Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movie Review: "Ready Player One"

"Oh, good, look ... another post at The Truth Inside The Lie that ain't got jack squat to do with Stephen King!  This guy..."
  
I hear ya, I hear ya.  But here's the thing.  This movie I'm about to review in brief, it's absolutely germane to a discussion on this blog.  Or any Stephen King blog.
  
You'll have to read all the way to the end to find out why, because I can't talk about it without being a little bit spoilery.
  
  
  
  
The setup for the movie is this: in the future -- it's, like, 2047 or something -- Americans (and maybe the world) are obsessed with a virtual-reality service called The Oasis, which is a place where you can "go" so as to escape the bounds of reality.  It was created by an eccentric genius named Mark Halliday, who has died and has left a will decreeing that the winner of a game he's written into The Oasis will inherit control of the board which runs it.  Along with this comes half a trillion dollars or so.
  
The game has been going on for some time when the movie begins; our hero, a teenager named Wade Watts, is one of the many, many, many people trying to win it.  His digital avatar is named "Parzival," a reference to the fact that he does not "clan up"; i.e., he is a solo gamer who avoids joining with other gamers.  
  
Plenty of folks have no such compunction, however, including a massive corporation called IOI, which employs gamers to do its bidding in the virtual world.  They are apparently able to purchase debt and more or less enslave people to do menial tasks within The Oasis so as to advance their cause of trying to forcibly take control of Halliday's estate.
  
So basically, the movie is a mix of live-action scenes within the real world of 2047 (or whatever it is), and the virtual landscape of The Oasis.  Parzival makes some friends, and begins making some headway in playing Halliday's game.  But, of course, the minions of IOI are on his trail the entire time.  Who will prevail?  I'm not telling.
  
This is a very, very busy movie, and if you want to know the truth, I'm not sure it made a lick of sense.  I am sure that I didn't care; I loved this movie, and while it's not perfect, it's got a lot to recommend.
  

Let's start with Steven Spielberg, who directed it.
  
Longtime readers of this blog almost certainly know that the 'berg is my favorite director.  There are very few challengers to that throne, either: runners-up include Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and John Carpenter, but as much as I love those folks, Spielberg is my clear champion among director.  And he probably always will be; I think that even if he made nothing but tripe from this point forward, there's no erasing the years 1971-2005.  Within that span of time, he made something like twenty movies that I can legitimately say I love.  Hitchcock's body of work is awfully strong, but I wouldn't be able to claim that I love that many of his films; Kubrick's batting average is better, but the sheer volume is not there; Carpenter doesn't quite hit the highs the same way.
  
Nah, it's Spielberg in a landslide.
  
Hey, wait a minute?  Did I say 1971-2005?  Isn't it 2018 right now?!?  We seem to be missing thirteen years.
  
Spielberg has been making movies during that time, and he's even made some great ones: both War Horse and Bridge of Spies qualify in that regard, for my money.  But he's also made disappointingly shrill would-be blockbusters (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie I actually kinda like, and The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG, both of which I've had zero desire to see a second time).  Add in a couple of well-intentioned but underwhelming prestige pictures (Lincoln and The Post) and what you have is a guy who has seemed for much of the last decade and a half as if he doesn't know what to do with himself as an artist or an entertainer anymore.
  
I'd been especially underwhelmed by The BFG, which has virtues -- ALL his movies have virtues of some kind, even the worst of them, which may well be The BFG -- but is ultimately a shallow exercise in CGI.  I loved Roald Dahl's book as a child, and boy did I not get reminded of that while watching the movie.  I'd also been underwhelmed by the motion-capture effects film -- or the animated film, if you prefer -- The Adventures of Tintin, which felt experimental in the sense of an experiment being conducted despite everyone involved in it finding out almost immediately that it was a failure.  They pressed on anyways, and hence, that movie.  It left me about as cold as it is possible for me to be left by a film.
  
So my anticipation level for Ready Player One was nonexistent.  Once the trailers began to play and the movie looked every bit as artificial and uninvolving as I feared it might be, I said to myself and my friends that I was going to watch it out of a sense of obligation, but with no actual interest.  After all, the last time a Spielberg-directed film played in a movie theatre and I didn't go see it was in 1979, with 1941.  That's a long streak, and it'd be a shame to break it, even if the movie looked like garbage.
  
Which it did, in my opinion.  There was finally a television commercial for it that looked so awful to me that I decided I was only 50/50 on actually watching the movie.  After all, if it was going to be THAT bad, then maybe the Spielberg I'd loved all these years had come and gone.  Maybe it was best to put a flower on that grave and hope for something better, sometime down the line.
  
But then the reviews started coming out, and as a whole, they said, "Hey!  Shit, this movie ain't half bad!  In fact, it's actually pretty good!"  And then a few people whose opinion I trust saw it, and their reactions ranged from "I liked it" to "I loved it" to "I fucking loved it."  So that decided it; I'd give it a shot.
  
I'm glad I did, and we'll talk a bit more about some of the specifics behind that reversal in opinions, but first, let me say this: this movie won't be everyone's cup of tea.  Some reviewers are saying that it may come down to whether you can accept a video-game aesthetic or not, and maybe there's something to that; but I'm not a gamer, or at least haven't been since roughly 2004 (and even then was only a very casual one).  Some reviewers are saying (I'm making this up, but if they're not saying it they should be, so let me put words in their hypothetical mouths) that it may come down to whether you can accept a feature-length orgasm of mashup-culture aesthetic; but that stuff makes me grumpy at least as often as it doesn't, and probably it's more like a 80/20 split weighted toward grumpiness.
  
What gives?  To be sure, this movie is frantic and stuffed to the point of explosion, and the cumulative result really ought to be sheer exhaustion on the part of the viewer.  Perhaps it will exhaust some viewers, and the thing is, I feel like I ought to have been exhausted by it.  I was totally exhausted by the trailers and the marketing!  The first time I saw the trailer, when it ended I just shook my head and wondered why a couple of minutes of pop-culture having been vomited onto a screen seemed like a good idea to anyone.
  
So imagine my surprise when I found that not only did I not have this reaction to the movie as it played out, but that I never got even close to it.  Not even when there's a sequence in which what looks like about a million in-game avatars -- every one of which is apparently an easter egg referring to some bit of pop culture -- go charging across a battlefield.
  
And I cannot for the life me figure out how Steven Spielberg pulled this off.  Although as I've been typing this, an idea has begun to formulate.  It's not fully-baked, though, and may not be for years to come.  But I do believe that Spielberg has pulled a big old rabbit of some sort out of some sort of hat with this one; and I'd argue that he hasn't done that since ... oh, probably Catch Me If You Can, I'd say.  He's made a few movies since then that I'd rank above Ready Player One, but none of them have had that ineffable whiff of magic that is what so many of us think of when we hear the word "Spielberg."
  
And, as I say, Ready Player One may leave many viewers vastly more cold than it left me; perhaps even some other fellow Spielberg fanatics.  For one thing, there's not much in the way of the typical Spielberg visual aesthetic here.  Visually, this did not feel to me like a Steven Spielberg film.  I had the same complaint about Lincoln a few years ago; but whereas it actively bothered and distracted me with Lincoln, it didn't bother me at all with Ready Player One.
  
Why?  Hours after seeing it, I am flummoxed by this question.  What I just saw was in many ways not even vaguely like a Steven Spielberg movie, so why is it striking me as being the most magical use of his talents in nearly two decades?

It may come down to sheer belief.  In order for Ready Player One to work, it has to run on pure belief.  And it may be just as simple as this: Spielberg may have believed in The Oasis in a way he never believed in Mutt Williams or Tintin or big friendly giants or the Washington Post.  Or maybe he was simply better able to convey that belief this time around.  Who can say?  Without the benefit of a few more viewings, not this blogger.
  
But I do think maybe that's the key to it.  The Oasis is something Spielberg believes in.  And why not?  It's essentially nothing less than unbounded human imagination.  Sure, it's got a pop-culture-heavy sheen, and is dripping with references/homages to stuff from the eighties (a quirk explained quite nicely by virtue of it being Halliday's period of choice).  But what do you think that stuff is?  What is popular culture?  It's a frame of reference for the communication of one imagination with another, or a series of others.  That's it.  (Or maybe not, actually; but it's certainly a huge component of it.)  I think most of us feel that there is some innate worth to that; I'd definitely imagine that anyone reading a blog like this one must feel so, even if there are plenty of arguments to be had about what counts as good and what as bad examples.
  
The bottom line, though, is that Spielberg clearly believes that that is a pool we all benefit from wading in, perhaps floating down it like a lazy river sometimes.
  
And one of the things that most impresses me about Ready Player One is that the references and homages never overwhelm the actual story.  There are a few moments that fall flat, where it seems like somebody simply settled for saying something generated by a '80s Reference 2000 unit of some sort.  But the fact that the main character spends a lot of the movie driving around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future?  It's nowhere near as problematic as it seemed from the marketing.  Dude just loves Robert Zemeckis movies, so he chose this as his vehicle inside The Oasis.  Elsewhere, he dresses up like the main character from his favorite movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.  Why not?  At one point, King Kong shows up and absolutely wrecks everyone's shit.  I mean, he's King Kong, so if you need a big bad boss to rule over a particular level of a game, you could do a lot worse than get yourself a King Kong to serve in that capacity.
  
I never felt like most of this stuff -- and none of the major elements (not one!) -- was being cheapened.  I felt instead as if somebody had rounded up all the things they loved, flung them into the air, and somehow gotten them to stick to the sky so that everyone else could look up and see what happiness was all about.  A few moments brought me to the verge of tears, so lovingly was this idea transmitted.  And not all of those included things that I'm familiar with!  For instance, what might very well be the best moment of the film...
  
...well, actually, let's not divulge that just yet.  It's kind of a spoiler, so I'll save that for a few paragraphs.
  
For now, let's get into the thing I alluded to earlier that qualifies Ready Player One for discussion on a Stephen King blog.
  
Bail out now, those of you who don't want to know.
  
3...
  
2...
  
1...
  
So, a major sequence is set within the Overlook Hotel from The Shining.  I wish I had some images of this to share, but as far as I can tell, none are online as of yet.
  
I won't ruin the entirety of it, but what happens, more or less, is this.  Parzival and his friends -- he does indeed "clan up" at some point, out of sheer momentum -- find a clue that will lead them to the second of three keys left by Halliday within the game.  It's about a "creator who hates his creation," and this leads them to figure out that it's a reference to the Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining, which the novel's creator, Stephen King, famously hated.  (This is not as clunky as it sounds; the movie was also a thing Halliday saw on a date as a young man, which is pivotal to the plot.)
  
This clue ascertained, Parzival and his four compatriots follow the clue to its logical destination: another boss level, set in the Overlook.  
  
It is Kubrick's Overlook, of course, and holy crow does it look incredible.  Parzival and his clan are all avatars within The Oasis, but the Overlook itself looks real.  Like, it looks as if Spielberg might have commissioned somebody to rebuild Kubrick's set down to the smallest detail.  I don't think it is that, though; I think it's a CGI model.  But amazingly, Parzival and his cohorts look even more real while they are inside it.  It is a genuinely stunning sequence from a technical standpoint.
  
And anybody who loves Kubrick's movie is going to be absolutely delighted by it, I think.  Music from the film is dropped in: the opening-titles theme by Wendy Carlos is there, some of the classical pieces Kubrick used are there ... heck, even "Midnight, the Stars and You" gets a major workout.  
  
More than that, I will not say.  But this entire sequence is a standout, especially for people who love The Shining.  
  
This leads me to a question.
  
Does Ready Player One count as a Stephen King adaptation as a result of this sequence?  It's a silly question in some ways, but let's bear in mind that both films were released by Warner Bros., which means that Spielberg was using the license of the novel for the movie that Stanley Kubrick himself was granted.  So in other words, from a legal perspective, this functioned -- or so I am assuming -- in a manner similar to how an actual adaptation might function.  A better comparison might be Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which includes a major sequence involving Daffy Duck.  Does that count as a Daffy Duck movie?
  
I'm not married to either answer; I'm not really sure -- and we're talking King again here, not Daffy Duck -- a perfect answer exists.  But I think that guys like me, who are interested in such things, are bound to be asking the question for the next little while.
  
Alright, well, that's about all I have to say for now.  But I did promise to mention a specific moment that I think might be the best in the movie.  What happens is this: the movie's villain, in the form of Mechagodzilla, is absolutely demolishing the good guys.  But one of the good guys has been sitting the fight out, and he comes flying overhead in a spaceship or something, and you see him inside it.  He says something along the lines of, "I choose now the form of Gundam," and leaps out of the ship.  In mind-air, he turns into what I assume is the main character from Mobile Suit Gundam, and he begins tearing Mechagodzilla a new asshole.
  
Now, I know nothing about Mobile Suit Gundam.  I recognized the avatar this character had taken, but without the verbal reference to "Gundam," I'd have had no clue what it was from.  But despite this, I felt my heart swell a bit when this happen.  Part of this is due to the sheer reverence with which the character clearly holds that story; you could tell this meant something to him, and so via that sense of love and respect, it suddenly meant something to me.  
  
My gut tells me that any movie that can accomplish a thing like that is one that has more going for it than what is merely on the surface.  I wasn't expecting Spielberg to bring his A-game to this particular field, but doggone if he didn't do precisely that; and the results were kind of spectacular.  
  
Or at least, that's how I took it on a single viewing.  Whether that feeling maintains during future viewings remains to be seen.
  
But for one of relatively few times in the past decade-plus of his work, I'm already looking forward to a second viewing of a Steven Spielberg movie.
  
That ain't nothing.

9 comments:

  1. I went into the film with more or less the same attitude as you. A friend wanted to see it and I went along, but it was not a film I was particularly interested in seeing, despite my love of Spielberg. From very early on I was charmed by the movie, which I was mildly surprised by. The race set-peice in act 1 is a lot of fun, the movie moves along at a good clip, the humor I found to be mostly successful, Mendelsohn continues to be one of my favorite working actors, and I was shocked and delighted to return to The Overlook Hotel. That caught me completely by surprise, as I've not read the book.

    Between this and The Post, Spielberg has certainly not lost a step. I think Warhorse may actually be one of my favorite films of his, and Bridge of Spies was superb as well. I'm not sure how he's been able to maintain his creative spark while his friends and contemporaries (Lucas, De Palama, Coppola) have lost it, but whatever he's doing, I hope he keeps it up.

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    1. Apparently, reading the book would not have prepared you -- the setpiece at the Overlook is not in it, from what I've read. I think the equivalent was a "Wargames" sequence. And apparently the movie was originally going to feature a journey into "Blade Runner" instead. Glad they changed it to "The Shining"!

      I agree that Mendelsohn is great here. Between this and "Rogue One," he's carved out a nice little niche playing baddies in blockbusters. (And he's got "Captain Marvel" on the way, too -- although I can't say for sure he's playing a villain there.)

      I also agree about the act-one race sequence. I thought that stuff all looked terrible in the trailers, so I was a little shocked by how well it played in the movie. And the resolution (the second race) is terrific, too.

      I'm glad to hear from another "War Horse" fan! I think that one is criminally underrated. I'm still not sure how it managed not to be a huge hit.

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  2. Man, this sounds fantastic! I can't wait to see it.

    When I was in CA last year I watched that HBO Spielberg thing and realized how much of his recent catalog I haven't seen. I need to get on that stat. You got me pumped to check this one out, though.

    That's really wild about the Overlook! Crazy.

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    1. Is the main character's name a reference to Parsifal by any chance? Does a glance at this synopsis have any resonance with the film:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsifal#Synopsis

      I only ask because of the similarity in name. Just curious.

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    2. Oh, it's 100% intentional. A different character -- the female lead, "Atr3mis" -- point-blank cites the reference back to him, so he knows she knows what he's all about.

      Regarding Spielberg's recent output, I'm not AS down on it as I might have seemed here (and certainly not as down as many people have been). Shit, I like "Crystal Skull." And I might like both "Tintin" and "Lincoln" (and maybe "The BFG" and/or "The Post") more if I saw them a second time. I didn't actively dislike any of them; they just didn't wow me, which is what I expect from Spielberg. Fairly or unfairly, that's the expectation.

      That HBO doc was great; I need to check and see if that's out on Blu-ray yet. (That's a negative, sadly.)

      I hope whenever you see it that you like it as much as I did. Among its virtues that I didn't mention here:

      (1) The lead, Tye Sheridan, is a bit of a bowl of oatmeal, but I'm not sure this isn't on purpose: he's fine, but the digital/avatar (Parzival) version of him is more compelling by far than the real person (Wade Watts). This was incredibly interesting to me, because I'd never have expected that to be the case. In essence, Parzival character felt more real than Wade did, AND, by gum, that managed to be a VIRTUE for the movie rather than a failing! And yet...

      (2) The opposite is very nearly true of the female lead, Olivia Cooke. Her avatar, Art3mis, is a lot more compelling than Wade, so it's not a perfect comparison; but when you meet the real her, Samantha, she's even more interesting. This, too, works for (rather than against) the movie, because it's in service of introducing the theme that while a boundless virtual world is pretty great, it's only great if a healthy existence in the real world is also maintained. Art3mis/Samantha gets to sing the siren song for both halves of that equation. Quite a trick, really.

      (3) The music in general is good, and the score by Alan Silvestri is maybe a bit better than that; I'll have to ingest it a few more times before I can say for sure. This is the first time Silvestri has scored a Spielberg-directed film, but they've had a solid relationship for years as composer/producer (and Silvestri has occasion to directly quote his "Back to the Future" score quite effectively), so it's a good team-up.

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  3. 1."Never thought I'd miss the Watermelon". That's what I thought when the "Buckaroo Banzai" reference cropped up. In other words, hate to be THAT guy, but this film was all underwhelming for me.

    2. I actually found both "Tintin", "Skull", as well as "Bridge of Spies" quite enjoyable as well. If it is a question of belief, then could catch that old Spielbergian vibe in all three films.

    In fact, like "Raiders" or "TOD", I always see "Tintin" as the author indulging his love of classic Hollywood Thrillers and Swashbucklers.

    3. I'm quite willing to list Spielberg as sharing a tie space with Scorsese. I wanted to give Steve S. the top slot, however I decided Marty S. also belonged on the big list.

    4. Nerd Confession: if I had to name my favorite Spielberg film, it would have to be "Hook". It just seemed to perfectly capture every major theme of his entire oeuvre in the space of two hours. I've heard critics hate that film, saying that it doesn't live up to either Disney's film, or the book.

    To the latter criticism, I'd have to ask, are we talking about the same story? 'Cause both the children's book and play I read just came off as atrocious in the sense of being too sentimental and neurotic for its own good.

    It can be argued the same mental hang-ups are on display in both the Disney and Spielberg flicks, however, those two are remarkable cases of where the adapters seemed to have a better grip on the material than its original author.

    If you were to hold a knife to my throat, I'd have to say that both Disney and Spielberg have given audiences the definitive Pan Mythos.

    ChrisC

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    1. 1. Underwhelming -- is that in reference to RP1 or Buckaroo Banzai? Or both? (I haven't seen Buckaroo Banzai in a looooong time; used to love it, but to be honest, it's the Marvel Comics adaptation I remember moreso than the movie itself.)

      2. That's fair. "Tintin" just wore me out, and not in the good way. But having only seen it once, I'm willing to concede that I haven't really given it as much of a chance as it deserves.

      3. Scorsese would be in my top ten, but I respect his work more than I love it, if you know what I mean.

      4. "Hook"?!? Really? I have no problem with that, actually. It'd be either at the bottom of my list or very near it, but I do love -- LOVE -- parts of it, including the music. So I have no problem imagining that there are people who love the entire movie.

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    2. 1. I was referencing RP1, sadly. "Banzai" has a certain aesthetic that's pretty much gone now, where the director can be just as surreal as he wants and not give a fig about logic.

      Both "Brazil" and "Repo Man" fit in this same category.

      3. To be fair, yeah, I can see how someone could feel that way. For me, the guy's work has just "clicked" more often than not, so maybe that explains it.

      ChrisC.

      ChrisC.

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    3. 1. Never have seen "Repo Man." Someday, maybe!

      3. The only movie of his that I think I can say I love in the same way I love, say, "E.T." is "Taxi Driver." LOTS of movies I like; probably only that one that I love. Still, it's a heck of a filmography.

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