Skip to main content

This isn't just a game. I'm talking about actual life and death stuff.

Ready Player One
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Ready Player One was a major test for the ‘berg. Did he still have what it took to rank as one of the big guns of populist modern cinema, or would he be confirmed as an out-of-touch grandpa, futilely attempting to reclaim a crown he’d long since lost, and in the process adding insult to injury by attempting to tap into a vein of nostalgia he himself had a hand in creating? The answer is that this is very much cinema from a man with his finger on the pulse of current tastes and trends, one who – if we’re take his comment at face value – thinks it’s anything other than facetious to suggest the Indiana Jones series would benefit from a gender swap as “Indiana Joan”. Ready Player One moves along breezily, hitting the superficial marks of event cinema, but it’s a mechanical exercise from a man who was once a titan of the genre. Where once he was enthused by the possibilities of creating sheer entertainment and that was enough, now he’s caught second-guessing himself on getting down with the kids.


Zak Penn and Ernest Cline’s adaptation of the latter’s geekfest 2011 novel (unsurprisingly, he’s scribbling a sequel), comes armed with a couple of structural safeguards that ensure this is at least far from the abject turkey of latter-day Spielberg popcorn flicks (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The BFG) if never reaching the heights of his last great one (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn). For starters, it has on its side a Willy Wonka-esque goal of protagonists scoring the keys to the kingdom (lotto: the American dream of the disenfranchised making good as one-percenters), complete with guiding mad/eccentric creator figure (Mark Rylance in fully endearing Brian Wilson mode as OASIS main man James Halliday/Anorak), via a tried-and-tested treasure hunt structure that, while being enslaved to nostalgia is actually (vaguely) astutely clued into the formative well pool of nostalgia itself (the key notes of one’s own personal past  – depicted by journeying through the recorded history of Halliday – albeit more commonly identified by the pop culture paraphernalia thereof, which is basically Ready Player One’s selling point).


However, while the envisioning of an increasingly detached-from-reality populace escaping to a nominally better virtual life is an evergreen theme of science fiction, increasingly so because it seems to be actively encouraged by the trends of science itself and (if you want to throw conspiracy into the mix, and why not) as part of the controlling mechanism of a state assigning the transhumanist objective as the ultimate stranglehold on liberty, Ready Player One is a weak sauce derivation, even given its placement as a brain-in-neutral crowd-pleaser. The last time Spielberg went for a dystopian vision, the result, Minority Report, was his best picture in twenty years (and it doesn’t look like anything will have equalled it in the twenty following), right down to the deceptively downbeat ending. There, however, the big idea and thematic content never escaped him. Here, he seems caught between modes, of pleasing and moralising, of pandering to the ‘80s nostalgia that infuses the concept and faintly disdaining this underpinning aspect of the exercise.


If the picture is structurally sound – like Minority Report, it’s a chase, although unlike Minority Report, its back end is conceptually exhausted – it’s also well cast. Tye Sheridan shows more of that early promise of Mud and Joe as lead Wade Watts/Parzival, while Olivia Cooke is even better as Samantha er… Cook/Art3mis. Arguably, however, the basis of a picture where uber-geeks seek solace in a realm of idealised avatars is somewhat undermined by casting photogenic actors (my God, isn’t the leading lady hideous with that aesthetically tasteful birthmark plastered across her face?) Only scene-stealing Lena Waither as Helen and her male alter-ego Aech, and eleven-year-old Akhihide (Philip Zhao) playing adult Daitro, hint at the broader appeal of this environment as a great leveller (there’s are coy VR fondling that lead to real world arousal and VR knees to balls that lead to real world wincing; insightful stuff).


Ben Mendelsohn essays his umpteenth villain (next up, the Sheriff of Nottingham) in Nolan Sorrento, and if he’s unable to imbue him with much beyond inveterate corporate malignance that’s because he’s given nothing more to work with (I like the touch of him post-iting his password to his super deluxe VR chair, though). Simon Pegg, on the other hand, is so benignly pathetic as Halliday’s partner Ogden, you can only assume he thinks he’s channelling Sir Dickie (but failing to ensure we actually like him). TJ Miller walks off with most of the laughs as bounty hunter i-R0k, his lack of real world presence representing a luck-in for Warners who consequently don’t have to deal with his recent spate of adverse publicity.


Spielberg gets to play in the sandpit of his traditionally favourite haunts of families both dysfunctional (Wade’s aunt and abusive gambler boyfriend, Susan Lynch and Ralph Ineson respectively) and surrogate (Wade’s fellow “Gunters”, or egg hunters). But there’s little emotional permanence, not when Wade loses his extended family in one of the picture’s few occasions of grounded stakes yet is fully distracted by the real Samantha a few minutes later, and not in the rote call to non-virtual interfacing (Wade pursues that kiss where Halliday failed; I wouldn’t be surprised if Halliday’s fear of intimacy inspired Spielberg’s lurking adolescent self to sign on).


There’s a more serious issue of trying to make coherent sense of this future vision, though. At the outset, I assumed IOI (Innovative Online Industries) was a kind of de facto corporate government, with its own paramilitary wing and jurisdictional freehand. It appears, come the end, that this isn’t the case, as the real police dependably show up precisely when they’re needed to haul Sorrento off in cuffs. It rather runs antithetical to the broad course of dystopian projection, of increasingly totalitarian and intrusive state surveillance and infringement of liberties, corn syrup droughts and bandwidth riots damping their influence or not. Thus, it’s difficult to envisage this version of near-three decades hence, where an individual can effectively keep their real identity secret in a game (they can’t do that in a world of clouds now, how much less will they be able to in the future?) Even more bemusing is the appeal of a virtual reality system that appears to replicate the quality of early ‘00s video games, complete with clunky tech (oversized headgear, walkpads) that undermine the essence of escapism (thank goodness 2049 is just three short years from this).


Spielberg’s much better at the real world cat-and-mouse games at IOI, as Samantha escapes her cell then eludes Sorrento, than depicting the immaterial OASIS. There’s one instance where the VR concept is used to its Dickian potential as Sorrento is subjected to a Total Recall fake out in which, curiously, the crappy avatars are dispensed with for the photoreal. If the OASIS can produce that level of quality all along, why are the impoverished populace mostly putting up with this kind of Final Fantasy crap? Perhaps they should have got Michael Bay to design the system?


Not only are the graphics lacking, but with regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on board, it’s also mystifying why the globe’s population think the system’s any kind of escape at all. The dour real world is more aesthetically pleasing than the frankly pug-ugly virtual environment (all drab blue-greys). I’m pretty certain the ‘berg’s career over the past three decades would have been much more rewarding if he’d mixed up his DPs occasionally, choosing them on the basis of the project’s merits. As it is, Janusz is as miscast as he was for Crystal Skull (in contrast, Zemeckis regular Alan Silvestri provides the score, John Williams being quite old’n’all, and it’s decent if overly fond of using Back to the Future cues, presumably intentionally).


The OASIS also has a pervasively negative effect on the director’s technical instincts. It’s replete the kind of weightless, gravity-defying virtual camera moves and signatures that, since they couldn’t happen in the real world, undermine investment in the already fake; this was once the unenvied domain of only Stephen Sommers spectaculars, and only serves to underline the divorce from the recognisable. The major battle scene is forgettably busy, a whirlwind of errant pixels and signature icons, when it should have been enthralling. It’s the old problem of wanting to adapt video games (Ready Player One is at least, if not more, nostalgic for games as its movies and music) but it failing to work if they look or feel like video games.


It’s also curious that the glut of nostalgia references swarm by with a shrug of general irrelevance (and have you witnessed some of the truly, abjectly awful classic poster “tributes” the publicists came up with?) Even The Shining (replacing Monty Python & the Holy Grail; I guess even Spielberg knows quoting great tracts of Python wholesale is an insufferable geek-out too far – the last time it happened was Sliding Doors, and John Hannah’s career has never quite recovered), the one sequence the director is clearly fully on board with given he’s retracting the footsteps of his hero Kubrick, is afflicted by the sense of CGI inrush and overkill.


There’s a jab at Last Action Hero (III) (which Penn penned the original story for, and which was thrashed by Jurassic Park at the box office), but for all its flaws that picture martialled its slew of in-references in its own virtual world with much more style and affection (why are we supposed to care about an avatar dressed as Beetlejuice any more than we would seeing someone in that outfit at Halloween? Chucky did make me laugh, however). It’s a strange, ungainly effect overall, as you might come away with the impression Spielberg really wants to disincentivise this world, but if that’s the case, how can he expect viewers to believe it weaves such a spell on future us-es?


Perhaps, without realising it, he’s merely translating the slight queasiness of the subject matter, from Cline’s ever-so-unconvincing moral (two days of the week with OASIS switched off? I’m not sure CIA-funded Google, Musk et al would like that, but it’s a sop; more insidious is the notion that it would only be pesky monetisation keeping the OASIS from the status of a golden utopia – Samantha is not fighting “a rebellion” to create a better world, but to liberate a virtual one, which is some kind of deplorable collapse of future priorities) to the awe of the embodiment of the transhuman Halliday, offering as he does the promise of immortality through each of us cloud-ing ourselves. Is Ready Player One Spielberg’s paean to VR, or IA (“Intelligence Augmentation”) in the manner Close Encounters was to ETs?


Or maybe Ready Player One is wholly innocent and benign, and such readings are merely a consequence of how ill-conceived it is. I’ve read figures of $600m being necessary for the movie to break even, and I suspect that merely illustrates it cost too damn much in the first place. On one level it’s nice to have a major release that isn’t franchise or sequel, even if it’s entirely formulated on the same culturally-dependent notions. On another, it’s a shame this comes up so short. In the novel, Cline celebrates WarGames, amongst others; now there’s an example of a “kids” movie that manages to be reasonably smart and sharp on its own terms while selling itself to essentially the same age group Spielberg’s currently seeking. In part, Ready Player One’s failure is down to Cline being a geek and Penn not being given enough rope to overhaul the project. In part, it’s simply because Spielberg got old.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.