Summer Wars (2011)

The failure of Summer Wars is not that it’s bad, but that it’s far too ambitious for its own good. The complex ideas and dense plot make the two hour film bulge at the seams, even with the number of cheap shortcuts and convienet situations that the film uses to keep the film from being even more grandiose. And yet, in part, that’s what makes Summer Wars so memorable.

Math whiz Kenja Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) find fate shines upon him when the lovely Natuski Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) asks him to spend the summer with her at her grandmother’s home. But Kenja soon finds himself fretting over the virtual world of Oz when he discovers he may be caught up in a malevolent plan to steal millions of online accounts.

The technological story is where most of the ambitious elements of the film come from. There’s a lot of background that goes into setting up the world and explaining why it’s so important and while that pays off, the actual nature of the story being told in the film feels like it’s just a blip of what actually goes on in the world. The virtual world of Oz could have been its own film entirely.

To the film’s credit, the reason why Oz is left underdeveloped is because the film spends a lot of the time developing the real-world relationships of the family and the dynamics that cause contention in the household.  It’s a compelling family drama with a lot of memorable and distinct characters. The characters the film spends the most time on are complicated and layered individuals.

And while the film does an excellent job on that end, this leaves a lot of the details of the plot as cheap devices of coincidence and happenstance to make certain things happen between characters. Some are less egregious than others, but the film cuts a lot of corners and asks a lot of the audience in order to reach some of these character moments. Thankfully, a lot of it is justified by the end result, but that doesn’t stop from some of the frustration along the way.

Where the film loses itself is in how over-the-top some of the situations become. While the virtual world of Oz does allow for an enjoyable level of fantast spectacle, near the end of the film it becomes a bit too much, focusing more on the spectacle than on what it means. It becomes too abrasive and intense for its own good, hoping to win over the audience with spectacle instead of their emotional investment with the characters.

As rough and flawed as Summer Wars is, some of the nitpicking is moot because, in practice, the film works at being funny, entertaining, engaging and moving. Not every single moment works, not every single moment is earned, but every single moment in the film is at least interesting.

Where one falls on Summer Wars probably depends on how much of the ridiculous and narrative contrivances they’re willing to overlook. Caught inbetween the two, this critic enjoyed a lot of the film, but left a bit annoyed by all the cracks he noticed along the way. For some, the sheer delight of every moment will be enough, and it certainly knows how to make a moment work.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing