Review of Next Gen (2018)

Moving picture, 106 minutes

Seen in 2019.

Pre-teen Mai hates almost everything, including the ubiquitous robots that provide a hollow companionship to other lonely people.

Chinese-Canadian children’s SF action adventure. The bare bones are crude: The inattentive mother and the main bully both see the error of their ways and apologize at high speed in explicit terms. The didactic message is clear: Work sincerely on relationships instead of manipulating a killer robot. The action sequences are boringly safe, including thousands of intelligent bombs detonating within 10 m of unprotected people and causing no harm. The whole plot hinges on a silly moral dichotomy. The evil Steve Jobs figure is particularly poor, so long after Jobs’s death, and the Steve Wozniak figure makes still less sense. 7723’s system reset, though much touted as peripeteic, turns out to be nothing like a real reset.

A peculiar set of twists, perhaps from Wang Nima’s comic, add novelty to intimately familiar tropes. The main character is antisocial but also into inherently social sports (here greebled football). Even in the end, she isn’t virtuous. Her father, the nominal cause of her bad behaviour, remains absent throughout. Most peculiarly, the film reuses the ubiquitous animism of 1920s animation by replacing a wide variety of everyday items with intelligent robots, and also having the GIR-like biological dog speak African-American slang, but the makers can’t decide whether or why robots might deserve empathy, so robots are damaged and destroyed en masse with very little sense of authorial intent.

The thoughtless animist robotics create some horrific user interfaces, including hair- and toothbrushes that jump onto and fight their users to perform their function, and intelligent noodle cups that are dropped living into the trash. It’s a grotesque anthropomorphization of Hanmura Ryō’s delicate treatment in “Cardboard Box” (1975). This seems to have a pretty clever satirical purpose: Whereas the generation of Stranger Things (2016) could flee from adults toward gadgets, Mai represents a later generation whose parents are aligned with the gadgets. There is no nature left so she’s got nowhere to run. It’s an interesting creative vision similar to Invader ZIM (2001), and a natural potential development out of WALL·E (2008), but it doesn’t work. It comes across as sublimated guilt over neglecting face-time, rather than being based on observation of real children ca. 2018.

References here: Invader ZIM: Enter the Florpus (2019), The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021).

moving picture animation fiction