Content consideration: children (teenagers) in peril
What’s it about? Touya, the last child born on the moon, now resides on the commercial space station Anshin—and has to play host to the tourists visiting it from Earth, much to his annoyance. The latest interstellar holiday quickly goes awry when the AI that runs the station suddenly and mysteriously reboots, and a comet leaves Earth’s atmosphere on a collision course with Anshin.
The Orbital Children is a two-part film series that Netflix has, for reasons best known to Netflix, segmented into six episodes and released as a series. As such, the double-length “premiere” is not so much the first episode but the first act of the first movie… something that admittedly feels a little odd to review. Whether or not it was initially intended to be sliced off into its own episode and discussed as such, this is what we’re working with, and I can certainly confirm that the first forty minutes of Orbital Children make a strong impression.
This introduction paints a dazzling but grim picture of a not-too-far-flung sci-fi future. Everything is plastered with branding, with adjusted-for-copyright versions of Google, Tesla, and Coca Cola all over the technology that propels the space station. The three Earth kids visiting the station are doing so because they won a contest run by “Deegle,” whose logo is all over their space suits and to whom the AI are all beholden. Touya’s (hilariously half-hearted) welcome speech fleetingly mentions the Deegle can take care of you from the cradle to the grave, offering pre-natal care and space burials.
I want to shake my head and say “How inventive! How ridiculous!” but this doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Hey, the best sci-fi are the ones that reconfigure current anxieties into a futuristic setting. The issues at their heart might seem like they’re off in deep space, but they’re always close to home.
Of course, whether or not this society’s reliance on Deegle’s tech monopoly will end up being critiqued as part of the plot, or is just a worldbuilding detail, remains to be seen. The same can be said for social media, which is clearly an even bigger deal in this spacefaring future. Mina, one of the three winners of Deegle’s contest, is a “SkyTuber”—an interspace influencer livestreaming her time aboard Anshin to an ever-increasing follower count. When the AI reboots and the kids are left, essentially, floating in orbit with no one to help them, her first instinct is to record the whole incident and wonder aloud if her fiery comet-based death will net her more online clout.
Again, wanted to shake my head and chuckle and praise the imagination of the writing. But just couldn’t.
Character-wise, I can only hope that Mina develops beyond the parody of influencer culture that she is in this opening act. There are two other main female characters: the long-suffering station caretaker Nasa Houston (yes, her parents named her that. What choice did she have other than to get a job in space?) and Touya’s friend and fellow space-baby Konoha. Konoha has had the least screen presence so far, but I find her the most intriguing. She fades into the background now, especially next to the loudness of Mina and Touya, but I hope she’ll step out of the shadows and into the limelight as the plot thickens. It would leave us with gender parity among the six main characters, and three girls with very different personalities.
The Orbital Children looks like it’s going to be a fun ride: this “premiere” clips along at a satisfyingly rapid pace, operating a neat balance between “showing” and “telling” as it invites us into its colorful tech-filled world. It’s also balancing its more grounded sci-fi aspects with its sillier ones, with careful conversations about the health risks of living in space co-existing alongside teen hackers covertly sent into space by the UN2 (the sequel to the United Nations, presumably). It feels fantastical but it also feels like it could all really happen one day, making for a fascinating finished product. Plus, there are cute robots that I can already feel myself forming attachments to, regardless of what the story ends up ultimately saying about AI.
Of course, the heightened reality of the sci-fi might make it an uncomfortable watch rather than an escapist one. In a world where billionaires are shooting themselves into orbit for fun while their employees sit under the poverty line, the idea of Tesla-branded space tourism might leave a sour taste in your mouth. In the current global circumstances, it might make you wince to hear a character (admittedly, an edgelord fourteen-year-old parroting conspiracy theories, but still) declare that Earth is overpopulated and should get hit by an asteroid.
While there aren’t any significant content warnings of note in this first segment, keep in mind that note about the best sci-fi being uncomfortably close to home, and watch with your own emotional wellbeing in mind. A story about young teenagers getting stranded on a space station is going to be a stressful watch at the best of times.