Back in April 2005, my future brother-in-law passed me a copy of WIRED magazine with a cover story, La Vida Robot, about an unlikely set of underwater robotics engineers—Latino teenagers from a low-income high school in Phoenix—competing against elite universities in a NASA-sponsored contest. I read the article immediately and was blown away.
The story inspired a documentary, Underwater Dreams. The WIRED article, by Joshua Davis, became a book, and now a movie, Spare Parts (from Pantelion Films) that will open in theaters on January 16. My kids and I had the opportunity to attend a free preview screening, and we wanted to share our thoughts with you and encourage you to see the movie this weekend.
What makes this story so powerful is the incredibly long odds against these kids: undocumented immigrants, English-language learners, working with a limited budget and no prior experience. They entered the college division, instead of the high school division, because they figured it was a long shot anyway. The movie makes adjustments, such as combining real-life coaches Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi into one character, Fredi Cameron (played by George Lopez), but stays true to the spirit of the story.
The movie re-creates the real life team: Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega) is heartbroken to see his undocumented status shut down his dream of serving in the military. He’s a natural leader, and recruits Christian Arcega (David Del Rio) as the brains and Lorenzo Santillan (Jose Julian) as a resourceful mechanic. Luis Aranda (Oscar Gutierrez) is a big guy who lifts and deploy the heavy robot, but also learns some physics and engineering along the way.
I asked my seven-year-old son, F.T., to describe the movie. His summary:
The kids built their own robot. They named it Stinky. It goes underwater.
I asked F.T. what he liked about Stinky—named after the nasty fumes from the PVC cement that held it together.
I liked Stinky’s colors. Stinky’s wires are in a [pool] noodle. I liked Stinky’s pipes and connectors.
F.T. was interested in how the students overcame obstacles as they built and tested their robot.
When they were testing it in the outdoor pool, the cables in the noodle didn’t work. And then a student said that they need a new cable.
Then they were testing it in the indoor pool, but now the cable in the wire box got wet. They tried to clean up the cable.
F.T. hadn’t read the WIRED article, so he was on the edge of his seat during the underwater robotics competition sequences. Overall, F.T. was enthusiastic about Spare Parts:
The students created Stinky, and they tried to paint it, and it was so amazing.
F.T. and G.N., my five-year-old daughter, were a little confused by the banter between Coach Fredi and his adult colleagues (played by Marisa Tomei and Jamie Lee Curtis). My kids also wondered why the teenage boys were acting so nervous around the girls (including Alexa PenaVega). Overall, this is a very uplifting movie that would be appropriate for kids and adults of any age.
Last month, WIRED published a follow-up article about where the students from the Carl Hayden Community High School robotics team are now, ten years later; here’s another article from the Arizona Republic last summer. (Warning: both articles contain spoilers.) The lesson of Spare Parts is that we should look for talent everywhere, not just in the wealthy neighborhoods or the top-ranked schools, and not just among people who were born in the United States.
Make plans to go see this movie. Starting Friday, January 16, you can see it in San Antonio at three Santikos theaters (Mayan Palace, Embassy, and Silverado) and Cinemark at McCreeless Market. Get more information about showtimes at Fandango. After you see it, leave a comment and tell me what you thought.