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

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Victor's Blade Update: Writing Book 2


Writing book two of The Victor’s Blade has certainly been an experience.

I’ve had a lot of responsibilities (plus work), so over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying out the “bit by bit” method for writing: chipping away at this manuscript one small daily goal at a time.

It’s been keeping me writing, but I find myself getting frustrated with the slow progress. It feels like the word count is only ticking up a single word per day. I feel like I should be doing more. Maybe I should. Or maybe I’m giving it the best I can right now. Not sure.

In addition to the small daily writing goals, I’ve been trying out the school rough draft method: writing like crazy and then worrying about cleaning up (i.e. cutting) all the excess words later; being very intentional about not going back and rereading or editing yet.

That’s very difficult for me as a perfectionist, which is part of why I’m doing it. I think it’ll help me grow as a writer in the long-term and help this particular manuscript in the short-term; book one took way too long to get done because I kept getting hung up on the details. I’m not letting books two and three suffer from the same problem.

However, not reading back leaves me nervous. “How is the manuscript coming along?” I wonder. I have no concept of how the pacing or characters are turning out. But if I read back, I’ll start tweaking things sentence by sentence... wasting time and ruining my forward progress.

I have to keep reminding myself that I can always go back and change things later. But it’s that unknown aspect that scares me to death.

Starting book two was scary for the same reason; it was largely uncharted territory, especially compared to book one. Book one was in the works since the project began as an idea even before 2001; so I had plenty of time to work, think, and tweak as much as I wanted. But even in older drafts of the trilogy, the furthest I’d gotten was ten chapters into book two.

I’m currently at chapter 23 and about three-quarters of the way through book two.

I’ve written further in The Victor’s Blade than I’ve ever been. Reminds me of the scene from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring where Sam stops at the edge of a field, staring at Frodo as they’re setting off on their adventure. “If I take one more step,” Sam says, “it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

Fear. Nervousness. Uncertainty. Hesitation. But also the desire to overcome these things and press forward. I certainly understand how Sam felt!

What helps Sam take his next step—and each step thereafter, all the way to Mordor and back—is Frodo. What keeps me moving forward are the days I finish my daily writing goal and realize, “Hey... I really enjoyed writing that.”

I’m a big proponent of writing what you want to read. I think that’s what makes the most meaningful, personal stories. So when something I write gets me excited, it’s encouraging; I did something right!

I’m excited about book two. I like how it begins. I like the tension between the characters and how the plot points are pushing them to grow individually and as a group. I’m having fun writing many of the scenes, and I’m losing myself to the flow. There’s no better feeling than that.

I thought book two would be overwhelming after all the work and time I’d already put into book one (“I’ve gotta do all that all over again...”). To my delight, it’s been quite the opposite. I’m finally seeing some plot points I’ve had planned for fifteen years playing out on paper. I’ve been able to capture the essence of how I want certain scenes to play out (though whether I’m doing so is up to my beta readers)! Maybe best of all, working on book two has helped me better plan ahead, cleaning up the trilogy’s outline as I gain a clearer vision for the series. Sure, there’s been plenty of days when writing feels like a chore. But the moments of excitement make it all worth it.

As long as I can keep my focus on that, I’ll keep taking those steps further and further from the Shire on this adventure.

Red dusk with cactuses [sic] by Loreta Pavoliene on Unsplash

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Photos property of their respective owners and used under Unsplash's usage license.

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 2, 2018

Why I Loved Haibane Renmei – And You Might, Too


A somber-colored world of mystery, like a passing dream that fades into bright, cheerful smiles upon waking. All seems well; all seems right.

But these smiles are not all true; some hide deep-seated fears and troubles just beneath the surface.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

A young girl named Rakka wakes to find herself in a giant cocoon. She has been reborn as a Haibane, a being nearly indistinguishable from a human except for their tiny angel-like wings and floating halos.

The Haibane live in a walled-off world, forbidden from ever leaving. 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.

Despite all this, things seem pleasant enough in Rakka’s new home, the town of Glie. She meets cheery new friends and learns the in’s and out’s and do’s and do not’s of being a Haibane. Haibane must lead highly-structured lives as dictated by the shaman-like people called the Toga.

But between trying out various part-time jobs and spending time with her friends, Rakka discovers a darker side to the life of a Haibane: Rakka, as it turns out, is “Sin-bound”: tied to some sin she committed in her previous life. Sin-bound Haibane must learn why they are here and make amends... before their time is up.

I love Haibane Renmei. And if you like dream-like worlds with mystical elements, you might too.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Psychological, Slice-of-Life, Supernatural
Year Released: 2002
Studio: Radix Ace Entertainment
Licensed By: Funimation
Director: Yoshitoshi ABe
Episodes: 13

What You Might (or Might Not) Like About... the Visuals

Haibane Renmei has a muted color palette, its desatured colors resembling games built by Team ICO such as Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian. As with these games, this limited color palette leaves the world feeling misty and dream-like. Although this keeps in theme with the show, some viewers may find the desaturated colors to be off-putting. The dated Standard Definition does not help, either.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

The character designs are also hit-or-miss. Some characters strongly stand out with memorable designs that explain a great deal about them. However, most look bland, including the protagonist Rakka, giving the impression many of the cast are just background characters from other anime.

Like poor Rakka here. ...Stop looking at me like that!

What You Might Like About... the Audio

The soundtrack, written by Kow Otani, is charming and memorable. It’s almost folksy, which also adds to the show’s charming slice-of-life moments and helps display what kind of world we’re stepping into. The ending theme is also hauntingly beautiful, working well alongside the visuals to set up the show’s themes.

What You Might (and Might Not) Like About... the Writing

Fortunately, the characters are better-written than their designs. Each character in the relatively small main cast is a distinct person, often characterized by one defining trait that helps set them apart from the others. Rakka bonds with each character individually, giving you a good sense of who everyone is. Hikari is the bespectacled responsible one, Nemu is a bit lazy and easy-going, Kana is the tomboyish rambunctious one, and Kuu is the youthful ray of sunlight who brightens everyone’s day. Reki is the most-developed of the group, stealing the show almost from beginning to end with her well-rounded personality and air of somber mystery.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

That said, with this kind of a simplified cast, most of the show has a slice-of-life feel, with much of the viewer’s questions about the overall plot being pushed to the latter half of the show. However, even those who aren’t the biggest fans of slice-of-life (such as myself) can rest assured that there is in fact overarching narratives to this tale... it just takes a while to really get into the meat of them. So if you’re a viewer who wants to get to the thick of the tale right away, this might not be a show for you. For those of you who don’t mind a slower pace, however, you’ll be able to enjoy the charming characters as they show and tell you more about their unique world.

The worldbuilding in Haibane Renmei is truly where this show shines. Combined with the mystical visuals and soundtrack, the rules that govern the Haibane’s lives and the Toga that enforce them are simple yet compelling in a minimalistic way.

What also helps sell the mystique of Haibane Renmei’s world is the ambiguity of its writing. There are many elements of the show that maintain their mystique. For instance, it’s never outright explained what Sin-bound Haibane are, but the strong implication at the end results in a surprising—and very relevant—conclusion.

This isn’t a show that will give you all the answers, which I enjoy... yet this lack of answers is also one of the greatest things I find frustrating about Haibane Renmei. The show does not explain some of the worldbuilding elements Rakka herself brings up. Who was Rakka before she became a Haibane? Where is her family? Did she have anyone close to her who still exist outside the walls? None of these questions are ever explained. However, the emotional payoff at the end of the story does help to mend some of these wounds. Still, if you’re someone who needs to have all these kinds of questions answered, Haibane Renmei is not the story for you.

The Conclusion

Despite its shortcomings in visual design and some questionable writing choices, Haibane Renmei stands out due to its mystical qualities. From the desaturated visuals to the ambiguity in its plot, every aspect of the show adds to its mysterious, dream-like nature. Its worldbuilding, though limited, is fascinating and almost single-handedly overshadows many of the show’s lesser elements.

This is a story for someone who enjoys delving into strange and interesting new worlds, meeting new people and experiencing strange and fantastic dreams. In fact, Haibane Renmei encapsulates the best parts of a dream: the almost weightless and otherworldly quality, the strong emotions experienced, and the fact that despite it only being a fantasy... there is something intrinsically real that can stay with you long after you’ve finished.

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All photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws. Unless otherwise specified, all are from VRV.org.

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

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