Summer Wars is as confused as its centerpiece, chaotic family. It mingles romance, family drama, and global cyber-terrorism. A futuristic, unified social software called Oz unites everyone’s accounts for everything throughout the world, including social, gaming, work, health, and military related spheres. Our nerdy main character, Kenji, is with the most popular girl in his high school, Natsuki, masquerading as her boyfriend at a family gathering. Having inadvertently broken the encryption algorithm for the hacker, Oz is attacked and millions of accounts are stolen, sending everything into chaos.
The story focuses in and around the interactions of the Jinnouchi family, a dysfunctional clan with their own mansion. It’s a big family, too, and headed by one strong-willed granny. There’s the wily second cousin with plenty of vociferations, the youngest uncle who wears bro-tanks and yells at everyone, the gaming-obsessed cousin, and the wayward adopted uncle. The family is complicated enough to have taken up the entire movie with their shenanigans and dinner banter. A nice slice of romance added in there would have worked. Except, that’s not the focus of the movie, so they all become a kind of fluff around the battle to save the world from a nuclear crises caused by an AI that took over Oz. Scatterbrained is the perfect descriptor. Summers Wars spread itself too thin trying to cover way too many topics. Everything is nice enough, but nothing is very good.
The family dynamics are interesting and entertaining, but they are mostly formed by interactions between a few characters. There’s the second cousin who shouts one-liners, the stubborn, aggressive uncle, three cousins that kind of blend together, Natsuki who has a crush on the wayward uncle, and the matriarchal granny. Many of the other members are defined by what they do. There is one police officer, fire fighter, paramedic, doctor, and computer salesman. While having all of these characters can be infectious, none of them, except for the granny and the wayward uncle, receive the attention they need to be anything more than superficial flavor. The movie dropped the ball here by spending its time focused on a plot about saving the world with cool looking avatars in a creative virtual world. This looked attractive, but made no sense and only served to suck up valuable screen time. The cyber threat is a means to force the family to work together. As contrived as it is, it doesn’t work. With all the family gathered around a screen, cheering someone on, well, it is unrealistic.
Another point of confusion, the protagonist Kenji, doesn’t do much after the first third of the movie. He pretends to be Natsuki’s boyfriend when he arrives at the clan home, then he solves a problem emailed to him and finds that his account has been hacked. Then he… Then he loiters until he is pressured to kiss Natsuki at the very end. Oh yeah, at one point he holds Natsuki’s hand and at another is confronted by granny. Neither of those moments feel genuine, either, because how can you fit a compelling romance into a crazy family meets save-the-world movie? Balancing the two primary components of Summer Wars has to be tricky enough, but next to impossible when adding in anything more.
The animation and soundtrack are fantastic, and with the zaniness of the family, there is salvageable entertainment to be found in Summer Wars. Hosoda, though, doesn’t have a cohesive story here, just a lot of frills and happenings. It’s by no means a failure of entertainment, but it is very weak storytelling.