Friday, December 28, 2018

Top 5 Things I Learned at Realm Makers 2018 from Tosca Lee


I’d been to all of one writer’s conference before, and it was probably the furthest out of my comfort zone I’d ever been. It was a small conference at a camp a good three- to four-hour drive away from my home state. Three days to spend with approximately forty strangers. I knew no one; I was wholly on my own. It was tough to be so out of my comfort zone, but it really grew me.

When I signed up for the Realm Makers writers conference, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into. It was just another conference, right? I’d be in a nice little room with about 40-50 people. No big deal.

I probably should have expected the culture shock the minute I learned that my favorite Christian author, Ted Dekker, had been a key speaker at Realm Makers previously. Or when I saw that Tosca Lee was teaching a pre-conference workshop this year.

But I was clueless. I eagerly signed up for Tosca’s conference, having no idea what I was getting into.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at a towering conference center, watched the volunteers helping with sign-in’s rifle through dozens and dozens of nametags, and saw at least twenty-five booths of published authors set up in just one of the many rooms we’d be using.

Wow, I thought to myself. This is so different from the other conference I went to.

I didn’t know the half of it.

The workshop was being held in a large dining hall, maybe seating a hundred people. And since I’m a studious dork—I was that over-achieving classmate everyone hates in highschool—I sat near the front of the room. This gave me a great view of the people filing in. And table after table kept getting filled. Soon there were a bazillion people here, grinning and greeting each other.

Holy cow, I thought as the minutes ticked down to the beginning of the workshop. The room fit for one hundred was nearly full. And this is only the pre-conference workshop! How many people are going to be at the actual thing?!

A lot more, I was soon to find out.

That weekend, I found my intensely introverted self swimming in a sea of 350 people. My mild pre-conference anticipation/anxiety had swelled into sheer terror. But I rode that wave as best I could. And, just like the conference before, it grew me in ways and places I never would have expected.

Tosca’s workshop helped tremendously. Not just to help me deal with the culture shock, but also with getting the most out of the conference. Her workshop inspired me and rejuvenated me, sparking my desire to write even more. These were the Top 5 things I took away from her lecture.

Top 5 Things I Learned at Realm Makers from Tosca Lee


#1: You’re Not Alone in Your Fear and Doubt

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed as a writer. You’re working on a story largely in isolation. Sometimes, you’re creating entire worlds from scratch. There’s so many things that could go wrong. It’s inevitable you’re going to fall into self-doubt, especially without a good support base. “Can I really do this?” “Is this story any good?” “Am I actually a bad writer?”

Photo by George Gvasalia on Unsplash

That fear is normal, Tosca reminded us; all writers go through it. So even when you’re petrified by fear, you’re not alone! Tosca even assured us that we will always struggle with a lack of confidence in some capacity, even after we’re published!

But we don’t have to let the fear cripple us. Tosca gave us some tools to use to help combat the fears that keep us from writing.

#2: Murphy’s Law

Think about the absolute worst that could happen. Dig deep down to those fears. What could go wrong? What are you afraid will happen? Go all-out. You’ll see how ridiculous some of those fears are... and how much some of the real fears are affecting you.

Once you have your list, Tosca said, write them all down, tear apart that paper, and throw it away. It doesn’t define you. Don’t let it.

#3: Self-Evaluation – Why Do You Want to Write?

When you’re an artist and you’re not creating, it may be because of fear. And what does fear hate? For the truth to come to light.

Analyze why you want to write. Why do you do it? Write it stream-of-conscious. Be open and honest. No one else has to see your answers!

Why is this important? Because this is what keeps you writing even on the hard days, Tosca said.

So what drives you to be a writer? Do you have a story burning inside you that no one else has told? Does it make you come alive? Could you spend hours getting lost in the process on the good days?

#4: Self-Evaluation – Why Do You Secretly Want to Write?

Oh, but Tosca didn’t stop there. The real scary question was yet to come: “Why do you secretly want to write?”

Time to really let it all out! What are the reasons you’re ashamed of?

Yes, Tosca said, it really is okay if you want to write for money; the important thing is to be honest with yourself about it. (Though she was also quick to point out, there’s not usually a lot of money in the writing world. So, if you want to do it to become a Best-Selling millionaire, you might want to rethink your career choice. :P)

#5: How Do You Stay True to Yourself?

The self-evaluation reiterated why we wanted to write, but another scary thing about writing is the dichotomy Tosca highlighted: we need to write what we want so it’s authentic and unique, but we also need to sell books to keep writing! Writers need readers, or our stories will never really be told. How do we find the right balance? How do we stay true to ourselves while delivering something to someone else?

Tosca’s solution? Think about the reasons you read!

If your favorite stories are your favorites because of their great characters, interesting premises, confident storytelling, and unique voice, then write stories that have those characteristics! Write stories you’d want to read.

Tosca reminded us that we read speculative fiction to escape, whether that be to flee a boring normal life or a terrible one, or just to visit places we’d never be able to go to otherwise. This is the main job of an entertainer: to entertain! And that entertaining—telling a good story, taking the reader for a ride in a fantastic setting—is incredibly valuable and powerful, Tosca said.

If you tell your story well, it can become a part of someone’s life. It can help people who are struggling to get through a hard time. It can help people who have undergone trauma to know they’re not alone. It can help people who feel isolated to know there are others like them somewhere.

Be honest about your reasons for writing and stay true to them... but find where those reasons intersect with why the reader wants to read. Write the kinds of great stories you want to read. Write for that ideal audience that loves the same stuff you do.

That’s what produces stories that are honest, the ones that resonate with people. And it’s the best way to fight back against the fear that tries to keep you from telling your stories.

---

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 21, 2018

Confessions of a Writer Who Couldn't Write Character Flaws


Up until recently, I found it very difficult to write flawed characters.

I fall deeply in love with my characters, so I really want other people to like them as much as I do. This makes showing others my work a terrifying event. It feels like bringing a boyfriend home for my parents to meet. Will they like him? Will he say something dumb that misrepresents who I know he is? It turns me into a ball of nerves; I’m sure something catastrophic will happen that will leave them despising each other.

It got me so worried, in fact, that I wouldn’t give my characters real flaws. My characters used to be idealized people: my perfect idea of a boyfriend, or my idea of the perfect girl.

But perfect characters aren’t perfect reading material!

My characters may have stayed polished and flawless if it weren’t for my fear of Mary Sues. As I’ve written about before, claiming a character is a Mary Sue is practically a death-sentence for that character’s popularity. So I wanted to avoid it at all costs by proving that my characters weren’t perfect. I had to slap some flaws onto them, quick!

To this day, I giggle thinking about the “flaws” I tried to throw onto Jaranin, the protagonist of The Victor’s Blade. Messy hair, clumsiness (which never negatively affected him). The only flaw that really had any bearing on the narrative was his naivete. Back then, I wasn’t trying to develop real flaws; I was just tossing out random quirks. I didn’t understand that flaws have to be something that cause problems for the character in ways that matter.

I didn’t want to give my characters genuine flaws because I was scared it’d make them unlikeable. If Jaranin were boastful, who would want to root for him? If Isalaina were whiny all the time, why would anyone want to read about her?

Character flaws are a balancing act. If a character is too flawed, it can be hard to root for them. But a character without flaws is annoying, even if no one says they’re a Mary Sue.

I still struggle with character flaws to some extent, but I’ve found a trick that makes it easier to find that sweet spot between flaws and redeemable qualities. My secret? I sprinkle my own flaws onto characters. It sure helps me to relate to the characters, and it gives more nuance to a character rather than artificially giving them an abstract, big ol’ seven deadly sin to wrestle with.

For instance, Prince Aeron struggles with pride, a flaw I wrestle with daily. On the surface he may seem like a stereotypical pompous overlord, but there’s more going on under the hood than that. There are reasons he is the way he is. For one, he’s been raised in a country that has thrived off nationalistic racism for thousands of years. He’s been groomed to believe people from the next-door nation of Hoarnaest are lesser due to their lack of education and their base culture compared to his own politically-nuanced people. His pride comes from the near-godlike status his people bestow upon royalty, giving him a superiority complex. He doesn’t even realize how stuck-up and ignorant he is until he finds himself drawn to a servant-girl who’s from Hoarnaest. Only after building that relationship and having her confront his behavior does he realize what a jerk he’s been all along... and that he’s not, in fact, better than anyone else around him.

Putting my own flaws into characters not only helps me relate to them better, it helps me get into their heads. Understanding how a character thinks helps me write them more realistically, enabling their flaws to drive their decisions.

One of my favorite flaws to work with is cowardice and fear. People will go to great lengths to avoid things they fear. How far will this character go to prevent their greatest fear from happening? What crimes would they commit? What loved ones would they push away? What tragic events would they initiate? Not to mention it creates great dramatic tension when a character is forced to confront their fear at last.

I’ve found putting my own flaws into characters also helps keep them likeable even despite them being flawed. I think it’s because it helps keep them grounded and vulnerable, human. It’s easier to show their reasons for why they act on these flaws or how much they struggle with them. For instance, showing a character loathing their flaw and wrestling with it almost always makes them more likeable. We naturally want to root for them, want them to win and become better people.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

It’s tough to write a character with flaws without alienating the audience. And sometimes, alienating some audience members is unavoidable: what some readers can forgive, others will find unforgiveable. But writing isn’t about pleasing the biggest number of people; it’s about writing the best story you can for your ideal audience.

I’m glad my characters have grown along with me, but the fight to write more realistic, multi-dimensional characters is never quite done. I’m excited to see how much further my characters will grow with me in the days going forward!

---

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 14, 2018

Character Study: Reki (Haibane Renmei)


This post will contain spoilers for

Haibane Renmei



You have been warned.


"This is my cocoon dream. The nightmare that has been tormenting my existence in this world... I remember cold winds stinging my cheeks that were wet from tears... I was too tired to think. I remember wanting to become a stone. A stone that doesn’t feel pain. Or sorrow."1

The seeming simplicity of Haibane Renmei hides fascinating depth just beneath the surface. No character mirrors this quality more than Reki.

Funimation 2002

Reki, along with the rest of the main cast, are Haibane, beings nearly indistinguishable from a human except for their angel-like wings and floating halos. It’s said becoming a Haibane is a rebirth, but no one knows why the Haibane are born or who they were before, as these memories all disappear the moment a Haibane is born. Haibane must lead highly-structured lives as dictated by the shaman-like people called the Toga. Part of this structured life includes living in one of two abandoned buildings on the edge of the walled-off town of Glie. Only the Toga are allowed to leave Glie, but it’s a good life.

Though it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

From episode one the show implies there’s something significant about Reki. We eventually discover Reki has been singled out her whole life: she is a “Sin-bound” Haibane, having committed some wrong in her previous life. Even though Reki cannot remember what this sin was and doesn’t know what to do to atone for it, most Haibane avoid Reki out of fear.

Reki’s Backstory

But there’s one Haibane who sees Reki as someone worthy of attention and care: her best friend and mentor, an adult Haibane named Kuramori. But just as Reki opens up to Kuramori, Kuramori undergoes her “Day of Flight” and leaves Glie. The Day of Flight is a kind of second death for a Haibane, a peaceful ascent from this world. Every Haibane undergoes the Day of Flight, but no one knows when it will happen nor why.

Reki feels she’s been abandoned by the one person she felt understood her. Desperate to find answers and to reunite with her departed friend, Reki drifts even further from the other Haibane of Old Home, instead befriending the Haibane who live in the abandoned factory on the other side of town. In particular, Reki bonds with a male Haibane named Hyouko, who is determined to help Reki.

Hyouko and Reki concoct a plan to scale the walls and escape Glie. But touching the walls is forbidden and allegedly brings a curse upon those who do so. Sure enough, Hyouko falls and sustains injuries while trying to scale the wall; and he and Reki are punished for their disobedience. Rather than helping Reki deal with Kuramori’s loss, the incident only causes more tension and strained relationships, not just between Reki and Hyouko, but also between Reki and the other Haibane of the factory, who blame Reki for Hyouko’s injuries.

This leaves Reki feeling abandoned or misunderstood by Old Home and cast out from the Factory. She is Sin-Bound without fully knowing what that means, for no one can tell her what sin she committed or what she must do to fix it before her own Day of Flight arrives. All this causes Reki to feel bitter and lonely, haunted by her sins. As the years pass, Reki feels she’s only adding to her sin rather than atoning for her initial wrong.

Reki’s Lie

Reki’s sins are complicated and multifaceted. Even her first sin is only hinted at, and Reki can recall nothing about her previous life. Not even Reki herself understands her sins, as evidenced by her faulty view of her own behavior.

Rakka, the newest Haibane
Reki claims that her worst sin was treating the newest Haibane, Rakka, as a tool to be used. Reki says that all her time spent caring for Rakka when the new Haibane came was all just an act to earn redemption. She says she was only acting selfishly and manipulatively, using Rakka to redeem herself rather than genuinely helping Rakka out of a selfless nature and a desire to help someone else.

However, her own behavior contradicts this.

For one, even before Rakka is “born,” Reki speaks tenderly to Rakka’s cocoon. There’s no need for Reki to put on an air of gentleness here; she is alone with Rakka’s cocoon, with no guarantee that Rakka can hear her inside. But in this moment of vulnerability, Reki vows she’ll help and protect Rakka and asks Rakka to help her. This is no manipulation; it’s the heartfelt request of a young woman who remembers what it was like when she was the frightened newcomer in the cocoon, who Kuramori took under her wing.

Funimation 2002

Funimation 2002
Once Rakka emerges from her cocoon, Reki remains with her every step of the way. Reki cares for Rakka like an older sister, tending to her like she were family, even staying up all night when Rakka’s wings first burst from her back, causing her great pain.

Certainly, Reki could have tended to the new Haibane out of selfishness, but she goes through such incredible lengths to care for Rakka that it’s clear she’s doing so out of concern for a newborn Haibane she sympathizes with. Reki waits with Rakka through the critical first hours when Rakka’s wings emerge. Reki brings Rakka medicine and offers her own thumb for Rakka to bite to deal with the pain. Reki is the one to stay and comb Rakka’s new wings until they’re clean.

Reki never would have so tenderly administered to Rakka’s every need if she were only interested in using Rakka. And she certainly would have never allowed the other Haibane to help; but it’s clear that while Reki enjoys helping Rakka, she doesn’t keep the newcomer for herself.

Though Reki might be mistaken about using Rakka, Reki isn’t without her flaws.

Reki’s Struggle

When Reki discovers Rakka is also Sin-bound, something shifts for Reki. She clearly sympathizes with Rakka; she knows how scary and intimidating, confusing and isolating being Sin-bound is. She seems to mourn alongside Rakka while trying to shield Rakka from some of the weight of responsibility and fear by giving Rakka medicine that conceals the dark spots on her wings that mark her as Sin-bound.

All the while, Reki thinks for once, there’s someone who’s going through the same things as her. She’s not alone anymore.

So when Rakka quickly and (relatively) easily cures herself of her Sin-bound status, while Reki is still struggling with her own, Reki becomes jealous. Having struggled with bitterness all her life, this is when that flower fully blooms. Reki knows this means she’s being left alone again. And this, in turn, stirs her greatest fear: that she will always be alone, left behind as everyone else redeems themselves, lives a good life, and undergoes their Day of Flight to abandon her.

Reki lets herself slip into her darkest side. As Reki senses her Day of Flight drawing near, feeling all hope is lost, she lashes out at Rakka in anger and self-hatred, trying to push Rakka away. At least if Reki gets her to run away, she will maintain control over the situation. Better than someone abandoning her again.

Reki fears and loathes her dark side and incorrectly asserts that this is her true self, that this is who she’s been the whole time. This is the point where Reki proclaims that she was merely using Rakka the whole time. In her stupor of pain and fear, Reki lies to Rakka and herself, convinced she was never anything more than a terrible sinner who deserves to be alone. Reki lies out of fear; in part fear of abandonment and in part fear of her own dark nature. Reki is flawed and imperfect.

Reki asserts that she’s used Rakka, but this is just her attempt to push others away, refusing help as she has all along. Feeling isolated and abandoned, Reki has tried to become a rock, a self-sustaining person who never needs to rely on others again. After all, the last time she relied on someone, they abandoned her. Even after Reki struggles with her Sin-bound nature for seven long years, she never once asks for help. She won’t let herself.

Reki’s Redemption

But despite Reki’s best efforts to push Rakka away, Rakka still refuses to give up on her friend.

When Rakka is first reborn as a Haibane, Reki has almost given up hope for her own future. But Rakka is one of the first brand-new cocoons to appear in a long time, and to Reki, it symbolizes a fresh start, one last hope.

Reki has no idea how true this perception is; Rakka is indeed Reki’s final hope. Though she begins quite naive, Rakka eventually grows through her own experiences thanks to the other Haibanes’ (including Reki’s) care. Rakka’s growth enables her to see Reki in ways no one else has. She sees past Reki’s tough and independent exterior to the hurtbeneath. She learns of Reki’s deepest fears and darkest impulses. Still, Rakka is willing to even see past Reki at her worst, refusing to give up on her.

Reki says she doesn’t want to be saved—that she’s not worthy of being saved. She believes she has to unravel the mystery of her sin and how to atone on her own; and, since she has not (though Rakka has), she must not be worthy to find these answers at all. But the riddle she can’t unravel is that her sin, though complex, only requires something simple to overcome. Reki must learn to open herself up to potential abandonment. She must ask others for help. But Reki has built up pride from her isolation. She hasn’t connected to anyone enough to trust them this much...

No one... except Rakka.

The moment Reki cries out for Rakka to save her, the curse of her sin shatters. Her suffering is finally over. And she discovers she was never beyond grace and redemption. Hope was never lost, even when she’d given into despair.

What Reki doesn’t realize is that even her smallest acts of kindness helped bring her to this moment. Neither Reki nor Rakka could have rescued her on their own. When Rakka was still within her cocoon, Reki had asked her for help. She’d promised they’d help each other. And this is precisely what happened. Reki cared for Rakka, helping teach her what it meant to be a Haibane. This enabled Rakka to grow and even surpass Reki in maturity... so Rakka could be there to help Reki in her time of direst need.

Simple but complex. Sinful but redeemable. Fearful yet beautiful. This describes Haibane Renmei... and it describes Reki, too.

---
Notes and References:
  1. Reki, Haibane Renmei, “Reki’s World – Prayer – Epilogue,” Episode 13, Directed by Tomokazu Tokoro, December 18, 2002, Funimation.
Photo of Rakka from VRV.co. All others from Funimation.com. Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Haibane Renmei and all related names and terms are the property of Funimation.

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 7, 2018

Captain America: Flaws vs. Weaknesses


Note: Made a slight revision to this post after I watched the new Avengers: Endgame trailer and remembered just how bad Thanos is. My apologies for the slight mistake in information.


This post will contain spoilers for


The Marvel Cinematic Universe,

including Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War



You have been warned.



Mary Sues have everything handed to them on a silver platter. Every other character in the story thinks they’re amazing. Not so in the real world; the audience usually despises them. So when a character is deemed a Mary Sue, it’s basically a death-sentence for their popularity.

That’s for the perfect Mary Sue, but what happens to characters who simply have no notable flaws? What about characters who seem... not perfect, but certainly intrinsically good?

I’ve written before about how Captain America seems to escape the Mary Sue punishment. But catching up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe unearthed a question I’ve been puzzling over ever since:

Are flaws and weaknesses two different things?

Marvel Studios 2016, via The Movie DB
Captain America does not have any notable character flaws. He’s firm in his beliefs, and that causes conflict sometimes. But is that really a flaw? I guess you could argue he’s stubborn, fighting for what he believes is right even when his own best friends stand in opposition to that. But... when have Cap’s convictions been wrong? Makes it hard to call this trait a flaw. And if it is a flaw, it’s one that only endears him to the audience even more.

But while most characters without flaws get accused of being a Mary Sue, Cap gets a pass. I have yet to hear someone argue the Captain America of the MCU is a Mary Sue. I’ve never heard anyone complain about him not having any flaws. So... if Mary Sues are so loathed because they don’t have flaws, how come Cap doesn’t suffer the hate?

It doesn’t make sense to me... unless there’s a difference between character flaws and character weaknesses.

Character flaws are something bad the character does on a regular basis; it’s a vice they struggle with. For instance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism or Dr. Strange’s pride. Flaws are things that we really shouldn’t like about a character. This is why when I experimented with making an unlikable character, Cassius, I tried to pack as many character flaws onto him as I could. He was loud and lying, cold and cruel, selfish, and so delighted in brutality it bordered on sadism.

According to this definition of a character flaw, I don’t think Captain America has any. However, Cap still isn’t a Mary Sue.

Why? Because he’s not all-powerful: he may not have character flaws, but he does have weaknesses that legitimately debilitate him and keep him at a relatable human level.

A character’s weaknesses may include character flaws, but “weakness” is a broader term. It’s anything that makes the character weak. It could be a physical weakness (like Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite), a relational one (How often did Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man villains kidnap Mary Jane to get to Spidey), an emotional weakness, or more. It could be a tragic backstory that has left the character scarred and fearful of intimacy. It could be something the character isn’t willing to lose, something that will push them to do anything to protect it.

Weaknesses, obviously, aren’t always inherently bad things. We all have weaknesses of many kinds... and our friend Cap is no exception.

Cap may be suped up on super soldier serum; but he has enough weaknesses that it’s not hard to recall he’s still just a human being.

So what are some of Cap’s weaknesses?

A Man Out of Time

One of the most obvious weaknesses Cap struggles with is cultural. He’s literally a man out of his time. The beginning of Winter Soldier did a great job showing that adjusting to our modern world is and continues to be a bit of a struggle for Cap.

Just think about all the technology he had to adjust to. That’s no easy task for people who didn’t grow up around it; just ask any elderly person to try turning on a computer.

Marvel Studios 2014, via The Hollywood Reporter
It’s not just a change in tech that Cap has to deal with, but also changes in media and culture. His pop culture iconography “to-do list” is endearing, but it also highlights how much he feels he’s missed out on, how far behind he is, how he’s still trying to catch up to a world that rolled on without him.

And that’s minor compared to the cultural shift. One of my favorite scenes from the entire MCU occurs when Cap chastises Tony about his language almost without thinking, and how Tony and the rest of the team keep teasing him for it. It’s a detail that is, again, endearing, while showing how drastically the culture has shifted from Cap’s time to now. That’s a tough adjustment to make.

With all these things Cap has missed out on and needs to learn (or relearn), it’d be easy to feel isolated. Alone.

And I think he does.

Emotional and Relational Weaknesses

Cap has lost the people he was closest to, who are also the only people who could understand what he’s going through... the people who could rescue him from his weakness of loneliness.

Marvel Studios 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger
Take Peggy, for instance. Though losing his brave and beautiful “dance partner” doesn’t affect his performance as a superhero outwardly, you can see how deeply it’s hurt him. It’s hard for him to even consider getting into a romantic relationship with someone else, especially after Peggy dies, even though he’s clearly interested in getting married and having a family.

And then there’s his best friend Bucky. Not only has he lost Bucky, but he’s had to endure losing him three times: once when Bucky fell to his seeming death during a wartime mission, next when Bucky was brainwashed and forced to fight against Cap, and finally when Thanos snapped his fingers and eliminated half the universe's population.

Marvel Studios 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger behind the scenes via Rebloggy

It’s hard to pull through the loss of one important person in your life, but the two people closest to you? That’s a tough hit to take. And wounds, more often than not, cause weaknesses, as is the case for Cap. The loss of his friends creates hurt and leaves him lonely.

But it’s thrilling to watch Cap fight against his weaknesses, especially when we know how difficult those weaknesses are for him to deal with. We want to see characters whose weaknesses are pushed and preyed upon, because it brings the characters to their lowest points... and gives them a chance to overcome them in the end.

So when we say we want flawed characters, a character with weaknesses might work just as well. Which is why I think flaws and weaknesses are two very different things... and why audiences might be okay with characters who may not be as “flawed” as we think they need to be.

---
Photos used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Captain America and all related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC and Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 30, 2018

Fixing Next Gen


This post will contain spoilers for

Next Gen



You have been warned.


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, 2018 Netflix

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

Needless Characters

One of the quickest and easiest fixes includes streamlining some of the characters that didn’t quite fulfill their potential.

Ani

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

Mai’s Dad

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

Confusing Characters

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.

Greenwood

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.

Mai’s Mom

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

Justin Pin

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.

Wait, what?

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.

Complicated Story

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.

Conflicting Themes

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.

Conclusion

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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Unless otherwise specified, photos property of Netflix and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Next Gen and all related terms property of Netflix.

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 23, 2018

Theme Talk: Fighting for Relationships in The Place Promised in Our Early Days


This post will contain spoilers for

The Place Promised in Our Early Days



You have been warned.


There are some things in life that are impossible to understand fully until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Many of these entail some form of loss, such as loss of a beloved pet or loved one, or even loss of connection to a person.

This is the case with long-distance relationships. It’s impossible to understand the full weight of loneliness and longing that comes from a long-distance relationship unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Long-distance relationships are incredibly hard. They leave you isolated, not only because you’re separated from someone you love, but also because few others can truly understand how you’re feeling. Oh, people can empathize to a degree: we all know it’d be hard to not see a loved one for weeks... months... years on end. But a pain that deep is one few others have felt. It’s a daily anguish people in long-distance relationships carry, weighing them down like a lead ball. It’s a loneliness that almost feels as strong as physical pain—and can certainly be just as debilitating.

No matter how far the distance, being separated from a loved one is painful. But there’s some strange sort of beauty in the wait too—because the reunion will make it all worthwhile.

Makoto Shinkai is a master at capturing the agonizing beauty in loneliness... and the hope of seeing the other person again, if you can just hold on long enough.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

While The Place Promised in Our Early Days revolves around a romantic relationship, its core theme pertains to relationships of any kind: friendships, family members, etc. This is a film is about holding onto our relationships—about the challenges we may face and the debilitating results if we let go.

When our relationships hit hard times, there are three choices we can make; these are presented through the film’s protagonist, Hiroki, and his friend Takuya.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

The film begins with the two boys hard at work restoring a plane they’d found crash-landed in the no-man’s land between their home country of Japan and enemy territory. They accidentally let word slip about their secret project to their mutual friend (and Hiroki’s crush), a female classmate of theirs named Sayuri.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

The three students have always been fascinated with the mysterious tower that pierces the skies that sits right on the border between the two countries. So when Sayuri learns about the plane, the three make a pact to fly to the tower together. However, over the summer, Sayuri simply disappears without a word or single goodbye.

Sayuri’s disappearance causes Hiroki and Takuya to drift from everyone they were once close to. Hiroki leaves their hometown for Tokyo, physically cutting himself off from anyone in his old life. Takuya remains closer... but disconnects himself emotionally from others.

Initially this appears to be natural reactions to losing their friend, as if both boys are “moving on” from the relationship. But it’s clear that both Hiroki and Takuya are responding in unhealthy ways to a broken relationship.

Running from Relationships

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Hiroki’s reaction is more obvious: running away from the broken relationship. As soon as Sayuri leaves, he moves as far away as possible, to Tokyo, where he hopes he can disappear into the crowds. He cuts off communication with anyone from his former life, anyone who had a connection to Sayuri.

Hiroki withdraws, but this leaves him with emotional turmoil that causes him to fall into a cold, numb depression just to cope with the pain of losing Sayuri.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
“Every time I get to my room and shut the door, I feel a stabbing pain in my heart as if all the bones in my body are breaking through my skin. And I wonder when it was that I became burdened with something like this.

“I was living alone, and the nights felt long. When I couldn’t find anything to occupy my time, I would walk to the nearby station and pretend I was waiting for someone. When I got tired of that, I walked back to my room as slowly as possible. I had friends at high school, but I found that other than when I was wearing the uniform, I really didn’t want to be around them. Come to think of it, in a city of more than thirty million people, there wasn’t a single person I wanted to see or talk to.”

“It was as if I was holding my breath underwater... Cold, deep water. And it was like that every day. I’m the only one...”1
The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

Using and Forsaking Relationships

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Takuya has a different reaction to losing Sayuri. Instead of outright physically running away, Takuya actually allows the loss of Sayuri to propel him through life, giving him direction. After Sayuri’s disappearance, he becomes even more fascinated with the tower they had planned on flying to. Takuya becomes part of a brilliant group of scientists who are studying the tower. Takuya’s cold, scientific obsession with the tower is a coping mechanism, driven by his loss of Sayuri.

Takuya, however, is chasing this connection to Sayuri for the wrong reasons. He clutches it so tightly that he loses sight of why the tower—and, by extension, Sayuri—was so precious to him in the first place. This results in him forsaking his relationship with Sayuri, symbolized by the moment when he becomes convinced the tower must be destroyed and gets involved with a group of terrorists who plan to blow up the tower.

The destruction doesn’t just extend to the tower, however: attacking the tower will spark war between Japan and their enemies, the Union, causing destruction to far more than just one structure.

Takuya is still willing to go along with this plan to destroy what he once held dear when it’s postulated that Sayuri—who has actually been asleep for the past 3 years—may be the reason the tower is in operation. The tower has been absorbing matter from our world and essentially destroying it, its radius of destruction ever-widening over the past three years. The tower must be destroyed to save the world, and Takuya is willing to sacrifice Sayuri to do so without even trying to save both her and the world.

Takuya’s reaction to the broken relationship causes just as much pain as Hiroki’s. Instead of running as Hiroki does, Takuya clings too tightly to memories of Sayuri, resulting in his destructive behavior. Takuya ultimately believes he must accept Sayuri’s loss. However, he handles this in an unhealthy way: he accepts the loss without even trying to fight for Sayuri. This leaves Takuya just as broken inside as Hiroki has become, and in a desperate attempt to find release from the pain, Takuya inflicts pain on everyone else around him—including Sayuri and even Hiroki when Hiroki comes to rescue Sayuri.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

Hiroki has come to save Sayuri because he’s finally realized his mistake. The loneliness of trying to run from a relationship has been eating away at him... and deep in his heart, he knew he shouldn’t have run away. He knew it was vital he hold onto his connection to Sayuri and fight for the relationship.

Though Sayuri is trapped in an alternate dimension as a result of her narcoleptic state, her consciousness still lingers in the real world. Even over the course of the past three years, despite being separated by time and space, Sayuri and Hiroki have developed such a strong bond that each senses the other is still out there. Hiroki knows that Sayuri has been waiting all this time, praying he’ll move to rescue their relationship... before it’s too late.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

And this is the third choice we can make for our broken relationships: we can fight for them.

Fighting for Relationships

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Hiroki ultimately decides to stop running, that his relationship with Sayuri is worth fighting for. He begins to hunt for her, desperate to find where she’s gone and what’s happened to her. He just misses her, arriving at the hospital room where she’d been only moments before. But rather than allowing this setback to deter him, he only becomes further emboldened. He won’t give up or run away again.

Hiroki meets with Takuya in a last-ditch attempt to find and save Sayuri, but at this point, as Hiroki’s determination to fight for the relationship is strongest, Takuya’s has waned the most. Takuya is convinced that Sayuri cannot be saved. He threatens Hiroki. He’s given up on his connection to Sayuri, allowing raw pragmatism to overcome the need for relationship.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

But the film makes it very clear that while sacrifices must be made and practicality isn’t something to be demonized, it can’t come at the cost of relationships.

Upon giving up on his relationship with Sayuri, Takuya falls on a destructive path. When running away, Hiroki descends into a loneliness so painful “that [his] fingers, cheeks, fingernails, heels, and even the ends of [his] hair, [sic] everything aches from the loneliness.”2 In both cases, these choices cause pain, destruction, chaos, and disharmony. They don’t result in positive ways to deal with the loss; they only create more problems.

The choice to run and the choice to use and forsake the relationship not only hurt the boys, but also was slowly destroying Sayuri. She languishes for three years in an endless abyss of loneliness with only her memory of Hiroki and the promise to take her on the plane to comfort her. She has no idea that in the outside world, people are willing to callously throw her life aside on the off-chance it might help the situation there.
“A cold, deep wind blew there, a wind that seemed as if it had come from a distant universe. Even the air had the smell of a different universe... The sky... The clouds... A city in ruins... There are no people, no matter how far I walk. I’m cold... What am I doing in a place like this? Someone... Someone! Hiroki...”3
The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

When the tides of life threaten to rip a relationship away from us, giving up on that relationship causes catastrophic results. This is why it’s so important to hold onto healthy relationships, to be willing to fight for them.

Not only this, but our refusal to fight for our relationships can extend out for miles around us, affecting many more people than just us, just as the tower threatens to swallow more and more in its wake. Only when we choose to do everything within our power to fight for the relationship can we destroy the destruction.

Things begin to change as soon as Hiroki decides to turn and fight for the relationship. Hiroki’s dogged determination even extends a hand of redemption to Takuya, a shining light that draws him from his dark path onto a healthy one. Seeing Hiroki’s resolve to do everything within his power to fight for his relationship with Sayuri, Takuya softens. At last he sees what destruction his choice has wrought and decides instead to fight along with Hiroki in his own way, helping him rescue Sayuri.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films

Handling Unhealthy Relationships

We must fight for healthy relationships; we must let go of unhealthy ones.

The children admire the tower. It granted them something to bond over and a dream to aim for. Later on, the tower gives Takuya direction in his vocation. But the tower is inherently dangerous and threatens to take away everything they love, just as unhealthy relationships devour everything like a black hole. In order to best fight for your healthy relationships, you must cut off the unhealthy ones.

Real life is messy, confusing, and full of pain and loss. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed, just as a happy ending isn’t necessarily guaranteed for Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri. Upon awakening from her narcoleptic episode, Sayuri forgets how close she and Hiroki had become through their intimate connection. Takuya is guaranteed to lose his job for helping rescue Sayuri. The world is plunging into war; people have already died.

But there is still hope.

As Hiroki flies the newly-reawakened Sayuri from the crumbling tower, he reassures her that despite all the trials they’ve undergone and all the struggles ahead, he will not stop fighting for their relationship. “It’s all right. You’re awake now,” he reassures her. “You can get it all back again, starting now.”

“We’ve lost the place of our promise in this world,” Hiroki muses, “but even so, our lives begin now.” 4

There is still hope. There is always hope.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
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Notes and References:
  1. The Place Promised in Our Early Days, VRV.co, directed by Makoto Shinkai and Yoshio Suzuki (2004; Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan: ADV Films 2004).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
All photos are screenshots taken from VRV and are used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Place Promised in Our Early Days property of ADV Films. And I am not affiliated with either of them.

From Him, To Him

Thursday, November 22, 2018

This Week's Post Will Go Up Later on Friday

Hi all! Quick update: due to spending time with the family for the Thanksgiving holiday, my post this week hit a slight bump in its development. Rather than going up at 8 AM Central/9 AM Eastern this Friday, it's going to go up sometime in the afternoon/evening.

Apologies for the slight delay and hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving. I know I'm thankful for each one of you! <3 Thanks for your patience and look forward to seeing you Friday!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Movie Review: Next Gen

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

Genre: Action, Comedy, Children’s, Sci-Fi
Year Released: 2018
Distributor: Netflix
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.

You have been warned.

The Premise

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

The Visuals

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.


 
Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

The Music

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

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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 Theme

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.

“Pay no attention to the fact I was ordering my robots
to beat you up 45 minutes of screentime ago!”

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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.

The Conclusion

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.

Next Gen, 2018 Netflix

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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.

From Him, To Him