Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)

The plot: In the year 2045, most of the world has been become desolate and most of the population spends their time inside the OASIS, a virtual reality containing pretty much anything a person could want. However, with the death of OASIS co-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a new game has been established. Before his death, Halliday placed hidden items within the OASIS. Whoever finds all of the items first not only gets major bragging rights, but also becomes the official owner of the OASIS itself. As adventurous teen Wade 'Parzival' Watts (Tye Sheridan) tries to hunt down the items, and corporate CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) sets out to seize the OASIS for himself, the race is on to find Halliday's Easter Egg and both the virtual world and the real world hang in the balance.

Honestly, of all the things to highlight about this movie, the acting is probably the weakest of the elements here. Not that it’s bad; just that not a lot of these performances really stand out, even from our leads. Sheridan as the rebellious adventurer works out okay as our lead, but beyond his place as our focal point and the character who needs to understand the real-world implications of his actions in the Oasis (bit on the nose for an audience avatar, but okay), he lacks that lead-role charisma. Olivia Cooke turns out better in the long run, to the point of becoming the ideal lead in the story given how well she wears her priorities and her understanding of the film’s universe.

Mendelsohn as the villain fits in rather nicely, getting to show off his proficiency with straight-up bad guys while also handling his character’s very Corporate Commander capitalist tendencies very well. T.J. Miller as the magical arms dealer i-R0k, aside from being pretty instantly recognisable by voice, does alright with his scenes opposite Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg brings his sci-fi comfort levels to his role to good effect, and Hannah John-Kamen holds up as Mendelsohn’s right-hand mercenary. Honestly, best performance here is from Mark Rylance, who absolutely nails Halliday’s socially-reclusive but quietly mischievous dramatic beats. He nudges the stereotypical ‘nerd’ archetype but adds enough genuine heart and wizened reflection to make it stick. Also, minor point, but having Mckenna Grace and Lulu Wilson in the same room together? What I would give to see that movie!

With Spielberg at the helm, his frequent DOP Janusz KamiƄski at the camera and Industrial Light & Magic at the effects lab, this statement should be dead obvious but it bears mentioning: This looks absolutely amazing. The motion-capture work manages to strike a nice balance between recognisably human and digitally enhanced, all without venturing into the Uncanny Valley for too long a time. It’s almost unavoidable when dealing with a film that features this much mo-cap, but credit to Spielberg and co. for keeping it to a solid minimum. In bringing the elements of the Oasis to life, from the locations to the myriad of pop culture cameos to the action beats, this shows a lot of time and care being put into making things fit. The designs for the locales are solid, like the anti-gravity dance club and the interactive museum dedicated to Halliday’s memories, the characters that occupy them make for some nice moments of “Hey, I know who that is!” without it bogging down the story, and the action they take part in is not only well-executed but shows some good variety as well. Whether it’s disco-dancing, avoiding a giant axe-wielding ghoul in a hedge maze, or speeding through one of the coolest race tracks ever put to film, it all lands on solid ground, culminating in one hell of a fire-fight finale.

Of course, being good in surface details is one thing; if this is going to be an all-out love letter to pop culture, it also needs to show enough understanding of that culture to make it genuine. Well, on both sides of the coin, Zak Penn and the source book’s author Ernest Cline definitely get that across. We are shown the very rundown state of the real world, complete with the oddly unnerving depiction of “The Stacks” that Wade calls home, and how things have become so dire that pretty much everyone finds escape in the Oasis. This so easily could have become a screed against geeks for using pop culture as a means to avoid the responsibilities of the real world, but between its showing of the true benefits of a digital existence and its acknowledgement of where the digital world and the real world affect each other, it successfully avoids insulting its own audience. That sounds like a weird thing to highlight, but I’ve seen enough to know that that is an unfortunately easy pitfall to get into. It also shows a lot of savvy as far as the corporate side of the popular media we consume through the operations of Sorrento's Innovative Online Industries, from its financial trapping of people into indentured servitude to its ‘innovations’ in literally commercialising that media. There’s a scene where Sorrento talks about his own vision for the Oasis, one populated with countless pop-up ads (but only as many as they can fit in without causing seizures in the viewer). With the increasing popularity of VR gaming in the real world, keep in mind that this kind of rampant cash-grabbing is a very real possibility. Hell, between loot boxes and the continuing evolution of 'microtransactions' in modern gaming, it might already be happening.

I could probably just spend the rest of this review rattling off the numerous pop culture cameos this behemoth contains, spanning a good 50 years’ worth of geek history in a way that basically requires frame-by-frame analysis to catch everything. But rather than talking about the quantity, I want to go into the quality of these little nods to the things we like. Or, more specifically, what the filmmakers themselves like. One of the more prominent bits of pop culture that gets revisited is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with an entire set piece set within that film. The scene itself was originally occupied by Blade Runner in the original novel, but since that property had already been optioned for what would become a rather disappointing follow-up (don’t @ me, it really isn’t that good), it had to be replaced. So Spielberg, who had been a long-time friend and collaborator with Kubrick during his lifetime, used this moment to tip his hat to one of his colleagues. During the amazing vehicle race sequence, a cinema marquee briefly shows up sporting “Schwarzenegger in Jack Slater III”. This is a reference to Last Action Hero, co-writer Zak Penn’s first writing credit, and it was added into the film at the request of Ernest Cline. Once again, a tip of the hat to a colleague.

I bring both of these up because these moments end up bolstering what the ultimate goal of this film is: Celebrating pop culture and the reasons why we engage with it. It’s easy enough in the age of Google to look countless quotes from famous films, shows and games, but the ability to parrot them on command isn’t what makes them special. Instead, they’re special because of their place within pop culture. I’ve mentioned it enough times in this review, but here’s the thing: One of the bigger aspects of pop culture that tends to be ignored is that, at its core, it is a culture same as any other. One built on repetition, same as any other. One built on focal points to add to the history, same as any other. One that has the capacity to bring people together and shape how we view our world, same as any other.

Like any culture, pop culture needs curators and adherents to keep it alive; traditions tend to die if no-one remembers them and carries them on. We are what make this culture what it is, just as much as the creators. Creators like Spielberg, whose filmography has helped shape what we consider to be ‘cinema’ in the modern age, and without whose clout this film likely never would have been able to come to fruition. He may be a modest person, to the point of intentionally removing as many references to his own films as possible, but being able to use his place in the industry to become that curator for the culture is a very big deal. He took a fanboy’s ode to all things geeky in Cline’s novel and turned it into a 'Thank You' letter to everyone that keeps this culture thriving… and singling out the money-grubbers who would want to change all that. Now that is real.

All in all, this marks another truly stunning milestone in the career of an already-incredible filmmaker. While the acting may falter at points and some of the effects work can be rather conspicuous, this is just too damn fun for that to be much of a bother. It’s a great popcorn flick with enough references to all things geek to keep the more studious busy, but it’s also a much-appreciated showing of the highs, lows and power of pop culture consumption. This is something that would not have been possible if it weren’t for Steven Spielberg using his decades' worth of connections in the industry to create this admission of the culture, and fans, that got him to that point in the first place. It’s stuff like this that makes pop culture references into more than just things to be acknowledged, and it’s sure to warm the hearts of many a fanboy and fangirl.

This ranks higher than The Shape Of Water, but that is mainly out of the relative scopes of both productions. TSOW set out to raise genre cinema into high art, a gambit that wound up paying off big time in how much recognition the film got from even the anti-genre elitists at the Academy. Ready Player One, on the other hand, goes beyond simply elevating individual forms of film or even art and raises the entire culture around them and preserves it as something important to be treasured. Knowing how much Spielberg’s legacy shaped that very culture, this is the kind of acknowledgement that wins major points in these parts.

However, as good as this is, it’s still a Spielberg movie; all the pre-release ponderings about the problematic parts of the film’s printed place of origin in the world couldn’t shake the feeling that this would turn out well, considering the director’s pedigree. Game Night, on the other hand, was not only a good film but good to the point of making me forgive the makers of my most hated film of all time. My inner fanboy is impressed by Ready Player One, but the part of my being that was irreparably broken from watching Vacation 2015 is even more impressed by Game Night.

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