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.

★★★

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Darkest Hour

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Anthony McCarten


It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.

It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.

In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.

Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.

It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.

★★★

Rogue One

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★