I want to start out this review by saying that Assault Girls is the kind of deeply strange movie that only Japan seems to make. It’s also highly obscure, and it’s only because it popped up as a recommendation on Netflix that I even heard of it. Now, some time after viewing the picture, I remain conflicted as to my feelings about it. Is it good? Is it bad? Could it be a weird mixture of both, the sort of concoction that will make a viewer either love it or hate it (or just be bewildered)? I’m leaning toward the last because Assault Girls is so odd that it’s hard to imagine anyone coming out of the viewing experience without some strong opinion about it, even if it’s just to say, “That movie is seriously bizarre!”
Assault Girls is nominally about MMO games, the kind that are hugely popular the world over. World of Warcraft alone, unquestionably the biggest player on the block, has 11 million users. That’s more people than live in some of the biggest cities on Earth. Try to wrap your head around those kinds of figures. And who knows how many folks play the many, many, many other MMOs that are out there, from Star Trek-related games to games that let you play as fantasy hamster people. The numbers have to be staggering.
In Assault Girls, we see an MMO from the inside only. A very lengthy text/speech intro describes a planet Earth that has undergone some sort of cataclysmic, near-apocalyptic event that has spurred the creation of a virtual-reality MMO where downtrodden folks can while their cares away for hours, days, weeks or longer. Everything within the MMO is perfectly real-seeming, from the presence of edible food — that has to be cooked, natch — to the other players themselves. If the outside world is as bad as the movie suggests, I’d probably bury myself in a game, too. Anything to escape.
The weird thing, and maybe I should say one of the weird things, about this MMO is that it has an apocalyptic flavor of its own. The game world seems to consist entirely of blasted desert wasteland with a few mountains to break things up. And besides the other players, the only living things in the setting are these giant, eel-like sandworms that prowl the territory endlessly. They appear to exist solely to be hunted, which makes a certain amount of sense in an MMO setting, where “mobs,” also known as monsters, sort of hang out in designated areas simply waiting for players to run up and kill them.
Into this strange, depopulated wilderness come four players, three of them women, thus the title. They, like everyone else in the game, are hunting these sandworms, but they go about it in different ways. One flies around in her own, personal jet fighter, purchased with in-game points, and one can actually take wing in bird form. A third flies around in her own craft, while the fourth player, a man, chooses to walk everywhere despite the enormous amount of time it takes to traverse the gameplay area.
One thing that makes this movie somewhat surreal: though the film is a Japanese one and all the actors in the film are Japanese, all of the women’s dialogue is in English. However, it doesn’t seem like any of the women actually speak English and therefore all their lines have the sound of words learned phonetically. In the print I saw, the accents on the women are so thick that the film had to provide subtitles. At first I just assumed they were speaking Japanese, but it slowly crept into my consciousness that they were attempting their lines in English and the weirdness meter pegged. I assume this choice was made to broaden the potential market for this Japanese-made and -targeted film, but it’s just another odd thing on top of a big mountain of the peculiar.
Anyway, the players are all quite accomplished in the game and they are all highly competitive. The movie suggests that one of the women is playing the game to earn money, which I guess would make her the equivalent of one of World of Warcraft‘s Chinese gold-farmers, but that thread is introduced and dropped so quickly that it makes little impression. More memorable is the male character, whose sheer bullheadedness when playing the game reminds me a little of myself when I was grinding it out in WoW.
As in actual MMOs, not all the goals of the game can be accomplished solo, despite the wishes of those who prefer to keep themselves to themselves. Accordingly there is one monster worm out there called Madara that is a stand-in for the sort of boss characters that appear in “instances” of other games. Instances are sort of specialized sections of the world map where only groups dare tread and they almost always culminate in a battle with some ferocious enemy. The players in Assault Girls have all progressed to the point where they must take out Madara in order to advance in the game, but their unwillingness to team up holds them back.
Eventually, of course, the disparate players do form a group and proceed from there. The process is painstakingly slow. In fact, the whole movie is extremely slow, despite the fact that it runs a mere 85 minutes including the credits. In the film’s defense, there’s not a whole lot of story here to hang a full-length movie on, so the director and writer have to do what they can to make it work. Even so, it takes some degree of patience to wade through the seemingly endless scenes of wandering around in the desert to get to the final boss battle. Considering that the dialogue spoken along the way is nigh-incomprehensible, it’s a miracle I was able to muddle through.
Even though I think Assault Girls is seriously flawed, I can respect it. The filmmakers are doing a lot with very little budget and it’s true that the movie holds quite well to the MMO model. Whoever wrote the thing has clearly played an MMO or two and gotten used to their particular quirks and the transplantation to script is accomplished, albeit roughly.
I might think more highly of Assault Girls if it had a little bit more going on and if the movie didn’t make strange narrative choices in its quest to stretch an extremely simple plot to feature length. I was engaged with the film, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that I liked it, while at the same time it’s not fair to say I disliked it. I came into the movie a little mystified by its storytelling and exited the same way. Depending on your movie-watching endurance, you may come away in the same state of mind.