Oct 21, 2019
Evillordexdeath (All reviews)
This review contains spoilers for both the film itself and season 1 of SAO.

A Sword Art Online movie was a good proposition. The one area of near-universal praise that the franchise has attracted is for its visuals. Animated movies have higher and more focused budgets than TV serials, which means prettier graphics and more fluid animation. The reduced overall running time makes it harder to find space for a large ensemble cast or a complex narrative - things SAO has spectacularly failed to implement in the past. A movie, then, sounds like a good chance for it to focus on its strengths and minimize its faults.

It's too bad that they chose an AR-based story to adapt into the movie. The first season of SAO was at its best when it depicted the sense of wonder that arose from exploring its fantastical online worlds. The streets of modern Japan, at least for me, can't measure up to that feeling, even when enhanced with holograms of magic and monsters.

If we are to evaluate an anime on its own terms, we can't waste much time complaining that some of the fight-scenes in this don't add much to the story or progression. Nor indeed should we criticize the scene where Asuna takes a bath and the camera makes a point of treating us to a generous view of her bum. SAO is a dumb franchise whose only real purpose is to give us the visceral appeal of looking at things we find pretty. On that note, and for his part, Kazuto doesn't get a bath scene but looks great in his Ordinal Scale uniform.

This movie starts off with a lot of promise. It doesn't waste too much time getting to its well-animated fight scenes (the first one is about 15 minutes in, but that's responsible pacing.) What I particularly like is that Kazuto is struggling in AR games and sits around feeling left out while everyone else has fun with them. He's out of shape and physically weak, and these flaws are finally hindering him now that AR is such a fad. Seeing him alone and morose, and knowing it's because of his own faults, makes him more sympathetic than usual. There's even a rather amusing scene where he trips over a curb in the middle of a fight.

The film's antagonist, Eiji outclasses him completely when he arrives. This is a first for the series. He injures Asuna while Kazuto is nearby but helpless to prevent it, and then he effortlessly beats down Kazuto himself. That leaves our hero on his own to get to grips with his wimpy real-life body and his skills in the new game.

Unfortunately that character growth is rushed. Kazuto struggles a little in one AR battle and then the movie skips forward to the point where he's one of the great players, practically defeating major boss encounters on his own.

Two hours is an above average length for a film, and can be especially costly for an animated project. It is possible to make an anime film that long that feels like it uses all its time purposefully and packs a lot of meaning and development into its run-time. Just look at Akira for a great example of that. Ordinal Scale is not that kind of movie. It's loaded with slow-paced dialog, dull internal monologues, and flashbacks, even re-using animation from previous seasons of the T.V. show. It feels like 60-90 minutes worth of content that was watered down and stretched out to fill 120.

I felt that the climactic battles were a particularly big let-down. When Kazuto finally faces Eiji again, the film cuts to an idol's musical performance and a large portion of the fight takes place off-screen. Perhaps to Japanese viewers the idol performance, which had also seen significant build-up throughout the film, would be exciting enough to justify this, but to me it was incredibly frustrating. Kazuto rips off an artificial enhancer that apparently explains all of Eiji's strength and then immediately dispatches his now-helpless opponent, which is a deeply underwhelming resolution. It would feel more like the hero had overcome a great obstacle if his enemy were truly strong rather than a cheater. I feel like there has never been a really satisfying moment of high-energy uninterrupted sword-fighting in this entire goddam anime. Like Kazuto early in this film, it's always tripping over itself with exposition or strange digressions.

The film's final battle, against the 100th floor boss monster from SAO, takes place in VR. We'll leave aside the fact that SAO's creator previously stated that he himself was intended to be the 100th floor boss and that therefore there should not have been some other entity coded into that place. What the switch to VR for the big climax signals is the pointlessness of the entire film. All of the skills Kazuto has learned and the weaknesses he's overcome throughout the movie are rendered irrelevant in its big final battle. The changes it makes to the characters are all reversed by the end and the AR technology will never come back to the spotlight. This Ordinal Scale story has zero significance to the story of Kazuto himself. It is not art, and makes no pretense of being art. It's a silly fan-service heavy distraction that will keep you occupied for two hours but that ultimately contains no substance.