Netflix Review – Next Gen: A Robot Movie Lacking Emotion

Hey kids! Do you like Short Circuit? Do you like The Iron Giant? Do you like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? How about Big Hero 6, Wall-E, Blade Runner, and The Terminator? All of those movies were great, right? Wouldn’t it be great if we combined all those movies, but also threw in a bunch of 80s movie bullying, some teen angst, and a dash of Up and I, Robot? Surely it wouldn’t be a giant thematic mess that constantly undercuts itself, right?

I assume the company that made this pitch was also the company that created Wild Wacky Action Bike.

SUMMARY OF A SUMMARY (Summary is too long)

Girl finds robot. Girl bonds with robot. Robot fights evil organization that created it. Robot ends up sacrificing itself, but not really, so happy ending.

SUMMARY

In the future year 20XX, we have robots everywhere. They’re cute and harmless little servants of humanity, constantly upbeat, and they are embedded into everything from security systems to noodle bowls. Yes, the noodle bowls are talking, self-cooking, and self-disposing. But it’s okay, because the movie tells us none of these are sentient, despite seeming to have emotions and feelings and independent thought.

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… I would consider tap-dancing noodles a Utopia.

Mai (Charlyne “Ruby” Yi) is a 12-year-old girl who hates robots because her mom, Molly (Constance Wu), bought one after her dad left them and then died, causing her mom to transfer many of her emotional bonds onto their robot. She’s also bullied for being different, although exactly how isn’t really clarified. Oh, and the bullies have their robots beat her up, something that is apparently just allowed to happen, because the human adults at the school are all too obsessed with VR and games to do their jobs.

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“You love robots more than me” – Actual movie line in actual movie.

Her mom takes her to the launch of the new major robot line, watching a presentation by the founder of the IQ corporation that makes them, Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis), who is basically Jon Hamm playing Steve Jobs. Mai sneaks off and finds a secret lab belonging to the other founder, Dr. Tanner Rice (David Cross), who is working on the first true AI robot, 7723 (John Krasinski). Mai accidentally powers up 7723, but is taken away by security and leaves her bag. 7723 follows her to return the bag, revealing himself to be an overpowered war-machine with no understanding of the value of human life or property, but he gets injured in the process. This injury damages his memory, resulting in him only being able to hold 72 hours’ worth of memories at a time. To deal with this, he only keeps memories he likes and deletes the others.

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He has to literally shred them.

He finds Mai and she convinces him to help her go on a spree of destroying other robots. Over time, 7723 becomes more emotional, bonding with Mai. He also stops enjoying their mischief and destruction, trying to convince Mai to do other things. After Mai tries to get him to hurt one of her bullies, 7723 deletes his weapons system. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the new robots coming out of IQ are programmed to explode when told by Pin. Rice finds 7723 and tries to fix his memories, but is killed by Pin, who is revealed to actually be a robot who took over his body. Pin and his other body, a war machine named Ares, are trying to destroy humanity, but are stopped by 7723 when he re-installs his weapons at the cost of his memories, losing them slowly as he fights. Eventually, he wins, but is now blank. At the end of the movie, he now lives with Mai, making new memories.

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This is the villain. Shocking, right?

END SUMMARY

If you didn’t read that I don’t blame you. This movie is so dense that I left out most of the sub-plots and that summary is still huge. There’s a subplot about 7723 being able to understand Mai’s dog Momo (Michael Peña), who speaks mostly in bleeped swears and constantly shifts moods between angry and loving. It’s funny, but it also feeds into why this movie fails: It never gives the characters time to really feel things.

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I wish the movie was more of this, because Momo and the robot are adorable together.

Think about any great animated movie you’ve ever seen. Almost all of them, particularly Pixar, How to Train Your Dragon, and the good Don Bluth films (The Secret of NIMH), have strong emotional moments. These aren’t real people, so we need to have those connections even more than in real films in order to close the audience-screen gap and give weight to the characters’ actions (I’m sure there’s a real term for this). This movie doesn’t really do that, because it never lets the moment sit long enough for us to feel anything. The second there should be an emotional moment, the movie cuts from it to the next scene. At one point, a robot in the film basically calls the movie out for it by saying that he “needs time to process” an emotional development, but just beeps and says “I’m done” immediately.

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It’s not just that Bing Bong dies, its watching Joy realize what he did. That’s a moment.

It’s not like there weren’t a ton of opportunities for an emotional core to the movie. You could deal with the fact that 7723 is manipulated by the one human he trusts to be a force of destruction which he ends up regretting. You could, and almost did, deal with the idea of a person having to select what memories they keep and how that affects their personality and life. You could deal with Mai’s issues stemming from her mother being more obsessed with her replacement for her husband than with her daughter. You could deal with Mai being bullied or her feeling of loss over her father. You could even take a step back and deal with bigger concepts, like humanity being dependent on robots or why the IQ Corporation can apparently manufacture the police force and military without any kind of oversight or even why the hell you’d make robots that would be able to beat up children at the commands of other children. This movie instead tries to do all of these in 90 minutes, resulting in the last 15 minutes mostly being a game of “say 3 lines and pretend we wrapped this plot up.”

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Oh, cool, the bully just came back to risk her life for her victim. That’s not actual character development, guys.

I will admit that the rapid pace of all the plot threads did keep me from paying attention to all of the things the movie doesn’t really answer or address, like how did Pin make a sentient robot before 7723 if Rice was the actual genius or how did Mai not get in trouble for destroying dozens of robots while on film or why did Mai just murder a police officer or how was it not a bigger deal that DOGS CAN TALK? There are ton of these things that really don’t hold up to scrutiny, but the movie wasn’t awesome enough to keep me from considering them, instead trying to just not give me time to think. Still, most of this movie doesn’t make any sense in retrospect.

The real tragedy is that much of this film is actually excellent. The animation is beautiful, the progression of 7723’s display from two circles to eyes and a mouth is a great way to signal his development, a lot of the robots are adorable, the final fight scene SHOULD have been epic (instead it just feels unearned), and some of the humor actually works. David Cross plays all the generic robots and they have some hilarious lines, including a Gen5 saying “The Gen6’s slightly bigger screen will complete you emotionally in ways I never could,” which is genuinely good commentary. But if you try to make a cake/salad/ham/meringue at the same time, it doesn’t matter if you made each part well and put it in a nice box, it’s still a mess.

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Not every jumble works out well. 

To the filmmakers, I say the following: the best film isn’t necessarily the one with the “most plot.” If it were, the third Godfather would be the best one, rather than a mediocre conclusion to an unbelievable franchise. What we want is to go on a journey with the characters. We can’t do that if the characters are on 15 different journeys at once. I understand that you didn’t want to feel like you were just re-hashing old plots, so you tried to combine a lot of them, but that’s not necessarily what makes a movie new. Think about How to Train Your Dragon. The movie is literally a list of clichés over a generic story, but even though it is all of those things, the film focused on how the characters feel going through the story, rather than the story itself, and it does that by showing us how everyone feels after all the cliché moments. Like, this shot from after Stoick yells at his son and disowns him still shows him almost crying with the realization that, even though he did what he had to do, he’s still hurting from having to do it.

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This. This is how you have an emotional moment in a movie. It’s not big, but it’s relatable.

Also, as a side-note, I love Jason Sudeikis, but you will never convince me that they didn’t intend for the character to be voiced by Jon Hamm. He looks like Hamm, he talks like Hamm’s characters usually talk, and he is a glorified pitchman with a dark side, something Hamm is most famous for playing. It’s like how the snowman in Jack Frost looks like George Clooney rather than Michael Keaton or how the vultures in the Jungle Book were supposed to be the Beatles: It just seems to indicate that the casting changed after the production started. Or maybe I’m wrong.

Overall, it’s a movie that I think kids might enjoy, but adults wouldn’t. Unfortunately, given the number of terrible things that the protagonists do in the movie, I wouldn’t recommend showing it to kids.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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37) Diversity Day (The Office)

I’m gonna catch crap for this one. People often have their choice for the best episode of the US version of The Office and will defend it fiercely. As such, I have to clarify: This isn’t my favorite episode of The Office, and you will never hear me state which actually is my favorite episode. However, I think this episode the one that most distinguished the series and also managed to make some important points on modern America. This was the second episode of the series, but since the first one was basically lifted directly from the UK series that it’s based on, this was the first episode to unveil what this version of The Office was going to be like, and it took some bold steps… some of which it would later have to walk back a little.

The show focuses on a documentary crew watching over the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton Branch. As this was the first real episode of the show, there hadn’t been much in the way of character development: Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is the boss, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is a very odd, uptight, and ambitious salesperson, Jim (John Krasinski) is a more laid-back and mischievous salesperson who often uses Dwight as a target of pranks, and Pam (Jenna Fischer) is a receptionist who is both overqualified for her job and the subject of Jim’s crush. Other characters who appear in the episode would get much more development later, and most of it would be amazing, but these four were the ones that were developed at this point.

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Pam, Jim, Michael, Ignore Ryan (You’ll thank me), Dwight

SUMMARY

The episode starts with Michael announcing that Corporate has sent a speaker for their “Diversity Day.” Meanwhile, the feud between Jim and Dwight keeps getting in the way of Jim completing an annual renewal that accounts for over a quarter of his yearly sales. That’s basically the perfect set-up to play with the A and B plots.

Watching Steve Carell in the show is amazing, but in this episode his performance is a treat. As Michael, he is the most glorious lack of self-awareness on film. He is not a stupid man, by some standards, but he so avoids most levels of introspection that he seems naive to the point of being insensitive. And that’s where this episode starts to get going. After the presentation by the corporate speaker for “Diversity Today,” Mr. Brown (who Michael refuses to call by his name, thinking that it’s racist), Michael is told that the presentation was required because of Michael’s own actions: Namely, retelling, nearly verbatim, Chris Rock’s 90s routine “Ni**as vs. Black People.”

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The routine’s not called “Bring the Pain” for nothing!

Up until this point, Michael had actually been attempting to take control of the presentation, believing himself qualified to administer the program. Now that he has been told that he was reported to Corporate for racist actions, he is left with two choices: A) Undergo deep introspection and resolve to address his personal flaws or B) deny that he did anything wrong and go overboard trying to prove that he isn’t racist.

Michael picks A and the episode ends with him monologuing ab- oh come on, you know he picked B because it’s what everyone picks.

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What follows is Michael doing a presentation called “Diversity Tomorrow,” with full sincerity, and it is beautiful. It is a bloody trainwreck made by Van Gogh, a work of art whose subject is so atrocious that only its magnificent execution keeps you from looking away. No description of what happens can give it the credit it is due. You just have to watch it. Ultimately, Michael keeps escalating things until finally one of his employees is forced to stop him.

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Sorry, I meant “Slap Him.”

Meanwhile, in the B plot, Jim finds out that Dwight has stolen his massive sale out from under his nose, devastating him and potentially ruining his entire year. However, the episode ends on a positive note, with Pam falling asleep on Jim’s shoulder, and Jim, despite his massive loss, noting that it was “not a bad day.”

END SUMMARY

This episode is as well-written as it is provocative. It addresses several pretty complex issues and manages to not be horribly preachy about it.

Is Michael racist? Well, he doesn’t think so, but throughout the episode he progressively says more and more objectively racist things in his quest to prove that he’s not. He argues that he knows about diversity because he’s 2/15ths Native American (this is not a typo). He asks one of his employees if he prefers a “less discriminatory term” than Mexican to describe his heritage, because of the “connotations.” He gets slapped in the face for repeatedly imitating an Indian salesperson asking people to try his “googi googi.” He believes they’re called “colored greens,” instead of “collard greens,” because he thinks they’re not eaten by “collard people.”

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Stanley sometimes is all of us.

But, the thing is, Michael doesn’t usually treat people much differently based on their skin color once he gets to know them, and throughout the episode he isn’t really a “bad guy,” in the traditional sense. He respects Martin Luther King, Jr. If you asked him if he believes that people are defined by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, he would say yes, and he would mean it. He’s aware that both slavery and the holocaust were bad. In other words, he’s basically every middle-class northern white guy.

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Okay, not EVERY middle-class northern white guy.

Here’s the thing: Everyone’s a little bit racist. There’s a whole song about it in a show that won a Tony for Best Musical.

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It has puppets! Also porn!

And not in a way where you wouldn’t hire a black guy, or you wouldn’t want your daughter dating an Indian guy, but in the way that, if you’re honest, you tend to consider either your own race or, occasionally, the most dominant local race to be the “norm.” Not necessarily superior, just, normal. And that’s okay, because it’s something that basically nobody can help. But, you need to be aware that you’re doing it so that you don’t fly completely off the handle when it causes you to make a stupid assumption or unintentionally say something really inappropriate and you get called out on it.

This episode managed to address a big issue in a clever, funny, and ultimately, not that judgmental way. Not bad for what’s essentially episode one.

PREVIOUS – 38: I Love Lucy

NEXT – 36: Newhart

Michael Getting Slapped:

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.