Sword Art Online: Progressive - Aria of a Starless Night
2021, NR, 97 min. Directed by Ayako Kawano. Starring Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Inori Minase, Haruka Tomatsu.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 10, 2021
Sword Art Online isn't the first movie to be based around the idea of a killer video game, but it's intriguing because it's a feature, not a bug. If you die while wearing the neural link control system for the titular MMORPG, your brain gets fried by a microwave burst. What's an MMORPG? That's massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in case you were in the very small subset in the intersection between "doesn't know what that means" and "want to watch an anime about being trapped in one."
In the complicated nature of Japanese franchising, Sword Art Online – Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night is based on the soft reboot light novels (basically, young adult fiction), which were based on the successful anime that was adapted from the original Sword Art Online light novels. Basically, the big difference is that the books and anime centered on hardened gamer Kirito and noob Asuna, while the Progressive storyline shifts to Asuna (voiced by Haruka Tomatsu in the original Japanese language version and Cherami Leigh in the English dub) and her more experienced gamer friend Mito (Inori Minase/Anairis Quinones). Kiroto (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka/Bryce Papenbrook) doesn't even appear until deep into the level, as Asuna slogs through a generic high-fantasy setting in a quest to defeat the game and get back to her body.
Here's where Aria of a Starless Night becomes caught up in its own ambitions. The whole point of the Progressive light novels was to expand upon the sections missed out from the original books. Even in the anime, it would be impossible to slog through the 100 levels of the the first floor of the game, and the Progressive books fill in some of those blanks. The first in what seems like an inevitable series of Progressive films expands instead by adding in characters, shifting events, actions, and motivations between characters.
Yet SAO (and this is once you get past the sexualization of its school-girl protagonists that's nothing to do with the queer-coded bond between Asuna and Mito) has always had the opportunity to say something about our fixations with virtual life. But Aria of a Starless Night never even comes close to what Mamoru Hosoda achieved with social media commentary Summer Wars or the upcoming Belle. That's arguably an unfair comparison, since SAO is more of an adventure than a character piece, but even then its approach to online and gaming culture is uneven (plus, it's been 20 years since Reki Kawahara's original novel: Would it be too hard to make the realm of Aincrad an open sandbox?). Ultimately, by placing everything within the online adventure, the real-world threats become secondary to the dungeon crawl. Hardened SAO fans may be fascinated by the tweaks in this remaster, but Aria of a Starless Night just feels like a repackaging.