Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Writers: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel


There is a fine line between a dumb movie done well and a dumb movie done badly. This isn’t quite the same as a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie, where the entertainment value is there in spite of the movie’s faults. This rather refers to those movies that know full well how inherently stupid their concepts are and that decide to embrace them wholeheartedly. This isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card though, just because a movie is dumb and knows it doesn’t mean it gets to be lazy, awful or insulting. It is instead a licence to get creative, have some fun, and turn a silly idea into something unique, watchable, and entertaining. That’s how we get movies like Face/Off and Snakes on a Plane; movies that nobody would consider ‘great’, but are just so damn fun to watch. They’re the cinematic equivalent of fast food. You know that it’s trash, but it still tastes good.

There is, however, a standard. Even though what I want from this movie more than anything else is to watch giant mutant monsters beat the shit out of each other (I’m only human after all), I still expect it hold my interest at least on a visceral level, to display some kind of personality in its characters and style, and to demonstrate some degree of competence and effort. There is a difference between a dumb movie that indulges its own ridiculousness and a movie that falls victim to it (e.g. Batman & Robin and Wild, Wild West). In the pantheon of dumb modern Hollywood monster movies, Rampage falls somewhere between Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla. It doesn’t have the creativity and heart of the former but it does possess the charm and thrill that the latter lacked. It also never tries to be more than it is, meaning that it lacks the poetry of the 2014 Godzilla but it does escape the political incoherence of Kong: Skull Island. It is the comfortable middle ground that makes for a fun, campy movie which never bores or frustrates, but which also never surprises or astonishes.

Rampage features Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a Dwayne-Johnson-ish ex-soldier turned primatologist. He works at San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he finds that he prefers the company of animals to people. His best friend is George the albino gorilla, whom Davis rescued from poachers and has since raised and taught to communicate through sign language. After an experiment in a space laboratory goes awry and leads to the station’s destruction, samples of the pathogen being developed fall to Earth with the debris and infect three animals: a Florida crocodile, a grey wolf in the Rocky Mountains, and George. This causes all three to mutate and become more aggressive. As Davis tries to understand why George is growing larger and lashing out, he is approached by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), a genetic engineer who worked on this project for Energyne until she was dismissed for objecting to their plans to develop the pathogen as a biological weapon. The diabolical CEO of Energyne Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her nitwit brother Brett (Jake Lacy), realising what has happened, decide to lure the three creatures to Chicago by emitting a signal from their headquarters so that they might capture one of them. Chaos ensues.

To say this is not the cleverest of plots would be charitable. The scheme hatched by the two nefarious corporate villains, one of whom we’re supposed to believe is actually quite competent and cunning, is beyond stupid. This is a ‘hold my beer and watch this’ kind of stupid we’re talking about. It’s an ‘invade Russia in the middle of winter’ kind of stupid. It’s a ‘their mothers are both called Martha’ kind of stupid. But the movie is perfectly aware of the idiocy of their scheme and more or less hopes that we’ll roll with it and accept the Wydens for the cartoon villains that they are. Anyway the three beasts are drawn by the signal and make for Chicago, leaving behind a trail of destruction as they go. All attempts to combat and contain the, including a guerrilla operation led by pro commando Burke (Joe Manganiello) fail. Instead it is up to Davis, Kate, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to reach George and try to save him.

The most appealing thing about this movie is how perfectly content it is to be nothing more and nothing less than a monster-buddy movie starring The Rock and a giant ape. Johnson, one of the few honest-to-god movie stars working in Hollywood today, is his usual charming, badass self and he gets to share his screen time with a CGI gorilla played by Jason Liles with whom he forms a surprisingly likeable duo. There is a clear sense of affection and familiarity in their hand-signed back-and-forths as they reminisce on shared experiences and tell dirty jokes. In fact George, by virtue of having a fully formed personality, is much more human than many of the human characters. Davis certainly hasn’t got very much character beyond that which Johnson naturally brings to all his roles. Still, that’s all you need if all you want is to watch Dwayne Johnson and King Kong battle a giant CGI wolf and alligator. The action is exactly what you want it to be, pitting three larger-than-life monsters in an epic battle royale complete with toppling buildings and explosions and throwing a larger-than-life action star in for good measure.

Those who came for the fireworks though will find that they have to be patient in the scenes that come in between. Some scenes deal with the budding romance between Davis and Dr. Kate which, despite Harris’ best efforts, feels as hollow and obligatory as it is. There is one moment where Kate shares the details of her backstory, which is supposed to draw parallels between herself and Davis in his attempt to rescue a loved one, but the emotional depth they’re going for feels far too forced and flat in a film that relishes in its mostly empty spectacle. The Wydens meanwhile are both paper-thin villains and although the movie is perfectly aware of that, their sheer transparency and incompetence make them rather tiresome. Still I like that the movie is under no illusion over what walking, talking clichés they are to the point that the corny comic book dialogue they’re given almost feels natural in their straight-faced deliveries. “There’s a reason we did our research on a space station” says one, “and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity”. The one human character who nails that perfect balance of being goofy and enjoyable is Morgan’s Agent Russell. He brings so much eccentricity, swagger and charisma to what should have been a forgettable, generic character that you cannot help but be fascinated by the guy.

Rampage is the movie that it is and the movie that it promises to be. You can either take it or leave it. It is the perfect example of a dumb movie that knows exactly how dumb it is and that never apologises for it. However the inevitable downside of watching a movie that is exactly what you expect it to be, even if what you expect is exactly what you want, is that the movie will never surprise you or challenge you. Rampage unfolds and ends more or less how you think it will and, while getting there is fun enough, it doesn’t blow you away the way that a great action movie should. It’s fine if all you want is to switch your brain off for a couple of hours but this isn’t a movie that will capture your imagination and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Again, it’s like fast food. It’s cheap, it’s adequate, and it’s convenient. Rampage gives you your fill and as soon you’re done you move on.

★★★

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A Quiet Place

Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

Director: John Krasinski

Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski


This is a great concept for a horror film. The world has undergone some great disaster and is now overrun by fearsome aliens/monsters who stalk the land preying on human beings. The beasts are completely blind but have enhanced hearing, allowing them to pick up sounds from miles away. The human survivors must therefore live their lives in a state of eternal dread as any sound they make could get them killed. What I love about this concept is that (1) it necessarily requires the film to be creative in its use of visuals and sound when conveying the story and (2) it invites the viewer to actively take part. The film is so good at establishing the terror of sound that the entire audience ends up undertaking its own vow of silence, hesitant to make so much as the slightest peep for fear of summoning the creatures. It is one thing to be frightened as an individual, the collective sense of anxiety that this film was able to inspire is really something else, which is why it pays to see A Quiet Place in the cinema.

Caught up in this silent nightmare are husband and wife Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). They’ve managed to get by together as a family for the most part, largely due to their fluency in sign language, a by-product of Regan’s deafness. Through tragedy and trauma they’ve been able to achieve what could charitably be called ‘normalcy’ in a world as frightening and deadly as this. They walk place to place on bare feet along paths made of sand, they play board games where the plastic playing pieces have been replaced by paper cut-outs, and they hold hands in silent solidarity during mealtimes. This status quo however is a tremendously precarious one and there are forces at work that threaten their very survival. Most worryingly, Evelyn is several weeks pregnant and the day when she will have to give birth (a difficult enough task without any doctors or anaesthetic at hand, never mind the noise problem) is surely approaching. Through all the dread and trepidation, Lee works tirelessly on securing their hideout and unearthing what means he can of combatting the frightful predators, intent on keeping his family safe whatever the cost.

Cinema has a rich legacy of horror-survival stories with fearsome monsters from the xenomorph in Alien to the Thing in The Thing to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and Krasinski makes his contribution to the genre with the worthy confidence of a veteran horror director. He is precise and economic in his storytelling, with seldom a shot that does not contribute in some way to the scares, the emotional stakes, or the world around these characters. When we’re at the farm where the bulk of the movie takes place, Krasinski takes care to ensure that the geography is never lost on us. We are constantly aware of where everybody is, how far they are from each other, and who can see or hear what. He is also very good in his use of foreshadowing, more so because of the auditory nature of the storytelling. There are certain objects, most notably an exposed nail in the floor and a literal Chekhov’s gun, that inspire anxiety in their silence because we know that they will come into play at some point near the end and that the result will be exactly the kind of noise we’ve been conditioned to dread. What’s more, in a world where a loud and abrupt noise means almost certain death, the use of the jump scare is actually justified, although even then Krasinski takes care not to exploit that advantage for all its worth. He understands that horror isn’t really about trying to scare the audience, it’s about making them fear for the characters and he never loses sight of that simple notion.

Through a nuanced understanding of the visual language of cinema and the strong, expressive performances of the cast, we are able to identify with this family and feel for them throughout their ordeal. Starring opposite Krasinski is real-life wife and mother of his children Emily Blunt and the bond they share as spouses and parents is powerfully felt in every scene they share. In a movie that deals heavily with the idea of a family working together to keep each other safe, secure, and alive, the most vital ingredient to make it all work is that feeling of familial affection. The movie understands this and works harder to convey that feeling to us than it does with any other element, a move that pays off splendidly. The two children also deserve praise in this regard, especially the actually deaf Simmonds who, as well as having to deal with the same problems of being unable to express herself through noise, must also deal with the obstacle of being unable to hear the danger in any given moment, a source of both anxiety and even guilt for her. The most remarkable thing about any of these performances though is how intense they are given how controlled they necessarily have to be. In this world, none of these characters have the luxury of grunting in anger, sobbing in despair, or screaming in fear. The silence that defines their lives is as oppressive as it is terrifying and the actors do a marvellous job of conveying the agony of living without giving in to these basic human impulses.

That repression of the human condition is ultimately what makes A Quiet Place such a scary film. It’s not just the fear of being eaten by creepy aliens/monsters, it’s the torment of living in a world where a vital part of what makes us human has been taken away. We live in such a noisy world that it’s difficult to conceive of a life of total silence. We use sound to express ourselves and to reach out to others; we even use it when we’re on our own because we find that the mere presence of sound can somehow make us feel less alone. Many of the great horror films are about taking a fundamental part of our nature and weaponising it against ourselves, forcing us into a realm where we must adapt into lesser versions of ourselves in order to survive. If the characters are able to overcome the threat, we feel empowered; if they are defeated by it, we feel despondent. Either way we are deeply affected by what we’ve seen. A Quiet Place is one of the most profoundly affective horror films of recent years and it is truly a cinematic experience to behold.

★★★★★

Love, Simon

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Nick Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger


Love, Simon is a teen rom-com like any other. It’s quirky, idealistic, and a little bit schmaltzy. It features a good-looking, charming, and somewhat popular kid who falls for someone online and sets out to discover who they really are. There are parties, love triangles, clueless adults, a high school musical, public declarations, broken hearts, witty banter, and a compilation of catchy pop songs. It uses every cliché in the book and never apologises for it, it is as representative of this day and age as the John Hughes movies were of the 80s and 90s, and it is everything that a lover of sappy high school movie romances could possibly want. And also the main character happens to be gay. This is the first mainstream, major studio release to focus on a gay teenage romance, a milestone so overdue that I kind of feel like the movie might have had a more meaningful impact had it been made around the same time as Mean Girls. But the fact it was made at all is significant, to be sure, and it’s a good enough film to be worthy of the task it undertakes to break new ground in LGBT cinema.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a kid “just like you”. He lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Atlanta with his loving, liberal-minded parents Emily (Jennifer Ganrer) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and his little, Top Chef obsessed sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). He has a healthy social life at school and a crew of close friends he likes to hang out with including lifelong BFFs Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and trendy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon is about as normal as a teenager can be. He goes to parties, takes part in the school’s drama club, attends sports rallies, and has even had a couple of girlfriends. But he also has a huge secret that’s he’s never shared with anybody before: he’s gay. Things change when a closeted boy at school, known only as Blue, writes an online post sharing his thoughts and fears about coming out. Simon reaches out to him privately in an email under the alias of Jacques and the two start a correspondence with each other that evolves over time into a romance.

Love, Simon is a refreshing watch for a number of reasons. For one thing, with a cinematic history that includes Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk where LGBT characters have to battle prejudices against their sexuality and find only heartbreak and oftentimes death at the end of it all, it is a sign of progress that a gay character can enjoy a healthy and harmless romance without being punished for it and get his happy ending. For another thing, in a genre where gay characters are often relegated to the role of sidekicks and are seldom given the opportunity to voice their own desires, anxieties, and struggles, it is almost unbelievable how wholly the film focuses on Simon’s gayness. In addition, I was surprised by how thoughtful, complex, and heartfelt this movie actually turned out to be. A part of me was worried that this major studio release that had made such a big deal in its marketing over how inclusive and liberal it would be might turn out to be a work of self-indulgence; a cheap way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for being so ‘woke’. Thankfully (even though the movie is still a little too self-congratulatory for my liking) Love, Simon takes care to tell a real story where you can understand the main character’s feelings and inner-conflict and empathise with him.

Simon’s initial struggle is that he’s afraid of coming out. This isn’t because he fears he will be hated or rejected, in fact he is certain that his family and friends would be fully supportive and accepting of him. What’s stopping him is that he’s not quite ready for his life to change in the way it inevitably will when people learn the truth about him. He’s not prepared to handle the altered perceptions and the confused emotions that his loved ones will develop when they discover that he has been keeping a part of himself hidden from them for so long and just needs time to get himself there. A part of him is also resentful of the way the heterosexuality has been accepted as the default and that LGBT kids are the ones who have to come out, which the movie pokes fun at in an amusing sequence where we see some of Simon’s friends come out as straight to their hurt, tearful, and unaccepting parents. That scene is just one of the ways in which the film is skilfully able to merge humour with pathos, which is a vital part of what makes Love, Simon so watchable. The movie is capable of being both light-hearted and dark at the same time.

Things start taking a dark turn when fellow classmate Martin (Logan Miller), a nerdy and obnoxious guy who makes it so easy for all the characters to hate him it almost seems deliberate, learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him. Unless Simon helps him win a date with Abby, Martin will release his emails for the whole school to read. The secret will be out and Blue will retreat and be lost to Simon for good. Simon thus gets himself caught in a tangled web of unrequited crushes and manipulated feelings, leading to much emotional confusion, anguish and chaos among his friends as things spin more and more out of control. Simon himself gets increasingly confounded over time not only by guilt, but also by the nagging question of who Blue really is. The movie gives us plenty of suspects in this mystery, and with them comes all of these looks, statements, and gestures that could mean nothing or everything. Maybe Blue is Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) the friendly jock, maybe he’s Lyle (Joey Pollari) the flirty server, or maybe Cal (Miles Heizer) the musical classmate. Or maybe he’s someone else entirely who Simon has never even given a second thought to. It’s a well-developed mystery and the climatic reveal is satisfying.

Still, even though it might be a little unfair to begrudge this of a film that wants to be a mainstream high school rom-com and does it well, there were times when I wished the movie was more willing to take a few risks. The characterisation of gayness in this film, for instance, is so conventional and inoffensive it could almost be called bland by today’s standards. For the most part Robinson plays Simon in a straightforward, normative manner with his typically masculine looks and physique, even when he’s alone and not putting up a façade; it’s a ‘normal guy who happens to be gay’ kind of thing that they’re going for, which is fine except it also would have been fine ten years ago. There’s a scene where Simon imagines the colourful, flamboyant musical his life might become when he’s out and goes to college, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall to say, “Well, maybe not that gay”. It’s a funny punchline, but it also kind of undercuts what I thought to be the most creative, vibrant and memorable scene in the whole movie. If the movie is really set on breaking ground in the representation and normalisation of gay culture in mass media, why not go all the way with it?

I do also wish that the movie didn’t go to quite as many lengths as it did to show how ‘okay’ it is for Simon to be gay and trusted that the audience would root for him themselves and celebrate his victories without any prompting. There are some moments when showing the other characters’ acceptance of Simon is important, as in one scene between Simon and his mother which Garner knocks out of the park (I now want a movie that’s just Jennifer Garner and Michael Stuhlbarg delivering moving and eloquent monologues to their gay children). But there are others where it feels like the movie is celebrating its own open-mindedness and liberalism more than it is Simon’s arc as a character. While it’s great that Simon is immediately accepted by the school en masse when the truth does finally come out, their active, fervent support and encouragement in his search for Blue struck me as so overzealous that when the climax arrived and we finally see the kiss it’s all been leading up to, I felt like the movie was trying harder to convey its affirmation of the moment than it was the culmination of Simon’s journey. For a movie that repeatedly emphasises how Simon is just like the rest of us, I felt that this overcompensation somewhat detracted from his relatability.

Still, Love, Simon is a movie that Hollywood has needed to make for a long time and its arrival marks an undeniable sign of progress. While recent films like Call Me by Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Colour have already garnered praise for their positive portrayals of LGBT romance, those films were not made for teen audiences nor are they the kinds of films that most teenagers will actively seek out. This film appeals itself directly towards modern teenagers and young adults of all sexual orientations and does so without talking down to them or seeming out of touch. It is a teenage rom-com through and through in that it is sentimental, quaint, and pretty cheesy, which means that those who like those kinds of movies will really like this one. Even those who tend to cringe or roll their eyes when the music starts playing as the lovers embrace each other may very well find themselves moved by what happens between the clichés. For those gay teens and adults who have been waiting for a movie such as this to come along, they, like Simon himself when all is finally said and done, can breath a sigh of relief. This is an enjoyable and heartfelt movie and one that I hope will launch a new wave of mainstream cinema that will feature new and different depictions of LGBT culture.

★★★★

Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline


When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.

Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.

Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.

Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).

Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.

As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.

I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.

★★★