The technological possibilities of 3D printing may provide ideal fodder for the imagination, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. The chief accomplishment of “Print the Legend,” the lively overview of various leading figures invested in advancing the 3D printer revolution from directors Luis Lopez (“Chevolution”) and J. Clay Tweel (“Make Believe”), involves its capacity to do more than just show off the fancy new toys. Instead, “Print the Legend” delves into the industrial challenges facing the printer’s development in addition to the numerous personal and professional hurdles that the field has already encountered. In short, it’s less a movie about the gadget than the cutthroat business around it.
However, the filmmakers expertly illustrate the dazzling possibilities of 3D printing from the swift opening, when a number of visionaries sing the praises of the device’s progressive abilities. “If the last evolution was about bits,” one inventor says, “this one’s about atoms.” The footage backs up that claim: Taking directives from software, the microwave-like device is seen building artwork and medical tools alike. While it’s explained that the concept has been around for decades, it’s explained that only recently have the prospects of 3D printing transformed into a tantalizing reality.
But the quest to deliver on those promises quickly becomes the movie’s main concern. As “Print the Legend” shifts from celebrating the 3D printer to exploring the characters working on bringing it to the marketplace, it develops a fascinating human dimension that practically renders its specific topic moot.
Using a blend of talking heads and well-crafted graphics, “Print the Legend” establishes out the key American companies invested in 3D printers over the past few years: On one side of the arena, Brooklyn-based MakerBot operates under the aggressive leadership of co-founder Bre Pettis, who advocates for cost-efficient products; at the other, there’s the scrappy Formlabs, which maintains humbler development goals but struggles to keep its funding intact. By poking at the motives of the personalities behind these entities, “Print the Legend” uses its subject as an excuse for exploring the obsessive, paranoid sentiments of the technology space, a world populated by figures rushing to stay ahead of the curve.
While there have been other documentaries that tackle the uneven trajectories of managers and innovators in cutting edge fields — “Startup.com” and “Indie Game: the Movie” are two significant precedents — “Print the Legend” stands out for its thoroughly contemporary anticipation of a new product, beckoning comparisons to the rise of Steve Jobs. The specter of Jobs’ accomplishments looms large for these mostly white male executives, but not always with positive connotations.
Pettis, who looks to Jobs for inspiration, ultimately comes across as the one most compromised by the lure of financial gain. As one colleague suggests, the narrative of Jobs’ success “gave a lot of people permission to be assholes.” While he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the cameras and gets lost in the mythology of his company’s rise, Pettis strikes a notable contrast with less cunning developers like Formlabs co-founder David Cranos, who confesses a sweeter childhood fascination with the geeky science dad in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” By frequently cutting between the two companies’ journeys, “Print the Legend” illustrates the distinction between exploiting a vision and passionately indulging in it.
Into this intriguing equation arrives Austin-based anarchist Cody Wilson, who manages to raise the ire of the government and achieve a modicum of media notoriety by firing the first 3D-printed handgun. By existing outside the diplomatic processes of the printer companies, devil-eyed Wilson gives the movie a subversive kick — suggesting that, no matter who manages to advance the technology, it ultimately must take on a life of its own — opening a whole new set of problems no upper level manager can coordinate.
Given this sensational assertion, it’s unfortunate when “Print the Legend” wanders too deep into thorny office politics, and sometimes it seems as though the printing invention itself gets short shifted. But that’s also crucial to its accessibility: The movie offers a consistently snazzy package of talking heads, media collages and illustrations (strung together with an energizing score by Noah Wall, Matthew McGaughey and Kyle Johnston) that celebrates the trajectory of modern technological progress while remaining wary of the conflicting interests it invites.
As various figures leave their companies, engage in public spats, contemplate going public or maintaining their grassroots origins, the situation never reaches the efficiency of the product at its center. By the end, it’s clear that the future is arriving faster than even the people inventing it can anticipate.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A slick documentary with widespread appeal, “Print the Legend” is likely to generate widespread interest in limited theatrical release and reap major commercial rewards in the digital marketplace, where interest from the tech community is likely to be potent.