March 07, 2011

Summer Wars


The typical "Oscar bait" flick does its best to reinforce every grim "truth" the critics believe about the world, while patting them on the back for having such refined tastes. After all, no mere dilettante would willingly spend two hours watching such depressing, self-important dreck and then crow about it afterward.

Though if the production studio behind it has any aspirations of breaking even on the project, they'll have read their McKee and smuggled in the necessary quota of crowd-pleasing plot payoffs and made sure the word-of-mouth spreads it around.

With Summer Wars (English language version: WB/Funimation) director Mamoru Hosoda has done the exact opposite. On the surface, he panders shamelessly to the tween video game demographic with a by-the-numbers plot, while sneaking a gem of a human comedy in through the back door.

Summer Wars could be called "cyberpunk," but should more accurately be called "cyberstupid." Over the past fifty years, not only has this proved the rule rather than the exception, but it's getting worse. As computer technology improves, the popular entertainment depicting it gets cyberdumb and dumber.

The hoariest space opera manages to posit that planets are round and orbit the sun, and generally keeps pace with modern technology and scientific trends, even if they are rendered on screen with utter obliviousness. But at least starships don't look like V-2 rockets from the 1940s (unless the irony is intended), and don't run on vacuum tubes.

In the cyberpunk world, the "Internet" only exists as a conduit for impossibly high-bandwidth surveillance apparati. Every information superhighway leads back to one big mainframe, which somehow exists in a sealed unit with its own inexhaustible power supply, connected with invisible routers and cables, and lacking even an on/off switch.

And that mainframe runs some kind of glorified AOL/Facebook/Second Life mashup that controls--through a single administrative account--everything, from your email account to the local traffic lights, to medical life support systems, GPS, and, oh, nuclear launch codes.

The premise is so idiotic that the first five to ten minutes of these movies must be spent explaining why creating a single point of failure for the entire world's computing and communications infrastructure is a fantastic idea and the wave of the future.

And yet from 2001 (just a spaceship, but c'mon) to WarGames (cementing the conceit in the public imagination; Dr. Strangelove was not a documentary, okay?) to The Matrix (Second Law of Thermodynamics, anybody?) to Live Free and Die Hard (which was fun despite itself) to Eagle Eye (which killed many brain cells), nobody's wised up.

And now Summer Wars. And yet--for all its dumbness, even the cyberpunk aspects of the film are tolerable, for four reasons:

• There's no dark conspiracy, no Men in Black running around harassing hapless computer nerds. The computer virus that's destroying the world is a big oopsie! Granted, the U.S. military caused it, but a Japanese programmer wrote it. Bygones.

• Kids are kids. However precocious, teenagers are not preternaturally wise creatures who know more about life than their elders. When the time comes for important things to get done, it helps to have a bunch of resourceful adults around.

• It's not ponderous. It's not preachy. There are no Important Lessons to be learned about Our Foolish Ways. We're not expected to embrace world peace or see the folly of our technological dependency. Life goes on. Good for it.

And the most important reason of all:

• It's not cyberpunk movie, after all.

Oh, it pretends to be, it pretends mightily. But despite the gee-whiz computer graphics, the mimicking of Second Life/World of Warcraft, and major plot points lifted from WarGames (with a touch of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and a key idea from Ghost in the Shell), it's really a serio-comic family melodrama.

High-schooler Natsuki shanghais classmate and pathologically shy computer nerd Kenji into pretending to be her boyfriend (another true and tried plot), and hauls him off to the family estate in the country for her grandmother's birthday. Several generations of the Jinnouchi family turn up as well. Much lovable craziness ensues.

Sakae, Natsuki's grandmother and the matriarch of the family (voiced by Sumiko Fuji, who plays the same lovable character on Teppan) is unabashedly old school, with a spine of steel and a heart of gold.

A running joke throughout the movie is that the family once served the Sanada clan. The Sanada clan managed to end up on the losing side of every major conflict during the medieval Warring States period, but is remembered for doing it heroically and often ingeniously.

The once handsome estate may be a shadow of what it once was, but as far as Sakae is concerned, better to go down heroically and honorably than sell out for easy money.

So when the black sheep of the family makes a noisy appearance, promising to resurrect the flagging family fortunes with a shady deal that involves selling a nifty piece of computer code to the U.S. military, she tosses him out on his ear.

Meanwhile, an evil computer virus is taking over the world. Hmm, you sure gotta watch out for those egghead intellectuals and their get-rich-quick schemes.

More than anything else, Summer Wars is a tribute to the professional working man. Among the Jinnouchi progeny are a squid fisherman, fireman, policeman, EMT, JSDF communications specialist, a country doctor, and a computer parts salesman who installs mainframes. And who just happens to have a spare mainframe in his warehouse.

At which point I thought, those things draw a lot of juice. Enter the fisherman.

Squid fishing involves going out at night with a light boat to draw the squid to the surface. So the fisherman hauls his boat to the estate on a flatbed truck and cranks up the diesel generators. The JSDF communications specialist borrows a microwave uplink unit. Because no way the DSL way out there has the bandwidth to save the world.

Far-fetched, yes, but these real-world elements are completely plausible. It's a lot of fun watching a group of skilled professionals working together so the kids can do their computer magic. Of course, once they do get back online, the actual "hacker" strategy follows the Underpants Gnomes approach to solving computer crimes:

1. Evil computer hacker/virus is about to destroy the world.
2. ? (Much typing.)
3. World saved.

Step two involves stuff like cracking 1024 bit encryption codes by hand and beating the evil supercomputer virus at a traditional Japanese card game called "Koi-Koi." Yeah, right. My higher brain functions shut down during this part. Cute but meaningless. And then booted up again upon recognizing an ending straight out of Tenchi Muyo.

At first I was annoyed at director Mamoru Hosoda (who directed the creative and insightful The Girl who Leapt through Time) for making such a dumb and derivative movie, but I've reconsidered.

He's done something very clever. Yes, he could have made the movie I wanted to watch--a human comedy about a traditional Japanese family bridging the cultural gap between the old and the new--but no way any antsy fourteen year old was going to watch it. So he had a couple of teenage video gamers save the world instead

He's pulled a cinematic bait and switch, gone in dumb and come out smart. I doubt the kids consuming the eye candy will notice the nutritional center, but maybe the message will soak in around the edges.

Summer Wars possess what's always made good Disney movies great--the ability to dazzle the children while engaging the minds of their parents, who should enjoy seeing adults depicted as mature role models well worth emulating, and the traditional family unit as something worth preserving in a post-modern world.

As the poster for the movie aptly states, "Our connections are our weapons."

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