Review: Summer Wars (2009)

Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars is an animated feature film that bridges the fairly wide gap between Miyazaki’s brand of sentimentality and William Gibson’s cyber warfare.  The  result of that odd pairing is a family film that is visually inventive and surprisingly satisfying.

The story revolves around Kenji Koiso, a high schooler who works part time in a virtual world known as OZ.  A combination of Facebook, Second Life, and corporate shopping and finance, Oz is very important to the real world of the film.  Kenji is a math wiz and social introvert, but he jumps at the chance to work for his pretty friend Natsuki over the course of a brief trip.  It’s only after they arrive at Natsuki’s great grandmother’s home (which is more like a Japanese feudal estate) that she reveals the reason why she hired him.  She needs him to pretend to be her boyfriend to satisfy her great grandmother on her 90th birthday.

Over the course of the film, we meet Natsuki’s large extended family and are charmed by their love for their aging relative.  Grandma is charming too.  She’s clearly a curmudgeon who’s the family leader and when she speaks, everyone jumps.  This is the portion of the film that most reminded me of Miyazaki’s work.  The family dynamic is complex and believable and the look of these segments is clearly in the style of Studio Ghibli.  This is high-end feature animation and it looks fantastic.  I found myself invested in these characters in a way that is unusual for an animated film.

The real world events work dramatically, but a big chunk of the action takes place in the virtual world.  Kenji gets an email with some random code that he deciphers.  Soon afterward, OZ begins to fail due to an AI incursion that Kenji may have actually opened the door for.  The design of OZ is critical to the success of the film, and I found my own skepticism rearing its head from time to time during the segments that took place there.  OZ is supposed to be an advanced version of Second Life wherein many of the world’s organizations and corporations conduct business with individuals via their avatars.  It looks like an anime festival gone haywire.  There is no ground plane, so everything basically floats about in a white null space that is populated with thousands of bizarre avatars.  In the center there’s a sort of death star of cuteness that serves as the core of the world on top of which many different worlds have taken root.  The virtual environment is interesting because of the plethora of disparate design elements evident there, but I had a hard time understanding the relationships that the different spaces represent.  It’s a given that a visual representation of a virtual space is a difficult nut to crack, but since this particular space isn’t just a representation of data but is also the user interface that people supposedly use day in and day out, I found it severely lacking in clarity.  If anything in this movie gets short shrift, it is this design.  While the variety present in the avatar designs is interesting, it strains credulity to imagine that there wouldn’t be some kind of overriding architecture that would restrict the designs to its own look and feel.  I mean, you don’t see Xbox or Wii avatars that look like characters in Final Fantasy, do you?  No, they exist as variations on a theme and, above all, are all the same scale.  The avatars in OZ seem to exist without limitations and that makes for a very sloppy world.

At a certain point, you either accept OZ as it is, or you don’t.  I eventually did, but it was with a grain of salt.  In the end, the movie is much more satisfying if you do accept things as they are so it was worth the effort.  The story really is more about what’s happening in the real world, anyway, and it’s refreshing that there is no real bad guy in all of this.  The AI that is taking over OZ is wreaking havoc in the real world, but there’s no malevolence at work.  Even the creator of the AI had no bad intentions.  It’s just a runaway program that must be stopped before it causes harm to people in the real world.

Yes, the plot stretched credulity to the breaking point, but if you can accept the conceits of this story there is a rich emotional payoff to be had.  This is the rare family film that has something for everybody.  Recommended.

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