This post will contain spoilers for
Two weeks ago, we looked at Next Gen, a film about a young girl named Mai who watches her family fall apart as the world becomes engulfed in technology fever. Mai despises robots, but her perspective begins to shift when she encounters 7723, an experimental robot who follows her home one day.
Next Gen had a lot of great elements. It had good character designs, excellent visuals, and fantastic voice acting. It was willing to deal with themes relevant to today’s world. However, Next Gen suffered from contradictory worldbuilding, confusing character arcs, and muddy themes.
Next Gen could have been so much more than the sum of its parts: a fantastic film that would even surpass the work of Disney. And all it would take is four key areas of change: trim down its needless character choices, clean up its confusing remaining cast, declutter its complicated story, and reconcile its conflicting themes.
Let’s get to work on version 2.0 of Next Gen.
One of the quickest and easiest fixes includes streamlining some of the characters that didn’t quite fulfill their potential.
Initially it seems Ani is going to fulfill the “Nice nerd who becomes the protagonist’s best friend,” but she’s only in three scenes and does very little in any of them. In Ani’s biggest scene, all she does is introduce herself to Mai, clearly wanting to be friends, before Mai gets distracted by the school bully, Greenwood. Ani neither furthers the plot nor anyone’s character arc, so I would merge her character with Greenwood to create a friend for Mai. More on that later.
Unlike Ani, Mai’s father plays a key part in the story. He begins Mai’s character arc, creating one of her deepest emotional wounds when he walks out on Mai and her mother. Their pain is exacerbated when Mai’s father dies. To fill the void, Mai’s mother turns to robotic companionship, leaving Mai feeling completely alone. This propels Mai into her arc of emotional turmoil, the most sincere and unique element of the whole film and arguably its best feature.
However, having Mai’s father walk out on them and die creates a narrative redundancy: there’s no reason for both. Either one would have successfully created the frustration and isolation that begins Mai’s character arc; in fact, the film would have largely played out the same had her father simply been uninvolved in Mai’s life instead of him dying. This redundancy, combined with the ambiguous way her father’s death was presented (it was only shown in one photo in a montage during the opening credits), leaves the viewer with a poor first impression of the film, eroding their trust in the storytellers and preventing them from fully buying into the story.
Just pick one or the other: either he’s a deadbeat or he’s dead. Unfortunately, this over-complexity is a symptom that shows up in many other elements of the film.
The writers did a fantastic job designing Mai’s character arc. Her transformation from isolated teenager to emotionally-stable hero is well-paced, clear, and believable. The secondary characters, however, don’t get the same level of care, as they’re often used to service the plot rather than making believable choices.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix|
Greenwood was an attempt to make a redeemable bully character, which is an admirable goal. After all, how often have we seen the same playground bully shoving the protagonist into lockers? Unfortunately, Greenwood suffered from being too extreme without ample reason for either kind of behavior: initially too mean and later unbelievably kind to Mai.
School bullies are an unfortunate reality, but Greenwood is exceptionally cruel with no given motivation for acting as such. She insults Mai’s dead father, sends her Q-bot to mocking Ani and slap books out of her hands, and has repeatedly sent her Q-bot posse to beat up Mai. This extreme behavior is made even more absurd when she abruptly decides to become Mai’s ally, friend, and nearly sacrificial hero just because Mai beats up some exploding robots in a stadium where Greenwood happens to be.
This is one story better serviced with a cliché. Leave a flat, stereotypical bully in the story. Play up the fact that, as Next Gen already tried to do, the bully picks on Mai, thinking she’s weird and uncool for not having a Q-bot like the rest of the school. Have the bully program the robots to display insulting text on their screens or advertise embarrassing pictures of Mai. This presents a great opportunity to show Mai’s hatred for robots and explains why she dislikes them so intensely.
Instead of using her as the bully, I would have merged Greenwood and Ani to create a fellow student who would become Mai’s friend over the course of the film. For most of the film, to give Mai time to spend with 7723, I’d have Greenwood passively watching as Mai gets bullied. She has her own circle of friends and isn’t sure whether she should get involved and stick her neck out for Mai. But finally, when Mai is at her lowest point and doesn’t even have her robot friend, Greenwood asks Mai if she needs some help. This can be the olive branch that begins to mend Mai’s faith in humanity.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix|
Mai’s mom isn’t supposed to seem like a bad mother; she’s just… inattentive. A little too absorbed in her own world, leaving her unable to see what’s going on with her daughter. We the viewers just want her to open her eyes, to look up from her Q-bot and truly see her daughter for the first time in years.
And there’s a scene where Mai’s mom finally physically looks up at her daughter and sees that Mai is coming home sporting a cut and black eye. At last she walks away from her Q-bot, ignoring its cries for attention as she starts to nurse Mai’s wounds and talk to her.
At last, we think, she’s finally stepping up to the plate. She’s finally starting to redeem herself.
And then Mai’s mom proceeds to ruin this moment, not helping her daughter and instead giving Mai non-advice about how at least she’s not alone. There’s no righteous indignation about what happened to her daughter. There’s no fear about what’s really going on in her daughter’s life. Because Mai’s mother does literally nothing to help her daughter, the “care” she offers feels incredibly hollow at best and downright neglectful at worst.
And then Mai’s mother goes from her passive “You’ll be fine” self to a ferocious protective supermom in the span of the next two scenes she’s in.
The catalyst for this change is Justin Pin, the robotics salesman Mai’s mother has idolized for years. He arrives at Mai’s doorstep, threatening their family and kidnapping Mai’s mom. Although on paper this seems to be a good crisis to snap her out of her technology addiction, allowing her to realize that her objects of worship weren’t all they were cracked up to be, this idea isn’t developed enough to hold up in practice.
For one, her transformation feels hollow because we never get to see the moment when Mai’s mother realizes how she’s neglected Mai. The only thing that comes close is an awkward scene where Mai’s mother tries to breathlessly apologize to Mai when Mai comes to rescue her.
For another, Mai’s mother’s ferocious nature comes out of nowhere. As she turns on Justin to beat the crap out of him for attacking her daughter, the viewer can only wonder, “Where was this side of her when she saw her daughter coming home injured by school bullies?”
This could have all been fixed with minor tweaks to the film. The viewer could have excused almost all of Mai’s mother’s shortcomings if we saw that she was at least trying even while she was hurting, too. Even small scenes could contribute to showing just how hurt she’s been, which in turn better explains her lack of attention toward Mai.
Like this little scene: at the same time as Mai is up in her room, looking at an old photo of her dad, Mai’s mom is doing the same thing downstairs. After she puts down the frame, she turns to her Q-bot but still looks sad, disillusioned. Maybe there’s a song that the film could have established at the beginning that she and her ex-husband used to listen to all the time, something that was clearly tied to a happy memory, and the Q-bot starts to play the radio. When the song comes on, she immediately tells the Q-bot to do something else, looking sad, desperate for distraction.
This connects her loneliness to her over-reliance on technology but also portrays how unfulfilled she is by the robots, too.
Most importantly, portray the woman as the good, ferocious mom she was always supposed to be. Flawed characters are one thing, but Mai’s mother acts outright irresponsibly when Mai comes home injured.
Have the woman pry more, like good moms do. Have her show through her reaction that she’s realizing she’s missing out on Mai. Have her demand to know what happened, threaten to talk to the principal (or even threaten to smack the bully herself), and Mai (like any teenager would) brushes her off and goes running to her room. Have the Q-bot make a sound indicating some activity Mai’s mom planned was ready, and have her hesitate. Maybe she even follows Mai up the stairs anyway, goes to knock on her door—and then chooses not to. After all, Mai said she didn’t want her help. Maybe it’s better to give her space? So she trudges down to the Q-bot, clearly upset with the situation and her choice.
This way, when Mai’s mother finally turns away from her over-reliance on technology, it feels genuine and earned.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix|
The character with perhaps the worst 180-degree faceturn, however, is tech guru Justin Pin. Justin goes from being a charismatic CEO to a megalomaniac in a matter of three scenes. To the viewer, he makes this jump for no reason, as we only get a very poor explanation for it just before the final battle scene.
As it turns out, Justin has been promoting the Q-bots because they’re actually bombs he’s rigged to kill their owners.
That’s about how well the film portrays this absurd concept. And, obviously, it only opens Pandora’s box in the viewer’s mind.
It’s clear the Q-bots have been around for years; Mai grows up with one. So why would Justin wait this long to enact this plan if he was psychotic all along? Justin’s storyline is astronomically confusing. Real people don’t just make master plans to blow people up!
Oh, but he’s not a real person! We find out near the end of the film that Justin is actually an android. Or a cyborg. It’s really unclear, because the film decides to try subvert expectations by cutting out his backstory. His inventor friend, the one who designed the Q-bots and 7723, actually tries to tell Mai—and is abruptly murdered.
So I’m just left to speculate what actually happened with Justin. Bear with me.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix|
It seems as though Aries, a giant bouncer robot Justin has kept at his side throughout the film, took over Justin’s mind and/or performed mechanical augmentation on Justin until he was Aries’ puppet. This is supposed to explain Justin’s motivation for wanting to kill people (I guess because Aries sees humans as inferior to machines?), but Aries wants this for… no real reason. Humans never abused him. He just happens to be a spiteful robot who thinks humans are imperfect and therefore worthy of death.
Justin/Aries is the biggest problem with this film’s plot. Even if we knew for sure what had happened with Justin, none of this story makes any sense.
Where did Aries even come from? Since we’ve never seen Justin invent things, we can only assume his inventor friend made Aries, too. How did he not install some sort of failsafe to take out Aries? Supposedly 7723 is the failsafe, but why did it take so long to make this robot? Why didn’t he try to fight back against Aries sooner?
We’re never given the answer to these questions because, again, the inventor gets killed before he can explain.
The plot forces characters like Justin to make irrationally extreme decisions. It takes time and attention away from Mai’s compelling emotional struggle and throws them at a head-scratching action flick plot it didn’t take time to develop.
There was no reason for this complicated Justin/Aries plot, which only served to muddy the film’s message on violence.
The confusing characters and poorly-constructed plot leaves the themes broken, confusing, and conflicting. But the theme that suffered the most was its statement on violence. Next Gen tried to outright state that violence is never the answer while having its protagonist robot use weapons to fight the big bad robot Aries in the final battle—when the film already contained a very powerful scene that delivered this theme.
Earlier in the film, Mai brings 7723 to the soccer field where Greenwood usually runs her out. However, this time, Mai has backup. 7723 easily dispatches of the Q-bots, which scares the bully into leaving.
Things escalate later in the film, however, when Mai decides to further take her anger out on Greenwood. The next time she meets the bully, Mai orders 7723 to attack Greenwood herself, not her Q-bots. But 7723 refuses, knowing revenge is not going to help Mai. Mai is shocked and angry he won’t help her enact what she sees as justified revenge against someone who’s tormented her for years. So Mai corners Greenwood herself, brandishing a baseball bat. But when Greenwood pleads with Mai and starts to sob, Mai turns away.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix|
This prompts 7723 to delete his weapons functionality to make sure Mai can never hurt others—or herself—again. This is not only a great moment for 7723 and Mai, it’s a great moment for the overall story. It’s a powerful scene showing how dangerous violence can become when we use it to unleash our pent-up emotions instead of dealing with those feelings in a healthy way.
Unfortunately, because the film felt the need to become a superhero flick, Justin has to jump the shark and be a human-killing machine, and 7723 needs to use those weapons to stop him… which directly contradicts the idea that violence is never the answer.
Removing the Justin/Aries plot altogether would have mended this theme by turning it from a confusion message against any and all violence—even self-defense—into a warning not to turn to violence to resolve emotional turmoil.
Next Gen took a common premise and made it work even better than Disney did with a protagonist who was realistic and relatable for viewers of all ages. The voice acting and visuals were gorgeous, and the core of the story was well-done. Unfortunately, overly-complex elements weighed the film down. Still, with just a few changes, Next Gen could be the story it was always meant to be: a story about a child who’s hurting, who’s gone through pain no one should have to endure, and who learns through the things she blames for her pain to look a little closer… and to open up her heart.
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