On March 9, I had the chance to attend one of the limited-release showings of anime film Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale. Sword Art Online is an anime series I’ve recently gotten into, and I was excited to see what direction the story would take in movie form. The movie is based directly on the anime—to date, there have been two series of SAO, but the movie is primarily based on the first.
The original series is set in the near future and follows a young gamer named Kirito, one of the first 10,000 players to log on to a groundbreaking new virtual-reality game, which uses nerve-link technology to create a fully immersive experience. Not long after logging on, however, the players learn that there is no way to log back out. The game’s creator sends a message to all of then, telling them that they will be stuck in the game until they can collectively defeat the boss monsters on each of the 100 levels of Aincrad (the world of the game). What follows is almost three years of gameplay, intrigue, and ever-present danger as the gamers play for their lives in their fight to escape. And when Kirito finally finds a way to get himself and the other players back to the real world, he quickly learns that the real fight is just beginning.
Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale picks the thread of the story back up two years after the events in Aincrad, when Kirito, his girlfriend, Asuna (whom he met in Aincrad), and their other SAO friends have returned to their lives in the real world. But it’s not just the former players themselves who have changed; the real world has too—so much so that it’s looking less real all the time. Due to the dangers presented by full-immersion virtual reality that came to terrible fruition in Sword Art Online, game developers have created a new system that is taking the world by storm: Augma, an augmented-reality gaming system, which allows players to engage with gaming in the real world while fully conscious (think Pokémon Go, but everywhere, all the time). The most-played part of the system, unsurprisingly, is a combat-based game in which players work together to defeat virtual monsters and increase their in-game rank.
Despite the traumatic experience of being stuck in SAO, Kirito still prefers the full-dive gaming experience offered by virtual reality, and his friends have a hard time convincing him to get out of the house and join them in the larger-than-life experience of playing augmented reality. When he does, he finds that, inexplicably, boss monsters from Aincrad are showing up in the AR battles. At first, it seems like a weird coincidence, but then he discovers that SAO survivors who are defeated by the SAO bosses during these battles begin to mysteriously lose all memory of their time in Aincrad—and Asura is one of the victims of the strange epidemic.
Kirito knows he must find a way to get Asura’s memories back, or it will be as though the things they went through together in Aincrad, both the bad and the good, never happened at all. But how will Kirito do it without losing his own memories in the process? Who is the mysterious player ranked number two who keeps showing up and causing chaos at the SAO boss battles, or the ghostly young girl who often appears after the battle is over? Are they connected to the strange memory loss? Kirito risks losing everything he holds dear unless he can figure it all out and stop whomever is responsible before it’s too late.
Overall, I enjoyed this film quite a bit, and I found it to be a nice wrap-up to a story with an arresting premise. However, like many anime films and other films based on episodic shows, it was the sort of film that’s made with a particular goal in mind: namely, tying up some final loose ends of a long-running story and giving people who are already fans of the show another chance to see their favorite characters in action, as well as a chance to say goodbye to them. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as far as this sort of film is concerned, Ordinal Scale was pretty satisfying on the whole.
However, I’d argue that if you don’t approach it with that mindset, you’ll likely have a hard time enjoying it. It’s the kind of film for which it’s important to know what you’re getting into from the outset; if you go into it expecting an all-new story with compelling character development, exploration of deeper themes, or new revelations about the world of the story, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you look at it as a way to nicely round out a solid series and give fans the closure they’re looking for, then you’ll leave feeling like you got what you came for. As I see it, sometimes you want something that does something completely new, or makes you think, and sometimes you don’t—sometimes you want a film that gives you exactly what you expect. Ordinal Scale is a film that will do just that, and the fact that it fills a very specific niche doesn’t ruin my overall positive opinion of it.
One of the strengths of the original Sword Art Online series, and the main thing that has kept me watching it, is that it focuses on the development of the individual characters’ arcs rather than on the combat that suffuses the world of the game in which they find themselves trapped. This keeps the show from falling into the monster-of-the-week rut, and, in my opinion, it’s the only thing keeping it from feeling like a generic, “meh” series. Because of the nature of Ordinal Scale, though, the character development piece gets a bit lost among the fast-moving action and pretty settings that drive the film. I don’t think this makes the film a failure—again, I think it successfully does exactly what it sets out to do. But I do think it narrows the appeal of the film to those who are already fans of the show. While it’s not pure fan service, it’s not far from it.
Another key weakness of the film is that it feels simplistic at times. The story is fairly well paced, but there were spots when I wondered just where it could be going, or why so much time was being spent on scenes that seemed trivial (and sometimes tedious) in light of the overall story. And as the film concluded, it felt as though the creators didn’t quite know how they wanted to end it, which was evident in the blurry and confusing final battle scene and the abrupt closing scenes. However, I think the somewhat disjointed, dreamlike quality that results is very common for anime films of this type, and while there were moments that could have been handled better, it didn’t ruin the experience from my perspective.
Ordinal Scale is definitely not a standalone piece; I can’t really recommend it to someone who has never watched the series. However, fans of the anime, even those who haven’t finished watching all of the episodes, will find something to savor and will enjoy the chance to revisit well-known settings and see beloved characters. The film offers a satisfying conclusion to an entertaining (if at times a bit basic) anime series, and Sword Art Online fans are likely to find it well worth watching.