– By Amanda Valdovinos –
Amid the current saturation of dystopian and sci-fi content in the media industry, the vast majority of Netflix viewers may have missed last week’s release of the Netflix original animated film Next Gen. At first glance, Next Gen camouflages as “another cute robot film” in the same vein as Disney/Marvel’s Big Hero 6 or Pixar’s WALL•E – but don’t be fooled. Beneath the guise of a lighthearted kid-flick is a deeply devastating, haunting, and redeeming story about the perils of consumerism, disconnection, and technological addiction.
Based on the comic entitled 7723 by Wang Nima, Next Gen is about a young teen named Mai who hates robots, and a robot called 7723 who unexpectedly befriends her. From the very beginning of the film, we are immersed in Mai’s world of isolation: When she is very young, her father walks out on her and her mom, then he passes away shortly after. Mai’s mother soon turns to technology in an attempt to satisfy her need for companionship, and Mai devolves into an angry and neglected teenager.
In response to her mother’s obsession with having the latest gadget, Mai’s simple logic dictates that robots are the root of all evil in her life. “I hate robots!” She exclaims. “You love robots more than you love me.” Herein lies the crux of the film’s message: humans’ tendency to use material goods and thrills to distract ourselves from pain and loss, whilst neglecting genuine human relationships.
Unfortunately, in Mai’s world, everything is a robot, and everyone loves them. From her toothbrush to her cup-of-noodles to her hairbrush, she’s surrounded by robotic technology day in and day out, all of which are constantly clamoring for her attention. The first few minutes of the movie even feature the fabled self-driving car of the future, which enables her mom to watch internet videos while in transit. It’s a beloved idea, but in the context of Mai’s life, we begin to understand the haunting repercussions of such a technology.
After ditching her mom at a robotics conference (which parodies every Apple / Google keynote conference ever), Mai stumbles upon an underground vault containing “Project 77”: A top-secret robot called 7723 (voiced by the ever-adorable John Krasinski). 7723 becomes attached to Mai and wants to be friends, but Mai instead sees an opportunity: She will use 7723’s formidable weapons array to try to exact revenge on all of the robots who annoy her, treating him as something between a hired gun and a surrogate-parent figure. While 7723 wants to cultivate a real relationship with Mai, she remains oblivious to the concept of genuine, sacrificial love and friendship.
In fact, for the better part of the movie, the relationships portrayed in the film are devoid of any real love. Mai’s mother is distant, indifferent, and spends more time with her “Q-bot” than her daughter. She doesn’t know what to do when confronted with the news that her daughter is getting bullied at school, and her immediate answer is to get a new or better robot. Mai brushes off a friendly character named Ani who clearly just wants to be her bestie, and she uses 7723 for her own selfish purposes of revenge and power, not noticing or caring that he’s miserable. This, indeed, is a world in which humans have become so accustomed to convenience and functionality that they have forgotten how to treat each other.
Instead, they are content to lose themselves (or “find” their identity?) in the latest update, the newest generation, and the hottest innovation. These backwards priorities comes with their own repercussions: both in the film and in real life, humans have a tendency to center our lives around material possessions and forget to prioritize humans above things… leading to heartbreaking situations like Mai’s.
Perhaps the creators of Next Gen are calling us out on our inordinate worship of “the next big thing” (a laughably generic line of dialogue that doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything other than a jab at tech culture), and our dependence on technology to make our lives “better” but oh, so much emptier. But Next Gen also takes things a step further, accusing society of holding technology as a kind of god to humans.
The first time they meet, Mai and 7723 touch fingers in almost a direct mirroring of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”. The way the shot is composed, Mai stands in Adam’s place, and 7723 stands in God’s place. A biting cultural accusation, or a whimsical art history easter egg? You decide. But I’m convinced that the filmmakers are telling us something profound here. It’s not a new idea that too often humans put material goods in a higher place than they merit.
Despite this blatant creation imagery and being set up as a godlike entity, 7723 is ironically the most human character in the film. He consistently shows Mai compassion and forgiveness. His priorities are in the right place: he doesn’t enjoy destroying other robots, and he absolutely refuses to hurt humans. He’s selfless, he’s caring, and he knows how to be a good friend. But he’s trapped in a world of humans to whom “friendship” is a lost concept. This paradox of 7723’s character forces us to step back and ask ourselves whether or not we are actually the “bad guys” in our society.
Inevitably, performing acts of aggression against robots isn’t enough for Mai, and, at a turning point in the film, she orders 7723 to open fire on another teenager, a bully named Greenwood. The formerly-ruthless Greenwood starts to cry brokenly, leaving Mai to the horrific realization that Mai herself has become the monster.
To simply say that humans are the villains would be unfair; but it’s no coincidence that the villain of the film is literally a robot in a human’s skin. The A.I. bot Ares, in true Frankenstein fashion, becomes too intelligent and kills his own master, the tech CEO Justin Pin. At the end of the movie, Ares brags, “I killed Justin and took over his body. It’s amazing how you fools will do anything I tell you to!” In his mindless pursuit of progress and technology, Pin and his humanity were literally consumed by technology. Let that settle in (as you begin to re-evaluate whether or not this is a kid’s movie).
So does technology actually rob us of our humanity? It certainly has that power. This I know for sure: We lose our humanity when we devalue our fellow humans – or place any material goods above their wellbeing.
But the film lets us know that it doesn’t have to be this way – and, more importantly, that it shouldn’t be this way. At the end of the film, the radical, unconditional love Mai has received from 7723 is enough to make her question her worldview. She realizes that he is more than just a toy or a tool. In the aftermath of almost losing her mother to Ares, she realizes that robots are not the core of the problem – and that we all have a responsibility to look out for each other.
The irony of a movie about a robot that is better at loving humans than the humans are is a shockingly effective vehicle for self-reflection. It simultaneously holds up a mirror to our self-absorbed culture and dares us to tell ourselves that we are better than that robot. Because sometimes we aren’t. But we can be.
Next Gen isn’t just a cute robot film; nor is it alarmist propaganda. The setting of the film may be futuristic, but this film is relevant to the current social climate right now, today, and the critical decision we all have to make. This is the time for parents to be re-examining how they are going to raise their children in such a tech-reliant age; it is also a crucial time for the children born into this generation to be taught the proper place of technology in their lives, and how to interact with and value their fellow man.
In the final minutes of the movie, as Mai and her mom are reunited, and they rush to embrace each other. “I’m so sorry,” her mom says. “I thought robots were the answer, but they aren’t – robots are not my answer.”
Technology itself can’t be the answer to our happiness. We are all called to love each other radically, and it is that love that will break us free from our addiction and disconnection. We can choose to use the technology to avoid responsibility, harm each other, or neglect relationships; but Next Gen serves as a cautionary tale that hopefully will motivate us to use technology to connect, to create, and to enjoy the world around us instead – and never to replace each other.
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