By Maggie Chunning Guo
The animated film Next Gen, released in 2019, presents a series of dualisms, such as stereotypes of humans vs. machines and the dilemma of deleting memories vs. unloading weapons. These confrontations lead to a war between the humans and machines, climaxing in a final fight between the robot “7723” and Justin Pin, CEO of IQ Robotics. The final scene of the film depicts an image of a hug between the girl, Mai Su, and the machine, “7723,” in the background of a massive stadium in ruins.
However, behind the film’s detailed battle scenes and complicated machine performances, there are a set of control relationships between machines, people and society. Since American mathematician Norbert Wiener’s proposal of “control theory” in the early study of cybernetics in the 1940s, the rise of machine power as a crisis for humanity hasbeen the subject of human-machine relations.Human-machine conflicts are often resolved in film and television through the expression of human emotions by the machine and even the sacrifices of spirit.
This paper re-examines Next Genfrom the perspective of animation narration and memory studies. Though Next Genadapted a popular Chinese comic and received support from Netflix, the high-level 3D animation production team didn’t successfully reproduce an expected creative image of a new robot.
Following the highly acclaimed theme of the “Robot Warriors Fighting for Peace” in WALL · E (2008) and Big Hero 6 (2015), Netflix invested 30 million American dollars in Next Gen for sophisticated visual effects to construct a futuristic city under the control of machines (See Fig. 1). Unfortunately, this film was not as successful as WALL · E and Big Hero 6 at creating a touching narration about of super smart machines.
This essay argues that the image’s lack of originality comes from the film’s failure to build an intelligent machine system. There were notable bugs in the setting of prototypes and related structures of “prototype memory.” The deep reasons that Next Gen failed to create a new successful character of robot may be due to the lack of comprehensive analysis of the relationship between robots and human beings. This paper hopes to demonstrate that memory not only constructs human identities, but also becomes the basis for intelligent machines to establish their own subjectivities.
Figure 1: Netflix invested 30 million dollars in Next Genfor sophisticated visual effects to construct a futuristic city under the control of machines.
Experimental Prototype Machines in a Futuristic City
AlthoughFuture Machine City is the Chinese translation of this film’s name, the English name of the film, Next Gen, is short for next generation. This is not only a reference to the future, but also a successive relationship of robots. The design and manufacture of machines is often the next generation from experimental prototypes to mass production. This paper highlights the concept of prototypes as a key basis to connect a variety of robots, demonstrating the revolution process of intelligent machines. A “prototype” is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process. In reality, this term is used in a variety of contexts, including semantics, design, electronics, and software programming. However, in the film Next Gen, the prototype presents the concept that Justin Pin’s and Dr. Rice’s original aims of inventing robots differ from one other, and this difference later led to a serious conflict between human beings and robots.
In Next Gen, the futuristic city of Grainland is composed of skyscrapers, multi-layered roundabouts, and machine intelligence. It provides a full range of robotic images, which all have their own functions, including the 6th generation Q-bots promoted by the social elite represented by Justin Pin. Besides Q-bots, there are a variety of other IQ robotics, including combing robots, instant noodle robots, brushing robots, toilet robots and even various patrol robots. These robots can be mass-produced based on experimentation with prototypes. However, the robot machines in Grainland, even those developed by the designer Justin Pin, are actually already controlled by the prototype “Ares” (in the Chinese version, “War King”). In contrast, the robot 7723 from Dr. Tanner Rice’s secretlaboratoryrepresents another ideal prototype, with extremely powerful combat functions and a mission to destroy dark robots in the name of justice.
The opposing positions of the two prototypes foreshadow how Grainland, seemingly in control of machines, would soon be out of control. But this paper hopes to point out that there are more prototypes in the film beyond the highly visible Ares and 7723. The two hidden prototypes play key roles in the construction of the narrative: 1) the previous generations of Q-bots and 2) Justin Pin, who is like a puppet controlled by Ares. However, the film lacks a clear explanation of the relationship between the two hidden prototypes. As a result, the film has difficulty in highlighting the main prototype.
|Prototype Name||Inventor||Appearance||Machine Function|
|The First Generation of Q-bots||Dr. Rice and Justin||Small size, to serve family functions||Mass produced and only follow commands|
|Ares||Justin||Big size, dark color, steel/metal texture||Super smart machines developing self-consciousness|
|Puppet Justin||Ares||Similar to true humans, but controlled by Ares||Follows commands and executes the plan to destroy humans|
|7723||Dr. Rice||Middle size, combining round and square shapes, light high-tech texture||Super smart machine that can learn from humans|
Table 1: Next Gen presents four types of prototypes and their features, as well as their inventors.
From the above table, we can see that the film spends a lot of effort setting up these prototypes, visually distinguishing them through different forms, colors, and movements. Specifically, the film highlights the sinister andinsidiousvoice of Ares and the cunningness of Justin Pin. The negative characteristics of the prototype machines are depicted more successfully than those of the protagonists in this animation. This is not only due to the lack of a unique image for 7723, but also some important plot holes in the behaviors of 7723, which is one of the main causes of controversy and criticism against this film.
Ares, bearing the name of the king of war, is clearly labeled by its power of violence. However, 7723, as a new IQ robot created by Dr. Rice originally intended to pursue justice, is surprisingly equipped with a more powerful force system. The film fails to explain why the prototype force system created only by Dr. Rice was so competitive in strength.
The film also does not make reasonable explanations as to how 7723 executes justice. Only saying “my purpose is to learn from humans” is not enough to confirm the righteousness of 7723. For example, in the process of chasing Mai across the ring road, 7723 uses lethal weapons without any hesitation about hurting the public; and later, accompanying Mai, 7723 also became a bully in service of Mai’s, in some way using violence to defeat violence. Clearly, the logic of 7723’s behavior and justice principles are difficult to outline and understand, which is why this film has been criticized by many viewers, especially parents of younger audiences.
The reasons behind 7723’s deviation from its expected behavior and behind the stereotypical design of the antagonists as explained in this film do not clarify how the prototype machine has gained independent consciousness that develops into control of the humans. In other words, Next Genonly shows the results of the prototypes going out of control, but fails to offer key points of the process of the prototype’s self-evolution.
The Self-evolution of Prototype Machines
Because it lacks textual development of the prototype’s self-evolving process, Next Genhas to rely on cliched narrative background events and minor characters to describe how several prototypes lose control.
First of all, the different types of prototypes represent their creators’ dissatisfaction or even anger with the world, hoping to pursue their ideals through inventing perfect prototypes. Justin Pin and Dr. Rice collaborated to invent the Q-bot, but failed to achieve their goals. Since then, Justin Pin devoted himself to the research and experimentation of Ares while being unaware that he is being controlled. Therefore, at some level, the design and production of the 6th generation of Q-bots were actually executed under the command of Ares. Ares’ control of the production of Q-bots proves that the advanced intelligence prototype has generated independent consciousness.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rice secretly developed a unique intelligent machine called 7723, hoping to stop the devilish plan of Ares. Accidentally triggered by Mai, Dr. Rice lost control of 7723 and he escaped Dr. Rice’s laboratory.
Prototypes are shown to be able to be freed from their designers’ control when they develop an independent intelligence and undergo self-evolution. Unfortunately, this film does not propose a more original or ambitious concept of self-evolution. If this concept had been performed more clearly, then this film could have taken advantage of the complex relationship between the prototypes and the inventors. Instead, this film can only expend more effort explaining the relationship between Mai Su and her mother, as well as her attitude changes about 7723 and other home robots to highlight the theme of emotional companionship.
Next Gen may have hoped to borrow against the success of previous robot-themed movies by using the trope of highlighting the emotions of the machine, such as presenting super-intelligent robots that become friends that Mai can rely on. However, because of the blurriness of how artificial intelligence is portrayed in this film, the development of this emotion is not smoothly conveyed to the audience. On the contrary, it ends up implying something darker instead—that is, the companionship and feelings of the machines are actually controlled by command, and they are about to go out of control.
Ares is the first prototype to break free from control and stand in opposition against humans, with a systemic plan to destroy everyone. And then 7723, who was originally created as an incarnation of justice to stop Ares’ conspiracy, also breaks free. Dr. Rice’s expectation for 7723 is, “You don’t have to be perfect, but you should be righteous.” Here, the standard of judging what is right or wrong is ambiguous. In this film, the criterion for 7723’s judgement is the first person to trigger him. The girl Mai Su happens to be this person, and Mai’s words and decisions all seem right to 7723. This is actually very dangerous.
A less obvious but chilling scene in the film shows 7723 threatening Dr. Rice and even breaking the glass with his fist when 7723 and Mai ask Dr. Rice where Mai’s mother is. 7723 used violence to deal with Dr. Rice, who is actually his inventor. People may naturally ask, who can promise that 7723, as a highly intelligent robot, will not become another Ares?
Many young audience members enjoyed the scenes of 7723 helping Mai relieve her anger by breaking various intelligent machines to the soundtrack of fast-paced rap music. This is a chaotic attack without actionable objectives or principles, but it is also the turning point of Mai and 7723 getting closer. During this period, 7723 unconditionally serves as a bully for Mai. It is reasonable to ask when and how 7723 began to reflect on violence, and is this a kind of self-evolution or new abilities learned from others?These questions should have been an important dramatic part of the film, but the film failed to address these key points about the prototypes and therefore does not successfully tell the story of breaking free from control.
As a result, in the latter half of this film, another narrative motif of memory comes into prominence, and becomes an original plot point for this film instead of learning.
Triggering and Losing Control of “Prototype Memory”
In the film, the prototypes are freed from their inventors, but still controlled by their “memory,” especially “initial memory,” which this paper calls “prototype memory.” In memory studies, the “initial memory” has an important decisive effect on the concept of space, time and ethics in humans. In Next Gen, the structure of human memory is transferred to the prototype machine, which plays an important role in the development of the relationship between 7723 and Mai.
The film does not explicitly explain how Ares’ “prototype memory” suddenly changes. A possible hypothesis is that Ares has a “prototype memory” that Dr. Rice and Justin disagree with, as Ares may be aware of their intention to destroy it. Ares pre-emptively strikes and kills Justin, then it controls Justin as a “puppet” to infiltrate the social elite and brainwash more of the public (See Fig. 2). The elites dictated the popularity of relying on IQ machine for their daily lives. The film’s logic suggests that the memory system of Ares can distinguish the difference between human and machine, and needs not rely on the manufacturer’s instructions to make active choices and actions. From the perspective of cybernetics, does this make the prototype imperfect or too perfect? This question, of course, involves a series of more complex ethical topics in science and technology.
Figure 2: Justin controlled by Ares as a “puppet” to infiltrate the social elite and brainwash more of the public.
Next Gen actually simplifies this deep reasoning through animated form. The filmmakers chose to design the meeting of Mai and 7723 as an incident, visually depicting their control relationship as an allusion to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (See Fig. 3).
Figure 3: Mai and 7723 incidentally meet, visually comparing their control relationship to God and Adam.
From 7723’s activation by Mai onwards, 7723’s “prototype memory” started and continued the process of production. The reproduction and selection of “prototype memory” play a very important role in this animated film. Due to the limited memory of 7723, he must face the decision of retaining or deleting his “prototype memory”, which becomes the most important dramatic conflict in Next Gen.
|Keypoint||Memory Status||Scene||7723’s Choice||The Results|
|1||Less than 72 hours||7723 falling down from the ring road and ruin his default setting||7723 discards the original memory module||Memory module is repaired by Dr. Rice|
|2||Less than 48hours||First time 7723 stayed at Mai’s storehouse||Deletingthe memory of Momo, Su’s dog||Memory space back to 51 hours|
|3||Less than 18 hours||7723 and Mai defeated Greenwood||Together with Mai deleting the memory of when Mai was angry||Mai learned that memory and core function are non irreversible|
|4||Less than 8 hours||Mai left 7723 in anger||Deleting force system||Kept memories of Mai, but lost the attack ability|
|5||Total Reset||Battle with Ares||Restarting the system and deleting memory||Defeated Ares and forgot Mai|
Table 2: Next Gen‘s key plot conflict is the limited memory of 7723, highlighting the dilemma between preserving his memories of about Mai or keeping his force system.
Due to 7723’s damaged settings, the memory space becomes very limited. Therefore, the movie takes the memory space as an opportunity to highlight step-by-step the contradiction between the “prototype memory” and the force system, because once the system restarts, all “prototype memory” will disappear. With limited storage space a choice must be made between memories or fighting ability.
Faced with so many of his “prototype memories,” what path should 7723 choose? The following list outlines the progression of 7723’s internal conflict.
In general, how 7723’s “prototype memory” is triggered is very ambiguous. 7723 in the film seems like a pet puppy: he remembers and follows whoever first sees and makes a claim on 7723. The rebellious football-playing Mai accidentally becomes the first person to touch and click 7723, but what if he had been someone else, such as the violent girl, Greenwood? Would 7723 also follow her unconditionally and obey her commands? If so, 7723 would develop similarly to Greenwood’s other Q-bots, a machine bully.
The third point in Table 2 is very notable. It is also the first time that 7723 “lies” to Mai, which could have been an opportunity to highlight the complexity and self-evolution of super intelligent robots. However, the film lacks further development of this plot and fails to reveal the important relationship between 7723’s lie and his insufficient memory space. There are two potential reasons for this “lie” of 7723:
First, 7723, as an advanced artificial intelligence, can learn rapidly. In the process of getting along with Mai, 7723 understood more complex and subtle emotions of human beings, and learned to how to tell a lie. 7723 thought that his lack of memory would make Mai worry about him, so he lied.
Second, 7723 found that telling a lie can cover the truth. 7723 tends to think that his lack of memory is his own shortcoming, and he is afraid to lose Mai’s trust and dependence on him.
Whatever the reason, 7723 at this time is very different from what he was at the beginning of the meeting. 7723’s “lie” is an independently-made judgment based on the accumulation of “prototype memory.” This lie, even if it is a kind one, shows the trend of losing control—that is, Mai no longer has 100% control over 7723, because 7723 has been able to selectively tell information according to his own intentions.
Because of the limited memory space, 7723 finally chose to uninstall his weapon system, but was unable to rescue Mai’s mother. Mai accused 7723’s choice of uninstalling the weapon as being “not really to retain her, but to retain her own memory.” In fact, Mai’s angry words reveal that what really shaped and controlled 7723 is his “prototype memory.” Here, the beginning scene of the film that says “Treasure the memory, it is the memory that made me now” seems not only to describe the human’s feeling, but is also applicable to intelligent robots. Preserving memory is equivalent to preserving yourself. Thus, memory not only constructs human identities, but also becomes the basis for intelligent machines to establish their subjectivities.Next Gencould have been more successful if it had explored more in this perspective.
The animated feature Next Genwas adapted from the original comic“7723”by Wang Nima (See Fig. 4). This project received the investment of Ali Film Group and Netflix’s support of altogether 30 million US dollars to purchase its global distribution rights, and it attracted widespread attention before it was released.
Figure 4: “7723,”by Chinese comic writer Wang Nima.
However, the audience was not left with an iconic image of an original robot-like Big Hero 6or Wall-E, and the film only recovered 6% of the investment (2.4 million US dollars) in box offices in China. The visual creation team, who also produced Transformersand Pacific Rim, is not lacking in the ability to reproduce machine wonders. Its lack of commercial success goes to show that the overall construction of the film is like a system of intelligent robots, in that it involves complex constructions and the impossibility of controlling certain variables can cause overall collapse. Although Next Genis carefully visualized as a spectacular display of machines, the lack of intelligent systems for prototypes cost it the opportunity to be remembered as another animation masterpiece.
An earlier version of this essay was published in Chinese by Contemporary Animation Journal290: 4 (October 2019): 35-38.
Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” SeeWiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine(Quid Pro LLC, 2013), vii. In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other.Norbert Wiener was an American mathematician and philosopher who is considered the originator of cybernetics, a formalization of the notion of feedback. Wiener isalso credited as one of the first to theorize that all intelligent behavior was the result of feedback mechanisms that could possibly be simulated by machines, which was an important early step towards the development of modern artificial intelligence.
Though Next Genreceived Annie Awardsfor animated effects, character design and voice acting, the film as a whole failed to achieve its expected high level of performance. Richard Roeper, in his review for the Chicago Sun Times, criticized the film’s indecisiveness in showing the audience what was aiming for, saying “It’s a chore just to keep up with all the shifts in tone, and by the timeNext Gen reaches the finish line, we’re more exhausted than exhilarated.” Richard Roeper, “Next Gen Overloads Its Animated Robots with too Many Shifts in Plot and Tone,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 7, 2018.
Next Genhas some scenes about learning emotional abilities, such as when 7723 lied to Mai. But the film does not adequately explain the standard and principle behind 7723’s learning, which brings up unanswered questions.
Maggie Chunning Guo is an Associate Professor of New Media Art and Animation at Renmin University of China, PRC. Her animated artwork has been exhibited and collected internationally by galleries and festivals including the White Rabbit Art Gallery in Australia and the L’abbaye de Fontevraud in France. She was the recipient of the NETPAC Award at the 2015 Busan International Short Film Festival of South Korea. Her academic writing has been published in journals including Contemporary Cinema, Contemporary Animation, Aesthetics, Art Education, Studies in National Art, Croatian Cinema Chronicle Film Journal, Cartoon and Animation Studies, Epistémè, and the book collection Global Animation Theory published by Bloomsbury Academic.