Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hello, stupid robot


The new cartoon from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation looks pretty good—especially considering that it was made on software you can download for free—but unfortunately all it offers is an entire movie made out of Genuine People Personalities.

Directed by Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander
Written by Wang Nima, Ryan K. Smith, Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander
With Charlyne Yi (Mai), John Krasinski (Project 77), Michael Pena (Momo), Constance Wu (Molly), David Cross (Dr. Tanner Rice and the Q-Bots) (what a terrible band name) and Jason Sudeikis (Justin Pin and Ares)

Spoiler alert: mild

So now we turn to the latest effort from Tangent Animation, and if your face just went blank and vaguely hostile while asking "who?", I doubt anybody could blame you for that; certainly, it's how I responded.  But, presumably, you could do worse than the little Canadian studio with ambitions to run with the big boys at Disney and Pixar... or, if that turned out to not be particularly likely, then perhaps the Disney of five years ago, or the Pixar of ten.

I cannot speak to their first feature, Ozzy (as suggested, I doubt most can), yet "doing a Pixar, or one of the Disneys that also did Pixar" was very obviously the impetus behind their second, Next Gen—which frankly does look pretty damned decent, especially if you're willing to grade it on a strivers' curve.  And you definitely should, considering that Next Gen was animated on Blender (a free, open-source 3D modeling platform that's been in various stages of development since 1995) and rendered on Cycles (Blender's equally free, open-source rendering engine).  Tangent's even earned some extra brownie points, too, for adding new code and features to the program during the production of the film, which they've said they're going to soon release back to the community.  And yet...

Aiming to confuse you just enough as to the precise WDAS or Pixar film it's blatantly ripping off (one minute WALL-E, the next Big Hero 6, sometimes Up, but mostly WALL-E), Next Gen premiered on Netflix about a month ago.  So what we have is a try-hard bootstrap production released directly to streaming, and you're waiting for me to confirm for you that it is, indeed, a piece of shit.  Not to spoil the suspense, but the most plausible origin of Next Gen really is that it was a demo reel that accidentally got a feature push, and Netflix's film division will release (and even help pay for) virtually anything you hand them.

Next Gen concerns a world of the near-future, basically Blade Runner in the daytime (as is acknowledged by a cute visual joke involving origami that devolves into a mildly-offensive dialogue joke, though not as groanworthy as the "phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range" Terminator reference still to come).  In this world, robots have become absurdly ubiquitous, from the squat little ambiguously-sapient "Q-Bots" who serve as everyone's autonomous butler to the talking noodle bowls that invite you to eat their contents and then feign agony and death when you do it.  Most folks have come to terms with the omnipresence of their silicon servants, but one teenage girl, Mai, has come to loathe them with all her strength.  But then, Mai loathes pretty much everything these days, partly because of puberty, but mostly because—as we learn in a opening credits sequence set to a Bikini Kill song (presumably older than every character in this movie) and driven, visually, by a montage of Polaroids (also still a thing in the future, despite being so obsolete today I haven't seen one myself in years)—Mai's dad abandoned her and her mother Molly around a decade back.

Mai's mom has taken comfort in the technoutopia around her, as well as a troublingly pathological fandom for the chief designer of that utopia, Justin Pin.  This is how Mai has found herself dragged to a roll-out event for Pin's new Gen 6 Q-Bots.  They are advertised by Pin as revolutionary; we recognize them as an iterative improvement, if any, over the Gen 5s in the vein of a new model iPhone (for it's hard to imagine Pin being more of a Steve Jobs figure, and this is maybe the most subversive thing Next Gen ever does, given Jobs' founding role in the development of computer animation); and we'll eventually discover they are in fact destined to be used in Pin's obligatory very evil plan.  Mai, having less-than-zero interest in this pageant, sneaks off—Molly doesn't even notice—and, through a few misadventures, winds up in a secret lab.  Here she makes the acquaintance of a robot different from the rest, a secret project of Pin's subordinate Dr. Rice (by the evidence of this curiously underpopulated film, possibly Pin's only actual employee).  Unfortunately, this "Project 77" hasn't been fully programmed with its instructions yet, and so takes a keen interest in the first human it's ever seen, namely Mai, and tracks her back to her home to return the backpack she left behind.  And while Mai has never had any time for robots before, this one—with its military-grade weaponry and blind obedience to her commands—seems like it might be more fun than the rest.  What Mai doesn't know, but will find out, is that her robot suffered a nasty case of damage to its memory core in the process of getting fromt point A to point B, and it has only a few dozen hours before it'll have to reset... right around the time the real plot kicks in, naturally.

Also there is a dog.

It's easy to see the good in Next Gen, particularly in that it's genuinely ambitious for a movie made by a mostly-untested studio on free software, and it's not at all surprising to learn that Tangent not only pushed that software to its previous technical limits, but past them, for it really does look just about as good as a mid-aughts Pixar—competitive, anyway, especially once you handicap it for not caring or being able to care nearly as much about lighting (I mean, the list of animated films that do care about lighting as much as WALL-E, which had Roger Deakins as a consultant, can be counted on one hand, and arguably could still be counted on a closed fist)—and despite being superseded in a lot of ways, mid-aughts Pixar doesn't exactly look like garbage.  Honestly, Next Gen's human characters quite possibly look better than that (if I say mid-aughts Pixar, you probably think "plastic people," and that is not the case here), and if the imagination that went into designing the robots, especially Project 77, amounted to screening WALL-E and somebody saying "EVE, but masculinized," I can forgive that, since WALL-E didn't invent the iAesthetic it was using as a basis for its robots either.  (For what it's worth, Pin's antagonistic bodyguard bot, Ares, is genuinely impressive: a colossal collection of utilitarian black blocks  stacked in a vaguely humanoid form, there's a rather neat shot at the beginning where I confused it for a wall.)  So the worst thing I have to say about any of it, technically, is that  even with Tangent's upgrades, Blender is apparently not totally capable of animating credible fire.

On the other hand, "incapable of animating credible fire" is a substantive criticism (it seems to have problems with explosions too), since Next Gen is an action movie.  Nevertheless, in every other respect, "action" is one of the two things Next Gen's actually good at.  It even has the set-pieces to prove it, especially the complex four minute tracking shot that winds and wends its way through Mai's ruined home as two robots battle in its smoldering wreckage, and as the meatbodies in their way do their best to survive.  And I mean it when I say this is honestly pretty strong stuff, and the finale, likewise.  By now Next Gen's finale is deeply familiar stuff (the sound mix falls into silence in favor of elegeic cues; a battle in the sky features lots of slow motion; there is a momentarily-unclear ending), but the old stuff is the old stuff because it works.

The other thing it's good at is being a genially anarchic comedy about Life in the Future (By Which We Mean the Present), and a Next Gen that was reduced to nothing but its collection of jokey vignettes about anomie and the erosion of human agency in a world of smiling robots, of which it has a fair few (for example, the one where a popular rich girl outsources her bullying to her gang of David Cross-voiced slavebots; or the one where May struggles with a toothbrush incredibly determined to make a circular motion on her gums), would probably be rather more palatable than the Disney-Pixar blockbuster it's trying to be.  (It has a whole subplot with a dog with an apparently-indestructible head, too, whom Project 77 can understand—when we're within the robot's perspective, Mai's dog is voiced by Michael Pena, surprisingly anonymously—but these bits feel like they exist in a different movie than everything else, even the rest of the comedy.)

Now, I think that Next Gen thinks—by which I mean that its four writers, including directors Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander, think—that it's doing "world-building" with these vignettes.  They're mostly mistaken about that, and one of the oddest things about Next Gen is how much destruction and vandalism Mai and her warbot cause, during the extended wheel-spinning of its second act, without anyone appearing to care besides the villain.  When most movies about the future pose the problem of the panopticon, I guess I'll give Next Gen credit for doing something different—call it the inepticon, if you like (the idea of using cam footage to identify Mai by her face is treated like a revelatory, game-changing idea, rather than boilerplate procedure)—but it really emphasizes just how little this movie is about anything other than the three-to-five people who matter to the story.

As for that story: it's prefab, certainly, even more than most, but that's genre, and I can live with genre.  Next Gen's problem isn't that it's the same-old, then, but that it's a bad version of the same-old.  It never attempts to justify Mai's punky attitudes toward the technology she's grown up immersed in (it barely justifies Mai's grating personality)—like a lot of lazy screenplays, it's clearly of the opinion that bad dads can explain anything.  By the end, thanks to an unwelcome twist that is also ripped off from WALL-E, poorly, it's even stopped being about what it said it was about (anomie, capitalism, etc.).  It does this without quite realizing it, which is arguably worse.

But none of the various structural infirmities we have to deal with are nearly as scowl-inducing as the way it baldly states its other themes out loud; even movies made for littlest children, which Next Gen isn't, rarely reach the truly breathtaking level of condescension achieved when Mai tearfully describes her and her new pal as "a broken robot and a broken girl."  Obviously, this would be quite bad enough, but a lot of the dialogue in the film is like that.  The best I can offer is that Charlyne Yi doesn't completely choke on her half of it, though John Krasinski, who starts off fine-enough in his role as a factory-spec "stupid robot," makes it clear that he gave his performance as a day-old robot with its first friend very little thought once the script calls upon him to move into "surrogate dad" mode.  (This is the part that Next Gen rips off from Big Hero 6, though in that case it was a dead brother who actually built the robot, and that robot's voice, Scott Adsit, never forgot he was playing a robot.)

Throw in that manipulative little mechanic where the robot has to choose which memories to keep and to erase as it nears its limits (is it suspicious that the physical damage Project 77 sustains in its spectacular escape is entirely limited to this mechanic?)—and, hell, throw in a kaleidoscopic lightshow on the fog that serves as a visual reminder of Mai's lost childhood and a symbol of what her new friendship means to her, too (and even this imagery is ripped off from the 1994 Amblimation feature Balto, of all the damn places).  On paper, it certainly seems to have all the necessary machinery to be a solid animated tearjerker.  But Next Gen is more like watching a script meeting where they high-five each other for their textbook application of technique than a movie: there's so little about it that doesn't feel incredibly, insultingly phony that you just frown when it tries to engage you (or even get mad at it, if it successfully does).  And considering that Next Gen, just like the movies it's so happy to own as its inspirations, lives or dies by the emotional connection we're supposed to feel for its characters—well, there you are.  It dies.

Score: 4/10

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