Friday, March 30, 2018

(Don't You) Forget About The 80's

Year: 2018
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Run Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Of all the properties that exist out there in this wide world of ours, Ready Player One was probably the one most begging for the Steven Spielberg treatment. A parade of nostalgia triggers for people who grew up in the 80's, who could be a better match than the man who shepherded so many of those childhoods with his visionary blockbusters? Unfortunately, that man doesn't exist anymore. Who we got is the guy who made The Post and Lincoln and The BFG. And I didn't want to do this to you, but let me remind you that Bridge of Spies is a thing that happened.

Now can you relate to people who want to escape their own reality?

In Ready Player One, we meet our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) in a futuristic Columbus, Ohio trailer park in the gently dystopian future of 2045. Famines and poverty have caused many people to want to shrink back from the real world, so they've become obsessed with the virtual reality open-world game of the OASIS. When the game's creator Jim Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, he reveals that has he created an Easter Egg hunt, where the first person to find all three of the keys he has hidden throughout the OASIS will become the sole proprietor of the entire game.

This business model clearly has some glaring flaws, the biggest being the fact that the wicked company IOI has hired expert drones, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), to crack the codes as quickly and efficiently as possible and thus own the biggest tech resource on the planet. But only the true fanboys and girls know enough about Halliday's past and his favorite old movies and video games to be able to get to the heart of the hunt. As the two factions get closer and closer to the finish line, Wade, under his online alias Parzival, must team up with other players, including his crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, a casting decision the movie doesn't want you to know at first, but the marketing has already blown to ribbons), and the prominent Japanese players Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao).

And the true key to the heart of America, pop culture references. 

It's no use beating around the bush. The novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (the screenwriter behind the execrable Star Wars-fellating road comedy Fanboys), is hot garbage. It's an incoherent, blithering mass of pop culture references that is mostly just a list of obscure anime and John Hughes movies masquerading as an adventure plot. It's an insufferable piece that beats the drum of nostalgia so fiercely that it rips right through the very fabric of art.

Ready Player One the movie is a massive improvement, because it almost completely throws away everything the book was working with. Some of this is due to necessity: you can't turn this crap into a movie. And you can't keep a plot moving when every challenge involves sitting down and playing an Atari game for hours. Other improvements are the invention of the filmmakers, like the fact that the egg hunt relies on the players being able to dig into Halliday's past and uncover more about his character, rather than random 80's detritus like his top 10 favorite music cues from Tron or whatever.

I can't say there were a lot of decisions in the making of either the book or the movie that were truly great, but that character exploration is certainly one of them. I'm not sure I'm loving what Mark Rylance is putting down with his performance here (it's very nebbish and Mark Zuckerberg-y, with a certain scatterbrained, naïve charm, but it slips into feeling like a monologue from Dexter's Laboratory a little too often for my liking - although the way this illustrates the difference between the real life version of him and his in-game avatar is truly special), but converting Halliday into an actual character - rather than a Willy Wonka who makes Monty Python references instead of chocolate bars - was a genius move.

That hairpiece not so much, but you can't have everything.

One area however where the film truly fails is the character of Art3mis. It shouldn't have been hard to make her not a Manic Pixie Virtual Reality Girl, but they actually made her role even more reductive and pointless. More reductive and pointless than something in an Ernest Cline novel. Let that sink in. Whereas in the book she was just as knowledgable about 80's trivia as the rest of the egg hunters, to the point that she was incredibly famous in the OASIS (a girl who knows pop culture? I'm quivering already), here she only exists to gasp with delight whenever Wade explains things to her, then reward herself to him as the ultimate prize.

Her position as ego-booster to this nerdy dweeb is demonstrated in this unwatchable scene where he throws on a Bee Gee's track and she grins, complimenting him on being "old school." Girl, this is the OASIS! People give lectures on the biographies of Atari programmers and treat Buckaroo Banzai like it's a cornerstone of world cinema. Everything is old school!

If only any of the people making this movie had an actual woman to consult with.

But enough about characters. This movie is meant to be a visual spectacle, and I guess that's what it is. The unreality of the OASIS prevents the CGI technicians from having to go out of their way to make things seem realistic, which is both a blessing and a curse. It allows things to become stylized in an interesting way (the OASIS' interface and item screens are actually pretty intuitive and fun extrapolations from modern gameplay), but it too frequently becomes a maelstrom of unintelligible pixels flying around in muddy clumps of mottled color. Also, I'm not really even sure what Steven Spielberg had to do on set, because a good 75% of the movie is literally just a cartoon. This explains why he was able to make an entire The Post while this film was still in production.

The only time where the visuals truly come alive and work within the story's pop culture milieu to create something unique and spectacular is a scene that turns The Shining into an interactive minigame, delightfully combining old film stock with 3D CGI in an impressive feat of creativity that easily trumps the analogous moment in the book.

Unfortunately, aside from that scene, not a lot in Ready Player One is anything more than basically watchable. The run time never feels punishing thankfully, but you don't feel fully swept up into the world of the film. Maybe it's the endless, frustrating expository dialogue. Maybe it's the lame plot points involving Post-It notes. Maybe it's the odious cameo from an autopilot T. J. Miller. Maybe its Alan Silvestri's shallow John Williams impression on the soundtrack. But there's a lot here that just doesn't click.

Ready Player One might be a massive improvement on the source material, but that novel was so dire that even taking leaps and bounds above it leaves you in a very average, unimpressive place. That said, it's still the best movie Spielberg has turned out in years, unless The BFG was a secret masterpiece, because I surely haven't gotten around to seeing that one.

TL;DR: Ready Player One is a gleaming popcorn movie, but it can't escape the deep, deadly flaws of its source material.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1275


  1. Quick turnaround, B. I liked it way, way more than you, tho it is the best Spielberg in sometime (since Munich, probably). I have not read the novel (yet, ugh), for I believe I rightly intuited that this kind of nonsense is far better experienced as a visual, as opposed to a list of movies and video games Ernest Cline likes.

    I was on board with the treatmemt Art3mis right up until the reveal of a certain birthmark. It is the laziest "girl has erroneously low opinion of her own sexual value due to what is essentially a non-flaw" since an ex of mine started complaining about her asymmetrical nostrils. And it's a world where half the people in it have face tattoos, too!

    That hiccup aside, I liked practically everything about it, partly because it combines a sense of great questing fun 18th what amounts to an accidentally but incredibly pessimistic view if 2191st century society that almost makes Minority Report look happy.

    1. Also, in the OASIS future maybe phones won't autocorrect "with" to "18th" or add extra numerals to "21st." Jeez.

    2. You know what, you're right. In the movie, Art3mis doesn't have to explain that her name is pronounced "Artemis" and thinks that using a number instead of a letter is something super cool and retro that nobody knows about. So I guess she IS better in the movie, thanks for looking out.

  2. Follow up: I just watched The BFG again, and while it's definitely no secret masterpiece, and it still has a terrible ending, It's awfully darned charming. I'm just saying, it's on Netflix.

    That said, turns out Pete's Dragon was still Disney's *best* effort at Doing E.T. In 2016.