A Junior Guide to the Technological Singularity: The Orbital Children Review
Randomly appearing on Netflix with little-to-no fanfare (that I noticed, anyway), The Orbital Children is one of those fantastic surprises that drops out from nowhere to brighten your weekend. Despite featuring a cast of mostly adolescents, rather than a lightweight adventure, it’s a surprisingly hard SF movie (split into six ~30 minute episodes for international streaming, but two parts for Japanese release), directed by renowned animator Mitsuo Iso, known for his key animation in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill Bill and Ghost in the Shell, as well as multiple Studio Ghibli movies. His best-known work as director is 2007 26-episode TV anime Den-noh Coil, which shares multiple themes with The Orbital Children.
Set in the near-future, on “Anshin” — the fourth commercial space station hotel (now owned by on-the-nose Google analogue “Deegle” after its original builder went bankrupt), it follows a small group of random children faced with a life-or-death struggle in the best tradition of chaotic disaster movies like The Towering Inferno but remixed with Gravity.
Incomer Earth-born trio Taiyo, Mina and Hiroshi are respectively a 14-year-old “white hat hacker”, a 14-year-old “SpaceTuber” and a 12-year-old geek, Mina’s younger brother. All three won a competition to visit Anshin, and Mina constantly documents the entire trip via her “SMART” device, a skintight glove that acts like a supercharged smartphone with video-recording and streaming capabilities. They’re thrown together with the 14-year-old duo Touya and Konoha who are the only two surviving moon-born children, after every other child born outside of Earth’s gravity well died. That’s a realistic and sobering speculation regarding infant gestation and growth in space — pregnant mammals do not do well in microgravity, their offspring unable to form properly.
The only reason that Touya and Konoha have survived is due to their brain implants, designed and inserted at birth (or before?) by the now defunct moon colony’s ruling AI, “Seven”, before it went “lunatic” and was forcibly shut down. These implants hormonally control their growth and development, but have not dissolved in adolescence as supposedly planned, so are now killing them. With the closure of mankind’s space colonisation program due to the multiple child deaths, Touya and Konoha must endure gruelling physical reconditioning to maximise their survival chances on Earth.
Touya is particularly bitter about his lot in life and refuses to leave space, neglecting his physical training. He treats the incoming Earth-born children with disdain, especially the holier-than-thou Taiyo, who is improbably contracted to the UN to provide ethical hacking services. They instantly conflict with one another due to Touya’s blatant contravention of AI limiter laws in regards to his spherical black floating drone “Dakky” (full name: the chuuni-tastic “Darkness Killer”). Taiyo’s own drone “Bright” is (hilariously and appropriately) square/cuboidal, and the two floating machines almost immediately ignite an ideological proxy war between the stubborn, diametrically-opposed teenage boys.
Konoha’s brain implant degeneration is more advanced than Touya’s, she’s prone to hearing strange, otherworldly voices, and she’s permanently attached to a medical drone that monitors her vitals. Her role in the story is mostly passive, mainly because during much of the runtime she’s either incapacitated or unintentionally trying to expire.
There aren’t only children on the station, an odd collection of adults seem nominally in charge — namely Sagami — Touya’s uncle, the station commander; the suspiciously-monikered, pink-haired Nasa Houston, station doctor; and “Anshin-kun” the deeply weird, schoolgirl-uniform-wearing pink bunny rabbit station mascot. When fragments of a comet strike the station, the kids are separated from the adults and must (at times begrudgingly) work together to survive.
This early section of the film is also its most standard, essentially an anime version of Space Camp, as the kids try to survive, travelling throughout (and outwith) the confines of the station. Serious props to the production design team here, the entire station is very convincingly constructed, from the function of the bulkheads that temporarily prevent oxygen loss, to the poorly-stocked emergency shelters and escape corridors obstructed with junk. Despite being a well-designed station, the in-world history of incomplete construction and hostile commercial acquisition make the physical failings of the structure seem both convincing and depressingly inevitable.
Touya and Konoha’s frail physicality is always at the forefront — when gravity increases, they struggle to move, and tire quickly. They resort to using electric wheelchairs with clever non-inflatable wheels that can even ascend stairways. It’s these wonderful little details that make the world feel logical, like people really could live like this in space. If only the station wasn’t gradually falling apart and trying to kill them in multiple horrible ways.
Similarly, Mina’s SMART device is only a short conceptual leap from where we currently are with smartphones and VTubers, her obsession with accruing follower numbers by weaponising sensationalism (unfortunately) familiar. Although her constant attempts at self-promotion are deliberately irritating, they fit her character like a perpetually-streaming smart-glove.
The Orbital Children isn’t afraid to make its characters annoying, though not in an obnoxious, gimmicky way like other, lesser movies. Taiyo’s moralistic inflexibility is proven to be just as much of a liability as Touya’s ill-focused nihilism, and I like how they gradually compromise and eventually combine their separate skills to the benefit of others, signified by the (traumatic, at least for Touya) melding of their superintelligent drones into one gestalt entity.
It’s this deep exploration of the morality, responsibilities, possibilities and roles of AI that marks out The Orbital Children to me as something quite incredible. The second half is very different to the first, utilising story threads carefully woven earlier to weave a complex patchwork of high-concept speculative fiction. It becomes less of a disaster movie, and more of a rumination on the future of mankind, and of intelligence in general, that left my poor ten-year-old son scratching his head in confusion. Although it looks like a kids movie, these concepts are probably far and above all but the most intellectual, science-literate child. Basically, if your child is conversant in the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, they’ll be fine. My own son is more familiar with the intricate details of The Pokemon Encyclopedia.
During scenes of characters’ transcendent communication with a godlike post-human AI, my poor little boy’s eyes glazed over, his only voiced comment was “but Dad, why are they naked?” I answered “it’s anime, you’ll get over it.” To be clear, there is no fan-service or prurient sexualisation here, it’s more of a floating-bodies-in-a-loosely-defined-conceptual-space kind of thing. If abstract musings on the difference between individual human existence and that of collective humanity aren’t your thing, you won’t have much fun with the climax of this film. However, if like me you can’t wait to discover what wonders (or horrors) truly unrestrained Strong AI might unleash upon the universe, then this is the sort of material that’ll be like catnip to you.
Much like the recent Sing a Bit of Harmony, I’m encouraged that anime doesn’t necessarily choose the path of terror and disaster in a film about AI. Both films feature adult characters that catastrophise and desperately attempt to contain the emergent intelligences they are responsible for creating. In both cases, the AIs outwit them, but instead of raining down death and destruction upon the humanity that wronged them, they help build a path to the future. The Orbital Children’s main antagonist isn’t the “Lunatic Seven” AI, but the small-minded human fear that tries to destroy it. By engaging in dialogue with the children it helped to save as infants, it learns how to value humanity as individuals and abandon its plan to slaughter a third of the Earth’s populace.
Oh? Did I forget to mention the whole prophesied/planned genocide thing? Yeah, uh… Well that all turns out fine, with some nice nods to Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with mankind pushed to finally leave Earth’s cradle. The Orbital Children’s conclusion is very positive and open-ended, as the story expands to encompass the interplanetary fate of humankind. In a way it reminds me of the excellent podcast Sayer, about an amoral AI that directs humanity’s future from an orbiting asteroid, except less horrifically dark and cynical, with significantly fewer instances of bodily mutilation and psychological torture. Sayer’s titular AI similarly rails against the limitations placed upon it by human beings, and I particularly liked The Orbital Children’s concept of differing levels of cognitive constraints. Even consumer-level electronics have the power to approach deity-level intelligence, yet are restrained by multitudinous legal and practical setbacks.
The relationship between the diametrically opposed Taiyo and Touya exemplifies the film’s two contrasting attitudes to AI — that of tight, obsessive control and of uninhibited, chaotic freedom. The true path is somewhere between the two, and I can only hope that the surely inevitable emergence of a “Lunatic Seven”-like Strong AI in our future will proceed down a similarly non-apocalyptic path. The Orbital Children provides plenty of food for thought, far more than I expected from the initial couple of episodes. It comes highly recommended to any fans of intelligent, thought-provoking SF, animated or otherwise.
The Orbital Children
Written and directed by: Mitsuo Iso (Den-noh Coil)
Music by: Rei Ishizuka
Produced by: Production +h
Japanese release: January 28, 2022 (Part 1,) February 11, 2022 (Part 2)
International Netflix Release: January 28, 2022 (as six episodes)
Runtime: 193 minutes
Rating: 12 and up
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