Saturday, June 30, 2018

Film Review: Ready Player One

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One has been called "nostalgia porn" for its plethora of inside-joke, '80's geek references spread throughout the film.

I'm not going to dispute the point, seeing as how part of the film's charm is in discovering the Easter Eggs of obscure things from my childhood.  However, this label obscures the fact that this movie is one very good, very exciting film.

Ready Player One takes place in the near future where environmental damage and economic distress are rampant.  Here people look for an escape into something called the Oasis: a virtual reality platform where anyone can change the circumstances of where they are and who they are.  It is very much like the Internet is today as a tool of commerce, communication, and education, but much more immersive.  In fact, it is so immersive that people most of their lives in the Oasis despite all of the pressing needs of the real world.

The Oasis was created by a genius named James Haliday (Mark Rylance)  He is like Steve Jobs if he were someone clearly on the autism spectrum.  Haliday created this revolutionary free technology.  When Haliday dies, he inserted a game into the Oasis, a high-tech geek scavenger hunt if you will.  The winner of this game will receive complete control of the Oasis, which includes the hundreds of billions of dollars that it is worth.

Enter main character Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan)  who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio called "the stacks" because the living spaces consist of of make-shift high-rises composed of old trailers and RVs.   Wade is a typical teenager who looks suspiciously like an adolescent Steven Spielberg.  He is shy and introverted, but inside the Oasis he is a confident young man Parzival with friends like Aech, who looks like a giant goblin.  He spends his time in the Oasis searching for Haliday's egg in competition with his female rival Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and their mutual adversary: the evil corporation IOI, led by the greedy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).  The plot kicks off when Wade comes up with an insight into Haliday's game that no one else sees and begins a race to the finish against conspiring forces both inside the Oasis and in the real world. 

So how good is Ready Player One?

The film's weakest points are the performances.  With the exception of the always amazing Rylance, the acting ranges from serviceable to bad.  Sheridan lacks the charisma that a leading man needs for a movie like this.  Granted that his character is introverted, but the plot requires us to see a great internal transformation into a believable leader of an uprising and Sheridan does not meet the challenge.  His performances isn't bad, but just average enough not to be distracting.  Mendelsohn, who bears a striking resemblance to Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club, fails to bring a strong sense of menace, which is desperately needed for a movie like this to raise the stakes.  If you die in the Oasis, you merely lose all of your accumulated virtual wealth.  So a tangible physical threat in the real world is needed to create a believable sense of tension.  Cooke is fine as the older-for-her-age resistance fighter and she and Sheridan have fine chemistry.  Rylance, as I said, is the exception.  He does an amazing job of showing Haliday's struggle with human interaction in the real world and then showing us his complete transformation of voice and body language when he becomes his Oasis avatar.  And this is key to really understanding the Oasis: it is not just an escape, but a transformation.  It captures the way shy actors can put on a completely new persona in the right context.  Rylance captures this essence with his trademark subtlety.

And yet Ready Player One is a great deal of fun.  The virtual world is gorgeous.  I know many people might be turned off by its artificiality, but I found it to be a new and creative way to film and frame the action in ways not bound by the real world.  Often movies that look like video games can feel passive, like someone else is playing that video game and you are only watching.  But the way the movie is filmed, Spielberg makes you feel as if you are the one leading the action.  The visual dynamic was incredibly exciting.  The nostalgia factor added layers of texture to what is already a thrilling spectacle.  Spielberg still employs is trademark single shots to get across the emotional effect he desires.  The environment of the stacks makes you feel closed in and claustrophobic.  He also does a great job of distinguishing how he films the real world and the Oasis, employing hard lighting and hand-held cameras for the former and using bold colors and smooth camera moves for the latter.  Spielberg shows us the wonders of the Oasis, but wisely shows us how ridiculous people look from the outside with their VR gear on.  He constantly tries to show the balance so that you don't make the false choice of one world over the other.

I am also a sucker for a good treasure hunt movie, whether it be Indiana Jones, The Goonies, National Treasure, or the much underrated 1980's Disney film Midnight MadnessReady Player One is just a scavenger hunt on a large scale that overlaps with my personal wheelhouse of 80's pop culture.  The narrative moves well as each discovery leads to the next clue which leads to the next challenge and so on.  This continues as our heroes grow closer bonds to each other as the story progresses. 

In the most stunning scene in the film, our heroes have to enter into a famous movie that Haliday loved.  When I say "enter into the movie" I mean that in a literal sense.  This was one of my favorite visual spectacles in years as the digital avatars enter into the movie's environment faithfully recreated with film grain, lighting, and music.  It was so completely immersive that I found myself having to often look away (you will understand what this means when you see the movie).  I have honestly never seen anything like this scene.

Haliday is Spielberg.  Spielberg helped create the popular culture we all live in.  He was a kid who dreamed of becoming the greatest filmmaker in history, which he has.  Movies are expensive and this is understandable.  But in many ways he has become a corporation.  And in that there is a loss of that innocent artistic purity.  The same thing is seen in Haliday, who knows that something has been lost along the way and hopes that the next generation will set right what he did wrong.  Both Haliday and Spielberg want to draw you in to a fantasy world in order to enrich life in the real world.  But how many of us get stuck in fantasy.  The movie asks the question whether or not our interactions with games and art are making life in the real world better or worse.

To be sure, Spielberg good have gone much deeper with implication of technology as he did with AI and Minority Report.  Instead he just wanted to tell a fun adventure story, which is no bad thing.

So whether you know what the Glave is from the movie Krull or you are only a casual movie-goer, Ready Player One is a fun, visual spectacle that you will enjoy watching.

image by Yasir72.multan

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