Looking Back At NEXT GEN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At NEXT GEN

Alexander Wallace makes new memories.
It can seem like we’re becoming obsessed with replacing human beings with technology. Our economy is becoming more and more automated, and computers have replaced our socialization to a disturbing degree (the pandemic notwithstanding, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come). It’s gotten to the point that media meant for children has to address it, given how ubiquitous smartphones are.

This brings us to 2018’s Next Gen, a Netflix original animated film directed by Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander and based off of the Chinese webcomic 7723 by Wang Nima. I, for one, never thought that you could do kid-friendly cyberpunk (I’ve seen some … unnerving things in examples of the subgenre from the 1980s), but Next Gen succeeds in being just that.

This is a world that is filled to the brim with thinking machines. They watch you with drones and they enforce the laws that humans made (at least, I hope so) along the highways suspended above the ground; it very much looks like something out of a brighter, less smoggy Blade Runner (bolstered by a chase scene that reminded me of a mission in the Nova mission pack of Starcraft II). The suburbs look more like your traditional 1950s American suburb, with lawns and fences. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of isolation in both areas, as befitting cyberpunk.
The plot concerns Mai (Charlyne Yi), the teenage daughter of a single mother, Molly (Constance Wu). Mai’s father left her mother when she was young, and to fill the void Molly immerses herself in the technological cornucopia that their world can provide. Mai then grows up isolated and dejected, a mere side note in the life of her mother. This comes to a head when Molly drags Mai to an exposition debuting new technologies by IQ Robotics, led by the charismatic Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis). Mai, with her longstanding distaste for the robots that permeate her entire world, strike out on her own in this massive convention center. Through a series of convoluted events, she finds herself entangled with 7723, an experimental robot still under development.

The animation in Next Gen is truly wonderful. The cityscapes and convention centers and even a stadium are lovingly rendered. Likewise, all the robots are designed in ways that feel real, and eerily plausible, too; the standard police robot design reminds me very much of a machine I saw along the Georgetown Waterfront in Washington, D.C.

Besides the obvious theme of the role of technology in an increasingly overloaded world, there is a very strong undercurrent concerning memory. Mai is haunted by the memories of her parents’ divorce, and the lingering hatred for the robots that surround her. 7723 has his own way of confronting this, imposed by a technological limit that works very well dramatically but felt scientifically implausible to me.
The only major flaw I see in this film are some underwritten secondary characters. Some of Mai’s classmates feel like they had interesting stories to tell, but they never get a chance to shine. Similarly, Mai and Molly own a dog that 7723 can understand; his presence feels like a ‘talking animal requirement’ in emulation of similar films from Pixar, and could have been removed from the film with negligible rewrites.

Next Gen sits alongside the ranks of Tron: Legacy (a film I hold in great esteem) as being that sort of cyberpunk that never descends to something that a child could not handle. In doing so, it performs a great service: it makes the children of this age question the role of those fluorescent lights that surround them, and challenges them to find their own answer. They will need it, lest they become overwhelmed.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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