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Beautiful to watch, but otherwise a mess.
on September 21, 2014
*BREIF WARNING: I don't really dive into spoiler territory, but I do touch on some. In order to fairly judge the movie, I do feel some of the story concepts need to be brought to light. I promise I try to avoid it when possible, but you have been warned.*
I had high hopes for Summer Wars. I truly did. Although I don't consider myself much of an anime fan these days (with a list of some exceptions, of course), I was all but exclusively a fan of Japanese animation in high school and college and I'm always open to giving things a try. So combined with my own interest, the high praise the movie received and a personal recommendation from a close friend, I was very excited to give this a try. Especially given that I was a huge fan of Digimon the movie and its animation.
In case it wasn't terribly obvious by now, no, I wasn't very impressed.
However, let's give credit where credit is due. First and foremost, again, the animation is spectacular. There's no denying that Summer Wars is a feast for the eyes, whether we're talking about the goings-on in the real world or the events taking place in Oz. It's all gorgeously and painstakingly animated. This much met my expectations.
And to be fair, there are some charming ideas and stories in Summer Wars. To be honest, if this had been two or three separate movies (a cyber-thriller, a slice-of-life and a romantic comedy (or just a slice-of-life rom/com, I suppose)), there's a much better chance I would have loved this movie.
But as it is, it's a bunch of good ideas that materialize into a mishmash or oddity that aside from being a treat for the eyes, is just a mess.
Firstly, we're introduced to a massive, massive family of characters. And while they're fine, most of them don't really expand beyond being one or two dimensions. Which, as any writer will tell you, is part of the problem with having such a massive cast of characters vying for screen time. Not that it can't be done, but it is difficult to do effectively.
Additionally, and to be perfectly honest, these two story threads do not synch well. I was honestly much more interested and invested in the events going on outside of Oz and cyberspace. There was a stronger story here (albeit not be by much), with themes of family and romance that I was really digging. Not that the Oz stuff couldn't have been great too, but it wasn't nearly as fleshed out. But everything goes wrong when the story attempts to tie both ideas together, and as such neither the events in Oz nor the family dynamics and drama get built-up enough for either to be that strong. What's worse, the story attempts to bring it all together is just a mess, which comes together in a finale that is so over-the-top, cliched and hokey that I simply couldn't take it seriously, and honestly found it to be kind of painful to watch. This COULD just be because I had previously seen the Digimon movie (which, as another reviewer points out, the Oz stuff is strikingly similar too), but I KNEW that the AI was going to try to do SOMETHING involving a nuclear strike.
None of the characters besides Kenji, the grandmother, her "prodigal son" (who's name escapes me) and Natsuki have much depth, and even that's a bit of a stretch. Which isn't to say that the other characters aren't charming or enjoyable, but Heaven help me if I could tell you any of their names or describe them in any way other than an exaggerated anime/manga trope or a profession.
And now, here's some of the nitpicks:
1. The romance: Wow, this felt forced. Besides the fact that the crush Natsuki had on her uncle (...ick) is all but quickly dismissed as a side point, we have little explanation on how Kenji and she know each other. So unless we're just expected to believe that at the end of a four day trip they just decided to be an item, this is a stretch.
And yes, I'm aware that this is common in fairy tales and no, I don't mind the idea overall. But even most fairy tales give our protagonists like...a week or two to get to know each other.
2. The US Military is the bad guy. Like another reviewer, I found that kinda offensive and a bit of a cop-out, but that's okay. That's not my biggest concern with it. And I although I don't agree personally, it's arguable that it's about as fair as always making the Russians or Chinese or middle east the bad guys.
My BIGGEST concern with the idea is that it simply doesn't make sense. I could buy that the US Military would purchase an AI program with the intent of weaponizing it. I would even buy them testing it out in a civilian setting as opposed to a closed setting. It's a stretch, but sure, stranger things have happened in real life.
But here's the thing.
WHY would they test it out in the most powerful, important, global community that apparently everything from online shopping to traffic programs and hospital equipment is tied to? The US Military would NOT want something to backfire in there face so largely and publicly, because that's massively stupid and the last thing they would want when testing a secret military program is to draw attention to it.
3. Speaking of Oz, can we just be honest here? It makes no sense. None. Whatsoever.
So, it's an online community that connects you to major retailers, has a global presence, and you can even tele-commute using it. It's also like WoW or similar programs, as it has a fighting game and customizable avatars built in.
Okay, sure. That mostly makes sense.
But...why would any government body willing put more than its contact info in there (or maybe a lobby with basic info, I suppose) into such a program, especially in light of the movie's plot? Did the world governments seriously not suspect someone might try to hack into this thing and take control of everything? And, for that matter, why would a city tie its controls into it? Or a GPS manufacturer? Or a hospital?
Think about it. That's like saying your local hospital is 100% dependent upon Facebook being up and running.
THAT. DOESN'T. WORK. And I can't suspend my disbelief enough to think anyone else besides private companies and general public would subscribe to that.
So let's sum everything up here. Is Summer Wars the worst anime I've ever seen? Of course not. As I said, in fact, there are some great ideas buried in there that could be used to make some really strong (but separate) animes. And again, in terms of pure visual appeal, it's dynamite. The dub cast was pretty great too, and the music, though not particularly memorable, is serviceable.
But the problem is is that the whole thing doesn't function well as a singular movie. It's also riddled with cliches, flaws in logic and one-dimensional characters that we as the audience are simply supposed to ignore in order to enjoy the movie. And generally speaking, no, I don't subscribe to that idea.
Apparently, I'm in an unpopular minority, and I suspect this review will be treated as such, lambasted by the movie's fans simply because "I didn't get it" or some similar argument. And that's fine. I'm not saying that those of you who enjoyed it should feel ashamed for doing so.
But for those of you who are on the fence or curious, I suspect a rental is best, but otherwise it's not really worth the time.