the pegs at your nearest Toys-R-Us.  Go to your crowdfunding site of choice and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of kids whose voices haven’t even come in yet asking for a down payment to be the next big name in playing video games while talking at the same time.

YouTube is no longer a lazy joke about cat videos or something to fill that hole in your aunt’s heart that’s been there since Channel 5 stopped running America’s Funniest Home Videos.  Its reach is widening by the day and there’s nary a medium it won’t affect.

Shame about movies, though.

So far, there haven’t been that many, admittedly. The earliest example of a YouTube success getting a shot at the big(ish) screen is the unholy trinity of Fred features: Fred: The Movie, Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred and Fred 3: Camp Fred. Technically the R in Fred is supposed to be backwards, but I have to hand it to WordPress for putting a stop to that by default.  Fred, for what it’s worth, is a bowl-cut kid of ambiguous physical age, but a well established emotional age of six, who talks in a high-pitched, sped-up-in-post squeal.  His popularity exploded in the late 2000s and these movies act as direct-to-DVD tombstones of the height of his fame. They’re not good, is what I’m saying. The trilogy was embraced by his core audience – your little sister and her friends – but it’s hard to watch for anyone else.

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It took a few years for another attempt, with Camp Takota in 2014, headlined by YouTube personalities Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart, the last of whom co-wrote it. It worked as an amiable, if tired to the point of comatose (see: Fred 3), camp comedy carried mainly by the chemistry of its stars.

If there’s a reason for the recent boom of these movies, it’s likely Shane Dawson’s Not Cool. Ostensibly a romantic comedy with his love-it-or-hate-it style and characters, Not Cool was actually made for a season of The Chair, a show where two directors-to-be are handed the same script and sent off to make it happen. Shane won. Producer of Not Cool and current Spock Zachary Quinto called the movie “ultimately a vapid waste of time.”  The first 14 seconds of the trailer for Not Cool manage to include a stereotypically dim girl shrieking, that same girl grabbing Shane’s, uh, subscribe button in a crowded bus station, a man masturbating in a public bathroom, a gloryhole, that same girl again demanding Shane use the hole as nature intended, then that same girl one last time crying through the hole because she wants to break-up.  That says more than I ever could about Not Cool. But his fans sure seem to love it, and that’s probably what did it.

Right around then came a boom of articles from the usual suspects about a YouTube push to turn their internet stars into movie stars. Only in the fine print did anyone mention that the trend was a no-brainer mainly because said stars had built-in fanbases numbering in the millions.  Easy money.

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Which brings our accelerated history of YouTube movies to Smosh: The Movie.  A feature-length adaptation of the three-time most-subscribed YouTube channel in history (which, in fairness, is only about twelve years in this case), Smosh: The Movie walks a muted line between the Fred trilogy and Not Cool.  It’s quite obviously made for a singular audience – Smosh fans and whichever parent pulls the short straw.  It allows the two masterminds behind the channel, Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, to do their thing and take a few jabs at the video service that made them multimillionaires.  But what’s odd about it is how diluted it comes off. Someone along the line must’ve stared into the abyss of the Fred franchise and realized that hyperactive, scatterbrained comedy is easy to digest in five-minute chunks, but not for an hour-and-a-half. So while the personalities of Hecox and Padilla, surely a big factor in their channel’s success, are in the movie, they’re mellowed out and couched in a slacker buddy comedy like the twelve you just remembered passing on Netflix. Sure, there are occasional sequences of absurdity, shoehorned cameos from other YouTube personalities and some (I’m assuming) intentionally rough special effects, but it’s still noticeably blander than its source material. But the fans loved it, and an unrelated second feature from Smosh, Ghostmates, was just released on YouTube Red, the site’s fledgling streaming service.

I didn’t have the heart to pay for YouTube Red, but if you do or did, you’d find a number of exclusive shows and movies, including one by the name of Lazer Team.

Lazer Team is the first feature-length film from Rooster Teeth, a YouTube success story if there ever was one.  In 2003, the production company uploaded the first season of their experimental web series Red vs. Blue.  It exploded, to put it lightly, and popularized machinima, a style of animation mixing recorded video game play (in Red vs. Blue‘s case, the Halo franchise) with scripted voice-overs.  Twelve years later and Rooster Teeth had a big enough name to make Lazer Team‘s Indiegogo push the highest-earning movie campaign in the site’s history. It was to be an original story, unrelated to any of the company’s videos, starring the most familiar faces from the channel.

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Lazer Team, unlike the efforts of Fred, Smosh and, considering the forced cameos of his more popular characters in Not Cool, Shane Dawson, didn’t have any specific act to follow. It could tell its own story, its own way, without having to worry about checking any boxes for the fans or thinning out the mix for newcomers.

So it’s a shame Lazer Team is as aggressively bland as it is.  I originally planned on just reviewing it, but I stared at the screen for a half hour, drank a cup of coffee, watched a video of someone crashing a thousand-dollar drone into a pool of Coca-Cola, lost faith in mankind and realized I have almost nothing to say about Lazer Team.

Much like Smosh: The Movie, you’ve seen this before. Lazer Team is the story of four losers who bungle their way into saving the world. There’s a washed up cop, a former football star who lost it all in a single injury, a current football star who’s also a dumb jock and finally a stereotypical hick too stupid to ever actually exist. Yes, the gang’s all here and they’ve brought all the baggage you’d expect; the former footballer broke his leg and lost his career because the washed up cop didn’t block him in the big game, the new quarterback is dating the cop’s daughter,  the stupid guy’s really stupid, etc.  This dream team accidentally shoots down an alien ship with a bottle rocket, each member donning a piece of the super suit inside.  The different components – fast legs, Mega Man arm, laser shield and smart helmet – permanently fuse to the four, each to the man with the most symbolic resonance. The limping former star gets the legs, the cop who didn’t block for him gets the shield, the stupid guy gets the helmet and the kid gets the cannon because that was the only thing they had left.

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From there, the military attempts (in vain) to whip them into shape as the trained-from-birth supersoldier who was supposed to wear the suit seethes from the sidelines.  There’s bickering, a lot of jokes involving vomit, a scene where everyone cracks jokes because they think someone’s having sex in the next room while they’re actually getting beaten to death, plenty of YouTube-tutorial special effects and in the end they all learn to work together as a team. A lazer team.

Was it disappointing? No, but every movie it pulls from did it better. I can’t especially hold that against Lazer Team considering said movies include GhostbustersThe Last Starfighter and Stripes.  The four leads are likable enough when the movie gets out of their way, but the writing always leans in to make them bitter assholes before we can cheer too loudly.  The most interesting part of the movie is the would-be hero who loses his chance at glory to four morons, but instead of pushing him to his natural end, the movie forces him to respect the team and help out in the end.  All that said, I can certainly hold its assured unoriginality against it.  Lazer Team is a mixtape of mixtapes, where the drop in quality is plain to hear, but not bad enough to throw out the tape.

Lazer Team is watchable, don’t get me wrong. Everyone involved made a movie with a beginning, middle and end, with decent special effects (until the alien crowds at the end), solid-to-passable performances, a few funny moments and a sequel tease leading off the credits. But it never makes a believable case for why it was made in the first place.

It doesn’t carry the built-in audience appeal of pre-existing characters like Fred or the Smosh duo. Rooster Teeth didn’t take the Not Cool approach and try to tell an original story while also crowbarring winks, nods and full-blown cameos from their earlier work.

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Lazer Team started from the ground up, raised several million dollars from the fans to spend however they pleased and in the process wound up being a movie for almost nobody.

I really don’t have much more to say about the movie, but it got me thinking about the rest of the YouTube “franchise.”

So far, there have really only been two kinds of YouTube movies: the character and the mixtape.

Character is pretty straight-forward. Fred is the purest example. They pulled him straight from YouTube and shoved him into a movie, shtick and all. The aforementioned Miranda Sings and her Netflix series, Haters Back Off, is another example.  I haven’t brought it up because this particular YouTube-born star has kept his movie mostly away from the site, but The Angry Video Game Nerd would also fit the bill.

Mixtape is Lazer Team, from tip to tail.  Take a genre, usually comedy. Find a sitcom/B-movie trope that’s been done to death and on into the afterlife, like shenanigans at a summer camp. Plug-in some YouTube personalities. Profit.  Not all are created equal. Lazer Team clearly took much greater care in weaving its influences than say Not Cool, which plays like a neutered American Pie sequel that some misguided editor tried to take seriously in post.  An example we haven’t mentioned yet is The Thinning, a YouTube Red original movie that’s little more than a genetic mutation between The Hunger Games and a Hollister ad.

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Neither category has a hard definition. In fact most of these movies flail between the two. Fred 3: Camp Fred is clearly Fred dropped in a network TV airing of Meatballs. Smosh: The Movie is Dumb & DumberHarold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (it’s even directed by Bill himself, Alex Winter), but with slightly adjusted versions of the Smosh guys.

The downfall of character-based YouTube movies already has a direct analogue, a franchise-of-sorts that’s been chugging along since 1980 – Saturday Night Live movies. Quick – name your favorite.  You probably said The Blues BrothersWayne’s WorldMacGruber or, if you’re in denial, A Night at the Roxbury. What you may not realize is that there are seven other Saturday Night Live movies.Out of the eleven that exist, only five turned a profit in theaters. Less than half. Why?

Because it’s almost impossible to turn a four-minute sketch into an hour-and-change movie.

At feature-length, you have to either make the world around the character as goofy as they are or soften them up a little to make them fit a (somewhat) realistic universe. They suddenly need an arc, a lesson, a way to grow as a character. But you can’t betray the character’s appeal or essence in the process. And a plot, good heavens, a plot. What kind of story can you tell about a snappily dressed blues band or  a teenager that sounds like a speed-addled second-grader?

But let’s say it all works. A story that makes sense for the character, in which they grow (or comically do not, which could end up feeling like a rip-off at ninety minutes) that stays true to what makes the character popular.  Well the fans should enjoy it, but will anyone else?

If not, if the movie only works for the people who were going to see it any way, you may make money, but what’ve you really made?  Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred, that’s what.

What about the mixtapes?

Who cares about the mixtapes? I think it’s here where the metaphor stops. An actual mixtape, a homemade collection of only the best tracks off tapes you borrowed from friend, is almost entirely preferable to buying a different tape for each of those songs and swapping them out as you’re driving. But in the case of these YouTube movies, it’s more like a mixtape of passable covers of your favorite songs. But the choice is no longer between that homemade, free mixtape and having to amass a library of the real thing to replace it.  That tinny-sounding, cover band mixtape is the same price if not more expensive and less accessible than the albums its borrowing from and borrowing from poorly.

The only reason to watch these movies is the only reason to watch a bad character-based one – the familiar faces.

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I’m sure if I was more attached to Rooster Teeth I would’ve enjoyed Lazer Team more, but it’s also no valid defense to suggest it was made for the fans.  They’d watch anything they put out. A big jump into a more mainstream medium (at a cost of several million dollars) needs to bring in more than just the people who donated those millions.

And there’s the trouble with YouTube movies: they’re made only for fans they already have.

Lazer Team is probably the closest any of them come to clearing that hurdle, which makes it the clear leader of the pack. It is, as stated many times already, an original story without a recurring character in sight.  But that story is begged, borrowed and stolen from so many other, better movies that the only real thrill in watching it must be in seeing fan favorite personalities on the big screen or, more likely, the same screen they usually see them only for a lot longer.

But Smosh: The Movie isn’t going to convince anyone to check out the channel. The Fred franchise would only inspire masochists. Not Cool is so off-putting I’d be surprised if the uninitiated even make it to the inciting incident (the tearful goodbye at the gloryhole).

The money’s there, clearly, but it’s not earning YouTube or the talent its helped cultivate any respect.

Despite all it’s done – YouTube Red now has a handful of original shows and movies to its name – YouTube is still a lazy joke about cat videos. And you know who’s the first to tell it? YouTube movies.

Almost all of the examples I’ve talked about so far feature YouTube in at least one scene, usually to explain how pathetic it is that an embarrassing/revealing video can get so many views so fast.  I’m all for self-deprecation, but it borders on self-destruction.

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If YouTube wants to bring in anyone but its existing audience, to convince the average Redbox customer to pick up Not Cool 2: Slightly Cooler, to make a name for itself as a production company/platform that turns out more than just movies bought at the last-minute for your nephew’s birthday, something has to give.

It’s easy to say “make better stuff.” I just did, in fact. But the entire aim is misguided. Money is money and money is honey, but everybody’s already making plenty with their videos. These movies don’t need to be made.  They serve the same purpose as Christian propaganda flicks like God’s Not Dead and Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas; they won’t convince anyone who wasn’t already on-board when they picked up the box and they were frankly never meant to.  Unless someone along the line pushes to make something that works as a character-based movie even for folks who have no affection or knowledge of that character’s online history or a mixtape that manages to combine its musty parts in a fresh way or, one can only hope, an original movie that works on merits entirely its own, there’s really no reason to watch YouTube movies.

But if you dig ’em, you’re in luck for the foreseeable future. The next Smosh movie is out now. Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart from Camp Takota have gone on to Electra Woman & Dyna Girl (superhero mixtape) and Dirty 30 (romantic comedy mixtape). Fred’s probably dead, but the next one’s lying in wait somewhere between those glowing knife videos and some hack’s review of Rogue One. There will always be a hungry audience for YouTube stars, no matter what medium they pop up in.

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But I only write about movies here, and Lazer Team is certainly one of them.

In retrospect, the trailer for it is better than the movie itself. It manages to squeeze in most of the big effects shots and a solid line-up of jokes delivered well. But when you actually watch the movie, the same line deliveries that work in the trailer, sound like bad acting when every line we don’t see is delivered in the exact same, trailer-ready way.  It’s a study in five-minute-video acting, where laying it on thick with every line isn’t just acceptable, but often necessary.  Stretched to almost two hours, it’s only exhausting.

Not only is that a decent summation of YouTube movies so far, but it suggests a lesson that YouTube and its stars would do well to consider in the push for feature-length content:

What works in four-minute spurts every day doesn’t necessarily work in a single ninety-minute stretch.

And, most importantly, it doesn’t need to.

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