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This isn’t just a game. I’m talking about actual life and death stuff.

Movie

Ready Player One
(2018)

 

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 entirely 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 director 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 SkullThe BFG), even if it 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). This comes complete with guiding mad/eccentric creator figure (Mark Rylance in fully endearing Brian Wilson mode as OASIS main man James Halliday/Anorak). It’s effected via a tried-and-tested treasure hunt structure that, while being enslaved to nostalgia, is actually (vaguely) astutely clued in to the formative well pool of nostalgia itself. This being the key notes of one’s own personal past – depicted by journeying through Halliday’s recorded history – 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 the 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 also coy VR fondling that leads 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 – pathetically – 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 (if 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 undermines 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 Kamiński 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 – for us, at minimum – 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 solely 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 , the one sequence the director is clearly fully on board with, given he’s retracing the footsteps of his hero Kubrick, is afflicted by the sense of CGI inrush and overkill (it replaces the originally conceived 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).

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. It’s there in 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 all kinds of a deplorable collapse of future priorities).

It’s also there in 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.

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