Not only is Kenji, the hero of the anime Summer Wars, a socially retarded math whiz prone to anxiety attacks and nosebleeds, he’s also broken the Internet. Coaxed to a getaway in Nowhere, Japan, with schoolmate Natsuka’s family, Kenji is doing a very bad job of pretending to be her boyfriend when he inadvertently allows an A.I. program named “Love Machine” to steal his account to OZ, a worldwide online community that combines every social networking site with some video-game action to make a single sprawling cyberadventureland.
The program, unleashed for whatever reason by the U.S. Department of Defense, was designed with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. And since in movies knowledge only leads to Bond-villain megalomania, Love Machine decides to fuck with mankind. First it devours millions of OZ avatars, along with their users’ information. Then gadgets stop working. Firemen are sent on bogus missions. Clocks are reset. And hey, are we still harboring nuclear weapons?
Yes, I know: Why didn’t Tron: Legacy do this? For what it’s worth, Mamoru Hosada’s Summer Wars only passably exploits its excellent premise, a successful digital update of War Games. Noisy and often brainless when it should be brainy, it’s a poor man’s imitation of animator Satoshi Kon, whose Paprika serves as some, but not enough, visual inspiration.
Nonetheless, it racks up mucho brownie points—for starters, it largely resists tut-tutting about how much mankind has willingly entrusted itself to cyberspace. As the title suggests, this is an uncharacteristically bright apocalypse, unfolding either in OZ, a blinding white expanse strikingly polluted with candy colored avatars, or in the pastoral calm of Natsuka’s family home. (Like Signs before it, Summer Wars looks at the possible destruction of mankind from a remote vantage point.) That more screen time is spent in reality, where carbon-based lifeforms commiserate in the flesh, than in cyberspace tacitly belies its equally uncharacteristic optimism for humanity. In Summer Wars, it’s not technology that saves the day, but the people using it—a comforting message in what could have easily been another unforgiving salvo.