Monday, April 02, 2018

Ready Player One / *** (PG-13)

Warner Bros.
Parzival/Wade: Tye Sheridan
Art3mis/Samantha: Olivia Cooke
Sorrento: Ben Mendelsohn
Aech/Helen: Lena Waithe
I-R0k: T.J. Miller
Ogden Morrow: Simon Pegg
Anorak/Halliday: Mark Rylance

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline. Running time: 140 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language).

There’s an interesting trend going on in filmmaking today that I don’t believe we’ve ever witnessed in cinematic history. It seems to have started at the dawn of the superhero movie, but has been building to a crescendo as more and more filmmakers who grew up in the 80s are coming into their own in Hollywood and are turning modern films into a sort of meta homage to the films of their youth. One of the filmmakers primarily responsible for the great popularity of cinema in the 80s was Steven Spielberg, who directed many of the iconic films of that era. With Ready Player One, it seems Spielberg has been inspired to up the meta level of modern filmmaking by making his own homage to the era that he was in great part responsible for building.

Spielberg chooses the right material for his meta gambit in his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. Cline is making a name for himself as an 80s enthusiast—his second novel Armada is also heavily soaked in 80s nostalgia. I can’t imagine the nerdgasmic feeling that must’ve come over Cline when he discovered that Spielberg himself was interested in adapting his 80s nostalgia-centric novel. Anyway, Spielberg’s many professional connections to all things 80s and Cline’s obsession with them makes this a near perfect teaming of creative minds. Spielberg brings in frequent superhero scripter Zak Penn, also responsible for the story behind the equally nostalgia-driven Last Action Hero, to shore up Cline’s own screen adaptation.

The story takes place in a near future in which people spend most of their time in a virtual reality world known as The Oasis created by a Steve Jobs-esque tech mogul named James Halliday. Upon his death, Halliday announces that he has hidden an “easter egg” inside of The Oasis, and the first person to find it will win a hefty portion of his media empire and total control of The Oasis. For people like the story’s hero, Wade Watts, this represents a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type of opportunity to pull himself out of the rising poverty rate that can be felt most profoundly in his home neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, known as The Stacks, an utterly depressing housing development that consists mostly of mobile homes stacked on top of each other inside metal skyscraping skeletons. Spielberg’s imagining of this does an incredible amount of justice to the book’s description of it. Halliday was a nut for the 80s, the time in which he grew up, and hides the three keys to unlock the egg inside games that require great knowledge of the 80s. Current Spielberg favorite Mark Rylance plays Halliday to nerd outcast perfection.

For others it represents different kinds of opportunities. For a corporation like IOI the discovery of the egg could mean using The Oasis as the biggest advertizing platform ever available to consumer eyes. CEO Nolan Sorrento imagines placing advertisements in 80% (the highest possible amount before brain damage) of gamers’ fields of vision. It is his task to secure the egg for which he employs thousands of gamers and 80s pop culture experts, along with a corporate police force operating in the real world to shut down activists and others bent on stopping corporate domination by protecting the one place not yet owned by big business, The Oasis. Art3mis is the gaming name one of those activists who eventually team up with Wade on his quest to win the prize.  Sorrento also employs a mercenary gamer inside The Oasis, I-R0k, voiced by the delightfully indignant T.J. Miller.

The thematic elements of Ready Player One are pretty obvious and don’t require much explanation, which leaves a fairly basic dramatic structure upon which to hang a series of incredibly spectacular video game-inspired action sequences that are filled from one corner of the screen to the other with pop culture references, mostly from the 80s, which cultivated video gaming, pop music, home video, music videos and the movie blockbuster into a generation identification. We have a hero who participates in car races where he drives the Delorean, seen in the Back To the Future trilogy, against the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am and the Mad Max: Road Warrior Interceptor all trying to get past the Jurassic Park T-Rex and King Kong. We see the hero team get stuck in a video game version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, including a hallway flooded with blood from the elevators. Even the corporate warriors find themselves forced to play original Atari console games like Galaga, Centipede and Adventure looking for clues on how to unlock the egg.

All of this is expertly done by Spielberg, proving that he is a true master at choreographing action sequences that are incredibly complex and yet easy to follow in both CGI animation sequences and at times cutting back and forth with live action sequences of the gamers evading Sorrento’s corporate police force while navigating the games inside The Oasis. I believe this is something much easier said than done, and I’m not even sure you can follow what I just wrote. There are sequences here that call back to the kids’ escape from the federal agents at the end of E.T. The movie also gets fairly meta when Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn—whose recognition as a movie baddie went up considerably when he appeared as Director Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—offers the hero a Millennium Falcon to use in The Oasis.

While the meta quality of this particular Spielberg adventure adds a new level to his action filmmaking, the lack of character development diminishes the typical emotional impact found in Spielberg’s movies. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, as the leads, seem up to the task of carrying their personal journeys and romantic emotions, however the screenplay never really tries very hard to fill in these elements. I find it hard to believe that Spielberg has lost his perspective on emotional impact since the last movie he released just three months ago. I also felt the novel did not falter in this aspect, so I’m inclined to believe it was the streamlining of the story from novel to script that omitted the emotional elements. While at first the streamlining is effective in the way it gets the audience quickly into the action of the story and doesn’t confuse any of the plot elements, by the time the story comes to its conclusion there is a definite disconnect between the theme of the power of friendship and the emotional connections felt by the audience between these characters. For instance, Lena Waithe plays Wade’s longtime gaming companion Aech, whom he’s never met in real life. When they finally do meet, the screenplay never slows down long enough for each of them to digest the differences their impressions of each other were before with the reality of who they actually are in life.

That being said, I can’t help but think that Ready Player One will mean as much to my own children for the rest of their lives as movies like Star Wars and Monty Python and The Holy Grail have meant to me all my life. Spielberg also understands, like Cline, that pop culture influences go beyond the movies and games that are considered “good” by today’s or even the 80s standards. Everything, good or bad, from the time period you grew up in influences you, and so in this movie you see references to mediocre movies like Krull, with its very distinctive throwing blade weapon factoring heavily into the plot here. It all sparks memories and emotions that maybe the characters and plot of Ready Player One lack. I very much want to see it again to catch even more references from the pop culture of my youth. My kids are gamers and I know they loved this movie. Having movies and games that you love not only enrich your childhood, they bring the enrichment of nostalgia into your adulthood, so that in some small way, we can always make contact with that child we once were.


Jimh. said...

Maybe movies are focusing way too much on action to keep this generation from going to their smartphones, maybe they need to focus on the relationships and character development that was THERE, in black and white in the pages of the book this movie is so loosely based upon. The reckless abandon of the action is great for the eyes, but not for the psyche. We need to work through the problems that these characters found themselves in, and I think Spielberg dropped the ball. Anymore it's easy to hack together CGI and live action, and slave avatars to facial expressions of the actors, it's not easy to follow a novel's ideas and story-line with fidelity... maybe more people should try on the sci-fi stage. I loved this book, but I'm disappointed in the movie.

Andrew Wells said...

I don't think the problems you bring up about movies focusing on action is really anything new with today's movies. That's been going on since the 80s. The problems with adapting books to the screen have been around even longer. People have been complaining that "the book was better" ever since Hollywood started adapting books to screen. I read the book too, but I decided not to do a review that consisted of comparing the film to the book. Books and movies are such different mediums that it is often very difficult to effectively adapt a book to screen. The book is very dense. I was not upset with focusing on the action elements of gaming. A more faithful adaptation of the book would've resulted in something like the universal disappointment people felt with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a sci-fi fan, I actually think that the first Star Trek movie is much better than most people give it credit, but it is slow and cerebral. I think it probably wasn't such a bad idea not to focus on the thematic elements of this story so much to avoid the backlash. I might've liked that movie a little better myself, but I don't find the movie they did make a bad one. There is some better than basic cinematic language that can be used to build better characters, however, and I expect better relationships from a filmmaker like Spielberg, and so I took umbrage with the movie's lack of emotional anchoring. This could be a problem with co-screenwriter Zak Penn, who surely was brought in to tame Cline's own unruly script. Penn is a streamliner. Cline, with both RPO and Armada has a problem with getting on with it at the beginnings his stories. This is fine in literature, but can be fatal in a film, especially one of this spectacular nature--spectacular both in its concept and its nostalgic nature. Interestingly enough, I found Armada to be much less dense than RPO, so this film kind of played more like Armada to me rather than RPO, still Armada as a film would also suffer from Cline's slow build to getting to the meat of the matter. Should it be adapted it will also need to spark up its action a little quicker. I didn't think this movie was as good as I hoped it would be, but I do think they made a good movie despite its weaknesses.

Jimh. said...

I agree with you. It was a very good movie, but like you, I'd hope for more. It was well done in certain aspects of bringing the characters and the worlds to life. I guess I just loved the book so much it was difficult for me to agree that the movie should share the title of the book since they were so far removed.