Heads up: I was able to watch this film before its recent release via a screener sent to me by Funimation. I got no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you, Funimation.
Sword Art Online is one of the most popular and depending on your own personal viewpoint on the franchise, one of the most infamous. And to be clear, it’s infamous among anime fans and not something you would hear outside of anime fans. It’s one of the most profitable franchises around, and is a punchline for being popular and profitable. Granted, a lot of the franchise is not well-written or well-made, but hey, if people enjoy it, so be it. Just don’t be malicious or toxic about loving or hating it. Anyway, you know what also made a lot of money and got a ton of acclaim? The Evangelion Rebuild films. Do you know what industry took note of that? The anime industry. You know what franchise is attempting to do what the Evangelion Rebuild films did to the Evangelion franchise? Sword Art Online! Sure, most franchises do recap films, but Rebuild is different, as it is telling the overall story in a different way. Will Sword Art Online The Movie – Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night do the same? We will have to see. Oh, and before any of you hardcore fans of the franchise get at this review, yes, this is technically a film version of the light novels of the same Progressive name, but since they are essentially a retelling of the original story that expands upon some things, the film is pretty much doing that with recapping the story up to a certain point of the original experience. So, yeah, still a recap film.
Directed by Ayako Kono, written by Reiki Kawahara, and produced by A1 Pictures, this film retells the story arc of the first floor within the VRMMO Sword Art Online. Our main story for this first film, however, follows Asuna Yuuki, dubbed by Cherami Leigh. She’s an honor student who loves to spend time with her friend Misumi Tozawa, dubbed by Anairis Quinones. One day, Asuna decides to log on to the newly released Sword Art Online, and ends up discovering that her friend Misumi is in the game as well! Sadly, the discovery comes at a cost as every player logged on to the game can now not log out. The game’s apparent creator arrives and explains that he has made sure no one can leave, and if they try to log out and take off the VR helmet, it will fry their brains and kill them. Everyone is now stuck in the game and is tasked with beating the entire game and the main world’s dungeons. The only other catch is if you die in the game, you supposedly die in real life. Can Asuna make it to the top with her friend? Who is this mysterious insert male power fantasy character they run into? What’s his story?
So, if they were going to go the route of the recap/Rebuild-style retelling of the anime, where do you start? For the first half, they went with building up Asuna and her friendship with Misumi. It’s rather impressive to see a show that is known for not having the best characters in anime, taking its time to really build up the friendship, the betrayal, and the heartbreak between these two. Most recap anime try to get through as much of the show as possible. Usually, they tend to cover the first major arc of the show and then call it a day. They sacrifice the smaller character moments so they can get to the big moments that you all know and love, but hopefully have some of that theatrical animation budget to make them all look good. By the time the first major shift in Asuna and Misumi’s relationship happens, you are heartbroken with what happens, and that helps drive a little bit more of the drama. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve seen the original series, but the film definitely shifts the focus away from the franchise’s male lead Kirito, to Asuna, and it’s for the better. They pretty much make Kirito the side secondary character until the first major raid/the third act when he sadly steals the driver’s seat and takes over the film.
The problem with making male power fantasy characters your lead is that unless you are careful with how you tackle the power fantasy by either making the characters themself massively flawed in some way or go the One Punch Man route and do some meta commentary on the power fantasy trope, they make for bad lead characters. With how many VRMMO and fantasy anime tend to make the leads ‘boring as tar’ power fantasy for male viewers, why wouldn’t you shift focus to someone else who could actually carry the story, and the story not suffer due to having to contort to the whims of the power fantasy? What also helps here is that they don’t try to do too much at once. With how much focus the relationship between Asuna, Misumi, and Kirito unfolds, they only cover the first two episodes, while filling out those two episodes with the time to have the characters bond. It also lets the stakes rise when the story needs them to, and we aren’t forcing our way to get from point A to point B to point C to point D at a rapid rate. It makes perfect sense for the film to make the first floor raid the third act conflict. It’s not a perfect journey to get from the beginning of the film to the end, but considering what this could have been, it should be admirable with how the director and writer took to retelling the story of the famous franchise.
Animation-wise, this is where it starts to fumble a little. Not that the animation is bad, because it’s not. It just doesn’t look as good as other anime franchise films. It’s not its fault it doesn’t reach the visual overload and drip of Evangelion Rebuild, but when you are going from show to film, there should be a much more noticeable upgrade. Still, the animation is mostly smooth, there are a few very pleasant shots, and when the action kicks in, it ranges from action-packed to intense, depending on where you are within the story. It’s not the biggest upgrade from show to film, but it looks solid enough. You can turn back the clock and look at much older anime recap films and see how they just didn’t do a dang thing with going from show to film. If you need proof, go find the old Cyborg 009 recap films or the Tatsunoko stuff. In some ways,we are in a much better place than we were back in the day with anime franchise films. The music by Yuki Kajiura is good with some pretty rocking fantasy RPG beats from the training montage to the raid battle having the accurate musical tracks. It sounds a lot like Dot Hack and or something similar to the Demon Slayer series, but that’s also because Yuki helped compose music for both series. The English dub is rather good as usual, and any issues I have with the story are not because of the English voice actors or the Japanese voice actors. Bryce Papenbrook returns as Kirito alongside Cherami Leigh as Asuna, and they do help elevate some of the rougher parts of the script. The other actors are strong as well, and if you are sad other characters and their respective voice actors don’t make an appearance, don’t worry, they will probably show up in the next film. Still, Cherami Leigh and Anairis Quinones carry a lot of the drama on their shoulders, and they do a good job at making you feel connected to their friendship.
Sadly, the problems keep coming up when you remember that this is Sword Art Online, and 2013 was almost a decade ago now when the original series came out. When Kirito shows up, the story does then turn into more of the typical fantasy/video game action anime that you would expect. The third act falls flat due to a few storybeats that don’t feel properly executed with how the major fight unfolds, and it’s not fully Kirito’s fault that he’s the poster child for boring power fantasy characters, but he sure did reinforce the tropes and how many anime after the original show came out would want to be like Kirito. Asuna also suffers after his introduction to the story, because she becomes less interesting. It’s also a shame that they didn’t change too much else with the story up to this point. They may have cut out some filler pieces, but it sure does feel like this franchise is stuck in the past, figuratively and literally. It’s hard not to dread how little the franchise has changed going forward as well, due to how it all unfolds within this movie. Will the next film not change much? Nostalgia is a very sinister force right now in how our media is crafted, going right back to pandering to the most common denominator. Sorry for the snobbish side of this review coming up, but when you watch the Evangelion films and how much they changed and improved upon the overall story of the original, you can pick up how this one might not go the distance, but we will have to see. It’s not really fair to judge this film due to how we don’t know how the upcoming sequel will turn out, but it’s also fair to point out that while some major changes happened within this film’s take on the original story, not much else has changed either. Like, how did no one at the game studio not know about this creator basically doing a Battle Royale experiment without them knowing? Yes, the game industry is in a really bad spot right now in real life, but if your drama is going to revolve around one individual causing the ruckus, then there better be a good reason he was able to make all of this unfold and happen.
Listen, it’s not this film’s fault that it came out the same year as the final Evangelion Rebuild film. It’s not its fault that it’s not as good as that last movie. It’s not its fault Sword Art Online is an overall flawed franchise where the spin-offs were more interesting than the main series. However, it is its fault with how this film feels like it’s only going halfway with its retelling of the story. What would have been interesting is if they pulled a Marvel What If?, and killed Kirito in this film or didn’t have him to let it focus solely on Asuna. Sure, that wasn’t going to happen, due to how the creator of the franchise wanted to make sure their vision was going to go as planned and any major changes needed to be decided by them, but when Sword Art Online has been out for almost a decade now, times have changed, and the anime scene is much different for both good and for bad with this film being released. It’s not the worst animated film of the year, nor is it the worst anime-related film of 2021, but when your competition is Evangelion, Demon Slayer, and My Hero Academia, then you had better come to the front lines with something worth investing into. It’s a shame, because the first half of this film was really compelling and interesting. Once the film is available to watch, maybe give it a rent first, but if you are a huge fan of the franchise, you will probably want to buy the blu-ray when it comes out. Now then, we come around the corner to the end of 2021 and next time, we will be talking about Bob Spit: We Do Not LIke People.
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Rating: Rent it!