I took the afternoon off to watch a movie about a bunch of kids fighting inside a virtual reality to save a huge game-world that is sort of a global virtual fun-house.
Only I did not watch Ready Player One.
I watched Summer Wars, from 2009.
Summer Wars is a science fiction animated movie produced by the same team that gave us The Girl that Leaped Through Time, and it’s a great story with a colorful cast of character and just the right amount of over-the-top implausibility to make it click.
The plot in (a little more than) two words: Kenji, a young student and a mathematical genius of sorts, gets a part time job that turns out to be pretending he’s the boyfriend of Natsuki, the most popular girl in school. She’s going to a family reunion in the countryside, and needs a boyfriend to please her grand-grandmother, the head of the family and a formidable character.
Kenji meets Natsuki’s clan, the impoverished, eccentric descendants of a samurai family with a long history of fighting against impossible odds, usually on the losing side.
As the family reunion unfolds, a rogue AI infects the world’s chief social medium/virtual reality, and starts to act aggressively using the data it extracts from hijacked accounts. For reasons long to explain, Kinji and Natsuki and the rest of the family end up picking up weapons against the digital menace.
I am always surprised – positively surprised – when a science fiction story manages to be hi-tech and “hard” as possible, and still convey a sense of everyday “normality”.
Summer Wars manages to do exactly this is a wonderful manner. The technology is interestingly and convincingly portrayed, but the real strength of the story is the cast of believable, humane characters, an enlarged family whose dynamics are presented lightly and convincingly. The Jinnouchy clan, with its bickering and gossip and memories of ancient triumphs, is a summary of what anyone of us has seen in his or her family.
The action escalates rapidly, and what starts as a light comedy about boy meets girl with a twist, turns into a race against time as the rogue AI tries to cause as much damage as possible.
Some scenes are breathtaking for complexity, while others are conceptually wonderful – above all, the one in which, as social networks collapse, the nonagenarian matriarch of the clan resorts to an old telephone and the calling in of old favors to set up a real-world social network capable of facing the crisis.
Granted, you have to believe that the members of the Jinnouchy clan have all the right connections and the right skills to tackle the crisis, but that bit of implausibility is dealt with elegantly from the start, when we learn the family has a long tradition and includes individuals from all walks of life. So that it’s OK to use a fishing boat’s engines to power a computer mainframe that goes online through a connection “borrowed” from the Armed Forces.
Because yes, this is the sort of movie in which they use a fishing boat to power a mainframe to go online through a military connection.
In the end, it will not be violence that will stop the menace, but a girl’s ability in a game of cards, and the scene of the last match is granted to make even the most cynical technocrat go Wow!
In the world of Summer Wars even when the stakes are the highest imaginable, even when death strikes, nothing beats a good family dinner and the application of ingenuity. People are ultimately good, and this is what viewers will take away from this movie.
Summer Wars is, to me, morally and ideologically superior to Ready Player One – while the set-up is very similar, the authors did not lose themselves into an empty maze of nods to the geeky audience, and delivered a story that’s fresh, fun and intelligent.
It’s highly recommended, and kids will probably love it.