Year Released: 2018
Directors: Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rating: N/A; contains censored expletives and scenes of violence
This review will contain some spoilers.
After watching her family fall apart, Mai grows up feeling more and more isolated as technology fever engulfs her world, including her mother. She grows to despise robots, but her perspective begins to shift when she encounters 7723, an experimental robot who follows her home one day.
|I mean, I love chibi style, but this is extreme even for me…
My first impression of the visuals wasn’t fantastic, as I thought the character designs for young Mai and her dog were just a little too cartoony. I couldn’t help but find myself waiting for the moment when the dog just tipped over face-first thanks to his ridiculously oversized head. But my misgivings were misplaced, as the character designs got much better from there. Two that stand out most are Mai and CEO Justin Pin. Justin is the epitome of a modern tech company’s PR face: sleek but hip (he even has a man bun): I wouldn’t be surprised to see him strut across stage to announce the next iPhone model. Mai’s careful design was probably my favorite though, perfectly encapsulating her rebellion, independence, and inner spark, while also revealing hints at the child-like innocence that still lies beneath the surface.
The rest of this film’s visuals truly shone. Many CGI animated productions on Netflix can be… of questionable quality. But this film looked gorgeous: an excellent blend of cartoony style with just enough realism to sell the robots and their various gadgetry and weaponry. The more realistic elements never clashed with the exaggerated character designs, and since most modern films still don’t seem to get this right, it was nice to see Next Gen knew how to strike that balance. The cinematography and colorizing were just gorgeous, and the fight scenes were incredibly fun to watch.
I’m not a big fan of sci-fi films using unoriginal music unless we’re supposed to know this song is from our world (think, for example, the use of all the 70’s and 80’s tunes Starlord jams to on his cassette player). These songs often feel out of place because they’re from our universe… in a film that is set in a world that is distinctly NOT ours. It pulls the viewer out of the experience, as the tunes feel just a little too close to home. This was definitely the case with Next Gen. Its useage of “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill certainly worked to teach us about the protagonist and to set up the story in the opening credits, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit out of place in this futuristic world. It wasn’t like in Starlord’s case where he was purposefully listening to music from our real world.
This could be forgiven were it just a one-time thing to set up the opening credits and story, but it isn’t. It’s one of many real-world, unoriginal songs used in the soundtrack that aren’t even covered in a unique or interesting way. I would’ve loved to have seen these songs covered by indie bands, providing a unique sound to familiar tracks. As it is, the unoriginal songs just leave the movie feeling a bit dated (many of these songs felt like tunes I’d listened to in the mid-2000’s), like someone’s personal favorite playlist.
The instrumental parts of the soundtrack were serviceable, helping drive home dramatic scenes, but not memorable. I can’t recall a single melody from the instrumental soundtrack.
The writing in this film has some great ideas and some good jokes. But there were also fundamental problems with this film’s pacing and characters that could have used another round of revisions.
The core premise was quite good and actually stood up well despite its alarming similarity to Disney’s Big Hero 6: a teenager loses a loved one and retreats emotionally, cutting themselves off from the people in their lives. It takes a robot to open them back up again and teach them what it means to be human and how to deal with loss.
I have plenty of problems with Big Hero 6 and, funny enough, I felt like many of them were actually handled much better in Next Gen. Next Gen forgoes developing a large cast of buddies to instead focus on the heart of the narrative, the emotional turmoil of the protagonist. I genuinely cared about Mai and her struggles, and I really enjoyed 7723 and his sweet innocent naivete, especially when he started to develop a bit more personality of his own.
However, Next Gen wasn’t without its issues…
For one, much like another film I reviewed on this blog, Next Gen did not develop its characters and plot well enough during production. This film could not decide what it wanted to be. It starts by poking fun at over-reliance on technology… and then throws in a robot who saves the day. It begins to address the issues of bullying… and then makes its bully redeemable without her earning it. It attempts to be a film about a girl needing to overcome her problems in a healthy, mature way but rapidly plunges straight into Michael Bay-levels of beat-’em-up robots and explosions.
Each of these elements had, at face value, something excellent to offer. We need more stories about teenagers who don’t know what to do with their emotions. We need more stories about how to deal with bullying. We need more stories cautioning not to overuse technology. But none of these elements were developed to their full potential, and as such, many of them were left feeling incohesive and sometimes downright contradictory.
Had this film gone through one more round of revisions, it could have zeroed in on what exactly its core message was, both emotionally and didactically, and then had the characters be stretched and developed through the plot—by earning it—instead of forcing the characters to make choices that service what has to happen in the narrative.
That was the unforgivable sin for me. Throughout the film, characters would often make unbelievable face-turns (one of which hinged on a backstory we never even received) just to service the narrative, immediately tearing me out of the story and removing what rapport the film had worked so hard to build up. Her mother experiences a whiplash of a realization that, after at least several years of neglecting her daughter, she’s been wrong all this time. The class bully suddenly decides to help Mai… because… Mai chose not to beat her up in a park?
It really was heartbreaking, because Mai’s hurt, the adorable antics of 7723, and the genuinely funny jokes really did make me want to like this movie. But when characters act in ways that I just don’t buy, I stop caring.
Another issue is that some of this film’s visual storytelling leads to some unfortunate ambiguity, such as in the opening credits sequence.
|Next Gen, 2018 Netflix
This sequence was a good idea, as it quickly skips over exposition of Mai’s life growing up without her father: it’s a montage of photos she’s taken and then summarily vandalized, clearly displaying her rising aggression and frustration due to her wounded emotional state.
However, this opening sequence presents some very important information… some of which is unclear. For instance, we see Mai and an adult woman at a funeral… but we don’t know whose funeral it is. We assume the woman is Mai’s mother, so is the dead person her father? But we already know Mai’s father wasn’t a part of her life anymore… and the woman doesn’t look quite the same as Mai’s mother in the opening scene. So is it Mai’s mother who died and there’s some new character who’s going to be taking care of her (like maybe an aunt as in Big Hero 6)? While we find out in the next scene it was NOT her mother who died, the characters make no mention of Mai’s father dying—not for the entirety of the film—so there’s never any clarification for this unintentionally ambiguous information… which plays a vital role for setting up aspects of Mai’s story and motivations.
Or the second ambiguous scene in the opening credits: Mai being surrounded by a pack of robots that seem to be attacking her. What is going on here? Why would robots be attacking her? Are they malfunctioning? We don’t find the answer to this question until much later, when we learn people can actually order their robots to attack other people.
This creates a gaping hole in the worldbuilding. The robots in this universe are essentially a very self-aware parody of iPhones. But in what sci-fi universe are the basic tenents of Asimov’s Laws (a common staple of sci-fi and roboethics that programs robots in such a way that they will not obey an order that will injure a human) so obviously overlooked? Not to mention, the robots seem to get some sick pleasure out of beating Mai up, which is not only unbelievable but added an additional unsettling level to the film that it could have done without.
The film’s themes were one of its most interesting… and as such, disappointing, elements.
The film starts off great: right out of the gate, it pokes fun at our culture’s unhealthy obsession with (and, dare I say, worship of) the latest tech with no regard for how it may affect our relationships. Not to mention the main theme, which dealt with how to handle loss in a healthy way. I actually sat up at that. Was this Netflix kid’s film actually about to explore some really interesting and deep themes?
Well… it tried. Unfortunately, the film’s themes suffered from the same confusing contradictions that plagued its plot progression.
|Big Hero 6, 2014 Disney;
originally posted on Collider
Let’s face it: we’ve seen the “kid befriends robot” story before (*cough* Big Hero 6 *cough*). But Next Gen had a unique take by having Mai despise technology (which was also amusingly relatable for me, as I’m constantly horrified at how the latest tech is violating our privacy). Unfortunately, this very premise muddies Next Gen’s would-be themes. The film seems to tell us to stop looking to technology to fill personal relationships, as this is what created a rift between Mai and her mother. But then Mai does the very thing the film chastises her mother for: she turns to a robot to make up for her loss. Is it okay for Mai because… her robot is special? Because his AI is more advanced? He’s more human?
One could make the argument the real theme of the film is balancing technology useage with your personal interactions. Do both, but know their place. But the film doesn’t capitalize on this by having Mai need other people until near the end of the film, by which time, thanks to the writing/pacing/character arc problems, Mai turning to other people for help doesn’t feel earned; it feels like a plot point. There’s no reason for Mai to suddenly begin trusting and looking to other people because they aren’t written as real people who she can trust… and they’re certainly less reliable than the robot who’s helped her open up in the first place.
Another muddled theme that irritated me was “Violence isn’t the answer,” which not only was presented poorly, it was presented in an overly-simplistic way that contradicted itself.
For one thing, the film performs the cardinal sin of talking down to the audience by having the robot almost explicitly say, “Violence is always wrong!” …And then, no more than fifteen minutes later, he’s pulling out lasers to blast the big bad robot. This is not a case where you can have your cake and eat it too. If you’re going to say violence is never the answer and/or is always wrong, you can’t have your character using violence to save the day.
Violence is a very difficult theme to tackle. It’s a complex issue, because while violence is never the answer when it comes to letting out anger and hurt, to say violence is never the answer means that all violence is bad… even when used in self-defense or to protect others. While I applaud the film for trying to tackle this theme, I wish they would’ve stuck to the angle of “Violence isn’t the answer for dealing with hurt,” because there’s a scene about halfway through the film that perfectly portrays how dangerous turning to violence can be for releasing pent-up emotions. Having a robot explicitly state the theme… and then immediately contradict it… entirely ruined anything the film wanted to say on violence.
Next Gen had a lot of great ideas. It has some quality character designs, some excellent art, and fantastic voice acting. It was willing to deal with themes that people today—especially kids—need to hear. It’s worth a watch if you’re bored and/or have some kids to entertain (there are certainly worse alternatives), but it could have been so much more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, its lack of focus rendered this film that could have been fantastic—even surpassing a Disney film—into a “meh” experience.
And that’s heartbreaking. I think Next Gen deserves better than that. So in two weeks, we’re going to look at how Next Gen can take its story to the next level.
Unless otherwise specified, photos property of Netflix and used under US “Fair Use” laws.
Next Gen and all related terms property of Netflix; Big Hero 6 and all related terms property of Disney.
Review format adapted from Curtis Bell’s Iridium Eye. If you’re bored of the usual flicks on Redbox or Netflix, check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you’ve never heard of.