WARNING: the following contains spoilers for Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night, now playing in theaters.
Reboots aren't just meant to tell an old story. They have to add twists and embellishments that make them stand out from their source material. As such, Sword Art Online Progressive, while a reboot of events from the original anime, has a lot of new things going for it.
Sword Art Online Progressive is a retelling of the "Aincrad Arc," the first and arguably the best in the franchise. This first movie, in particular, Aria of a Starless Night, covers the events of the 1st Floor. However, the 1st Floor only lasts for two 20-minute episodes. That's not nearly long enough to fill the hour-and-a-half runtime the film is aiming for. In order to be a movie that lives up to the legacy of its source material, the Progressive films will need to do something almost entirely their own.
Unlike the anime, Aria of a Starless Night focuses on the perspective of Asuna, not Kirito. The latter is an amateur when it comes to video games. She doesn't have a lot of time to practice or even play because she's too busy with her studies. As a result of her inexperience, her getting trapped in SAO is much more precarious.
Kirito's role in the early part of the movie is filled in by a new character named Mito. She is Asuna's friend in real life. Like Kirito, she's a veteran gamer. She's even shown playing the SAO beta at the same time as Kirito. Since Asuna is an amateur, Mito's expertise becomes essential to her survival.
Mito serves as Asuna's mentor for the early parts of the movie. At first, she just teaches Asuna the basics like shopping for equipment and fighting low-level monsters. She also tries and fails to teach Asuna how to log out for reasons that become obvious. Their initial interactions within the game world are not unlike those between Kirito and Klein when the former helps the latter get started.
What's funny to think about is just how all of these many alike scenes are apparently happening simultaneously. Several events in the movie line up. The first act alone includes failing to log out, getting transferred to the plaza, the Game Master's speech, and the players having their faces revealed. These parallels make sense as they mostly occur at around the same time chronologically.
In terms of art and style, the most notable updates can be made by comparing scenes the movie shares with the anime. The lines are thinner and smoother. The colors are more vibrant and have more of a gradient look to them. The computer graphics also get an update. Overall, the movie boasts a level of refinement and quality to its aesthetic that almost makes the anime look dated by comparison.
The pacing is also different, though this is a little harder to catch watching the movie and the anime back-to-back. The anime, despite being shorter, draws out its scenes and lets what's said and done in them, as well as their atmosphere, sink in. Aria of a Starless Night rushes through these shared scenes, likely because fans are expected to be readily familiar with them. This works out well as it means the movie can spend more of its runtime on original content.
There's one scene, in particular, the movie shares with the anime that illustrates the stark contrast between Kirito and Asuna perfectly. In the anime, when Kirito rushes to the next town to capitalize on its resources, he is attacked by a Dire Wolf but cuts it down immediately. Aria of a Starless Night puts Asuna in similar circumstances, but she panics because she doesn't know how to play the game and the Dire Wolf almost kills her. Not only do these scenes show the difference between the two players, but it also reminds the audience how truly dangerous the death game can be.
Following Asuna's encounter with the Dire Wolf, it takes some time before the stories of the movie and the anime can line up again. The second act features Asuna dealing with her new reality and falling into despair at the hopelessness of the death game. This contextualizes her suicidal mindset in Episode 2 of the anime. It also reveals the origin of that cloak she wears.
Fortunately, this second act also sees Asuna encounter Kirito a little sooner than scheduled. He helps her out and gives her the strength to go on as he does in the anime. However, in the movie, Asuna's perspective of Kirito's support is expanded upon. In the anime, her change in mood has to be inferred from her subtle body language. The movie puts her true thoughts and feelings of blissful relief on full display. By showing Asuna in this light, the final battle of the movie becomes centered around her defending her newfound sense of purpose.
The final battle of the movie against the 1st Floor Boss Illfang the Kobold Lord features a healthy mix of old and new material. The overhauls Illfang's design by giving new clothes, new weapons abilities, and a more muscular frame. This may have been done so that the animators would have to commit to making this final fight of the movie a unique one. The redesign also makes Illfang look far more intimidating and worthy of being remembered by name rather than something like"that fat kangaroo Boss." The fight plays out in much the same way it does in the anime, but it's still cool that the animators changed as much about it as they did.
The movie also makes sure that its new character Mito contributes to the fight with Illfang. She ends up taking a role in the fight that belongs to Agil in the anime. She also teams up with Asuna and Kirito to deliver the final combination of attacks that finish off Illfang. Strangely, despite the movie being Asuna-centric, the final blow still goes to Kirito. The Beater scene is presented in a much kinder light in the movie, as it should be. In this scene, Kirito's goal is to take the brunt of the amateur players' hatred for the beta testers and maintain their dignity. For him, it's about Diavel, but since Mito is also a beta tester, he also inadvertently preserves her dignity. In general, the movie portrays the scene as nobler and lighter than the anime. The anime almost makes it feel like the audience is supposed to sympathize with the amateurs with the way it makes Kirito out to be the bad guy.
The final big change of the movie comes in the ending scene. In the anime, Kirito trusts Asuna to improve on her own as he goes off to fight solo. In the movie, they walk off together to a literal new horizon. This is exciting because it sets the stage for a story to be told in the next movie that's definitely not in the anime.
Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night is a brilliant way to kick off the reboot film series. It focuses on telling its own story while keeping scenes from its source material to a minimum. The scenes it does reuse are given a fresh, movie-level quality that makes them enjoyable to rewatch. The changes to the story make sense for the manner in which it's being told. This movie's blend of faithful adaptation and original storytelling establishes the standard that future installments of the film series should strive for.
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