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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.