Meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time can be nerve-wracking for any young man. It’s even more tricky when you’re not really a couple, and it’s scarier still when the end of humanity is peeking around the corner. But facing certain annihilation is par for the course as far as much of anime is concerned, so with only having to impress a troupe of eccentrics in the meantime, the young hero of Summer Wars is on easy street. Still, that doesn’t mean the lad isn’t in for the fight of his life, and with the most light-hearted of media properties getting the gritty treatment in misguided bids for “legitimacy,” it’s nice to see Summer Wars think epic while maintaining its sunny disposition and homespun philosophy.
In the kingdom of the nerds, Kenji (voice of Ryunosuke Kamiki) is an alpha male. With sharper skills at deciphering math equations than with chatting up ladies, the high-schooler spends most of his free time logged into OZ, a massive online social hub that’s been incorporated into virtually every aspect of society. Nevertheless, Kenji is dragged kicking and screaming into getting some sun when Natsuki (voice of Nanami Sakuraba), the most popular girl on campus, recruits him to pose as her boyfriend at a family get-together. But if having to lie to a couple dozen wacky relatives wasn’t enough of a strain, Kenji soon finds himself plunged right into a global crisis. Secretly brewed up by the military, a hyper-intelligent security program has gone rogue and invaded OZ, throwing nearly the whole world into chaos and pinning the blame on Kenji. But when the program’s attacks turn personal and threaten Natsuki’s clan, the whole crazy bunch is called upon to help save not only themselves but mankind as we know it, too.
Summer Wars answers that burning question of, “How would it look if The Matrix were run by those weirdos from Meet the Robinsons?” Alright, so the movie doesn’t reach heights that madcap, but the restraint it shows when things do get peculiar is actually one of its greatest strengths. While various bold and wacky personalities are strewn about both OZ and the real world, Summer Wars keeps them in line and never lets itself grow too frantic or overwhelming. For all of its eye-catching visuals and ruminations on the consequences of society using computers as a crutch too often, it’s, at heart, a simple story that values family bonds and spending quality time with your loved ones. But it’s also hip to how vital technology has become in modern times, so for every satirical observation the film makes, it deals out a fun scene in which Natsuki’s relatives band together and kick some digitized rear ends.
This duality, of a grounded reality co-existing with a boundless fantasy land, is reflected well in the way Summer Wars presents these two worlds. Offline, the flick takes place at a serene and secluded country estate, surrounded by picturesque flora and fauna with a modest but undoubtedly gorgeous layout. On the flipside, OZ is crammed with perpetually swirling avatars of all shapes and sizes, constantly buzzing with activity against a solid white backdrop. Summer Wars is adept at capturing both beauty and bigness, looking just as fantastic when it’s focused on little kids playing outside as when a colossal computer demon is traipsing around cyberspace. Sadly, our protagonists aren’t as robust in texture; Natsuki and Kenji are fine but terribly generic, their relationship getting the short end of the stick in favor of heaping care and attention upon the supporting cast.
Summer Wars is something of a frivolous film that lives in the moment and crumbles quickly if you chew it long enough. Still, it is great fun while it lasts, speeding through a ton of information, exposition, and characters without leaving the audience wondering which end is up. There’s a lot going on in Summer Wars, but it’s not only easy to keep track of, you’ll have a grand time doing it.