Monday, 20 March 2017

Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale (2017) - Movie Review

Even though I have discussed anime on this blog a few times by now, I don’t want to give the impression that I even classify as an otaku by most people’s standards. Hell, I know even less about it than I do filmmaking, but I can at least bluff my way through most films. This fact will become obvious as we get into more franchise anime films that I have absolutely zero prior knowledge of, with today being a perfect example. I know a little bit about Sword Art Online based purely on seeing its name in passing on anime aggregators and the occasional review by one of my contemporaries, but that barely passes for intel; I’m going in all-the-way blind on this one. Thankfully, I’m fairly certain that this isn’t going to be one of those weird sectors of anime where going in unawares results in the destruction of sanity… not that that would matter much to me anyway, so let’s get into today’s offering.

The plot: A few years after the Sword Art Online incident that shook the technological world, the augmented reality device Augma has swept the world by storm along with a combat game called Ordinal Scale. However, once Kirito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) and Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu) start to notice a few carry-overs from the old game, they uncover a plot involving the new game that leads back to their involvement with SAO, along with a not-so-familiar face preparing for revenge.

The animation is out-and-out gorgeous. Animation studio A-1 Pictures seem to be very comfortable in detailing video game worlds because, not only is the real world and its cityscape nicely detailed, but the world inside Ordinal Scale is also quite enthralling. The character designs, while a bit simplistic by comparison, still work and the fight scenes in the game world bring the thrill of large-scale raid bosses quite effectively to the big screen.

And speaking of raid bosses and other MMO lingo, this film’s already on a good footing because these people clearly understand gaming culture. Virtual reality may still be a very 90’s pseudo-innovation, but with the recent popularity of Pok√©mon Go!, bringing comparisons between VR and augmented reality seems like a timely thematic venture. The way it depicts MMO partakers, particularly when involved in games with declining player bases, feels authentic and the use of the Augmas to give some well-worn commentary on our heavily computerised lifestyles still works despite the frequency of said commentary.

So, considering this is a franchise I have never interacted with before, how does it accommodate new viewers? Or, more accurately, does it accommodate new viewers at all? Well, thankfully, this film is quite forgiving of those who haven’t kept up with the proceeding story, keeping the audience updated with the more crucial moments of the original series while creating its own story separate from it. Much like T2: Trainspotting, it works on its own but I get the feeling that its emotional impact, especially with the relationship between Kirito and Asuno, would be bolstered by familiarity with their past adventures. Then again, with how resonant their relationship is in this film alone, leading to some quite beautiful and touching moments between them, I’m quite curious to see the genesis of this coupling. If it’s even half this good, I think I’ll be in for a good time.

Outside of musing on the nature of technology through the lens of near-future advancements and the prevalence of gaming culture, there’s also some time dedicated to the connection between memories and self-identity. I’ve discussed the Tapestry manifesto on this blog before: All memories, both good and bad, end up shaping who a person becomes and even the most traumatic moments have their place in a person’s makeup. What I haven’t discussed before, at least at length, is what happens when people try to change that for what they believe is for the better. Whether it’s reliving the past, removing it or otherwise altering it, the characters here show a lot of emphasis on the importance of memories.
This is where the majority of the film’s drama is derived from, not only giving the core romance its most poignant moments but also giving the antagonists of the film a far greyer moral lining than I’m used to seeing in Shonen fare. Then again, this is coming from a guy who mostly remembers the more popular titles from the 2000’s; for all I know, this could be the new status quo. Even if it isn’t, this film’s attention to character is so tight even in this continuation of a personally unfamiliar story that it manages to deliver real pathos without having seen the lead-up in its entirety. With how often I cover anime films on here that are very much made for already-established fans, this is a very nice reprieve.

All in all, both as an entry point for the series and as a film in its own right, this is actually pretty damn good. The acting is good, the animation brings the game world roaring to life, the action scenes are very well-done and the writing brings it all together in a way that builds on the proceeding story, but not to a point where it overly relies on it. Hell, based just on the strength of the characterisation and thematic elements found here, I might actually check out the Sword Art Online series for myself.

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