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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Dunkirk

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan


There are some movies that demand to be watched and some that demand to be experienced. Gravity is a good example. I saw Gravity in 3D at the cinema when it first came out in 2013 and I was blown away. The scale, the scope, the sensation, Gravity was a movie that transported me and once it was over I almost felt like I had spent the last couple of hours in space and had just returned. That was four years ago and I haven’t seen the movie since. Unless it’s being screened in a cinema in 3D, there’s just no point. I’ve never even considered going out to buy a DVD because I know that watching it on TV or on my laptop would not do the movie justice. It’s too big, too dynamic, too spectacular. There are some movies that simply must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Dunkirk is one of those movies.

Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in their invasion and conquest of France. The story is told through three different timelines, all focusing on three different sets of characters with three different goals. The first timeline takes place on land and its events transpire over the course of week. It follows a young private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately trying to escape from the beach by any and all means with the help of fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to orchestrate the whole evacuation from the Mole (the pier where the soldiers set up their base as they wait for the ships). The second takes place on the sea over the course of a day. It follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who sets sail on his boat with his son and his friend to help with the evacuations. On the way they rescue the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a shipwreck. The third timeline takes place in the air over the course of an hour and it follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down as many German fighters as they can for as long as the little fuel they have lasts.

I saw this movie in IMAX and the effect is astonishing. There are two things Nolan can do as a director at which he is almost peerless: scale and tension. He excels at depicting large, complex narratives with huge ideas driving them and he can draw his audience to the very edge of their seats and hold them there for what feels like an eternity. Dunkirk allows him to showcase these talents like never before and as I sat there watching it on a screen that was larger than life with sound that engulfed me from every direction, I honestly felt like I was there. From the very first frame we are dropped right into the action as Tommy flees a troop of enemy soldiers and stumbles onto the beach and, in every single moment that follows, the tension never falters for a second. Dunkirk does not feel so much like a war film as it does like a disaster film. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that commands each scene as each character restlessly await the arrival of a rescue party, without any knowledge of when it will arrive or if it will be enough, while dreading the impending arrival of an enemy whose movements are similarly indefinite. This is a race against time for the British army and Nolan does a fantastic job of stressing that motif, not just with his time-jumping structure but also with Hans Zimmer’s score which evokes a ticking clock.

Although the time-jumping structure does work incredibly well for the film, I do wish I’d known about it going in or that the movie had made it clearer that that was the approach they were going for. The only hand-holding the movie gives here is a trio of brief captions naming only the place and the timespan. That by itself would be sufficient if you already knew what they meant, but I hadn’t a clue and was quite disorientated for the 15-20 minutes it took me to work out what was happening. Once I’d figured it out though, I was absolutely mesmerised by the intricacies of how these three stories affected and interacted with each other. There’s one scene where one of the pilots must make an emergency landing in the sea and lets out a wave to his commander, one that he takes to mean all is well. It isn’t until we see that same landing from the perspective of those in the boat that we understand the wave was something else entirely. The structure can also be used for poetic effect, such as in a sequence near the end where the landing of a plane is shown to take as long as the boarding and launching of a naval fleet.

I’ve always liked Nolan more as a director than as a writer because I’ve found that his dialogue is often too contrived and expository and his characters too flat and artificial. With Dunkirk though it would seem that Nolan has gone out of his way to avoid these pitfalls and it works out wonderfully. The movie’s use of dialogue is so minimal that it could have almost been a silent movie (if not for the deafening sounds of planes, gunfire and explosions). The bond between Tommy and Gibson is one that goes almost entirely unspoken; theirs is a comradeship built on a recognition that they are stuck in the same hell and need to help each other and it is expressed through actions and gestures. The movie follows the example set by Malick’s The Thin Red Line by treating its characters more as units of a whole rather than as individuals. They’re all struggling together and the film is only interested in their personalities and individual plights insofar as they relate to the larger crisis. It is therefore a testament to the fine acting at work and the carefully chosen lines of dialogue they are given that we are able to feel so strongly for these characters and fear for their survival.

As opposed to most 20th century conflicts, the Second World War is one that the Brits and Americans often look back on with a selective, venerated memory. Dunkirk in particular proved to be an event of symbolic significance to Britain as it appealed to their perception of themselves as the steadfast underdog fighting against evil and adversity. Nolan has sought to depict a demythologised version of Dunkirk. He does not do this however by showing the graphic brutalities of war with blood and guts flying all over the place the way they were in Hacksaw Ridge. He chooses instead to portray the emotional turmoil of all those involved in the evacuations; the despair of the soldiers stranded in a foreboding warzone, the anxiety of not knowing whether or when rescue or ruin would come, the cold and utter shame of their defeat. It is also significant that, while the threat of the German army is ever present, we seldom see the German soldiers and, even then, only at a distance. The film isn’t interested in portraying them as villains because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about these soldiers and the arduous trial they all suffered and endured together. In the end when the movies allows for some sentimentality, it is completely earned.

Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph, one that somehow feels both epically huge and intimately small. The scale of the action taking place is immense and executed to technical perfection. The opening sequence where Tommy darts around alley corners and over garden fences as the enemy pursues him, the panic and chaos that ensues when dozens of men frantically try to escape from a sinking ship, the hectic dogfights between the Spitfire planes and the German aircrafts, these are all intense moments that grip the viewer and transport them right into the film. And yet the human element is never lost. Whether it’s the fear of a young man of being forsaken, the torment of a traumatised soldier, or the pressure felt by a pilot flying solo and on reserve fuel, Dunkirk allows us to fully understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations of those who were caught in the middle of this tight spot. Dunkirk is not a great watch, it is a great experience and (I really cannot stress this enough) it is one that must be seen in the cinema.

★★★★★

The BFG

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Melissa Mathison


Roald Dahl had a singular gift for capturing children’s imaginations. In novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach he demonstrated an uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. While adults tend to have their feet grounded in reality, children are able to accept the impossible in stride, something that Dahl fully embraced. His stories were creative, silly and relatable and they dealt with the fantastic and the bizarre in a very matter-of-fact way. Sometimes they could be dark (I remember this one passage in The BFG that described what all the different children of the world tasted like) but the baddies always got their just deserts in the end and there was always a moral for kids to take away. There are few films that can match the childlike wonder of Dahl’s work, but E.T. is unquestionably one of them. I cannot think of a more suitable team to bring one of Dahl’s stories to life than Spielberg and Mathison.

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage where she often reads into the late hours of the night when everyone else is asleep. One night at the “witching hour” she spots an elderly giant lurking in the shadows outside of her window. The giant snatches her from her bed and carries her all the way to Giant Country. There the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) explains that she must remain in his home forever so that she may never reveal the existence of giants to the world. The other giants are all enormous, repulsive bullies with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) who spend their nights stealing children and eating them. The BFG meanwhile spends his days capturing dreams which he then casts into children’s minds as they sleep. As Sophie becomes friends with the BFG, she determines that something needs to be done about the rest of the giants and enlists the BFG to help her.

The plot, much like in E.T., is very simple and minimal, allowing for more time to focus on the interactions between Sophie and the BFG. This movie is perfectly content with putting the story on hold so that a moment may be allowed to play out. Even when the plot does move forward in the third act with Sophie and the BFG appealing to the Queen of England, the film still finds time for an amusing scene the morning after where the disparity between the giant and the humans is played on for comic effect. The film also pauses to focus on moments of enchantment, as when the BFG takes Sophie to the pool where he collects his dreams. It is a tremendous scene that allows the viewer to get lost in the magic for a moment. Other times the film simply lets Sophie and the BFG talk to each other, allowing us to enjoy the evolution of a fascinating and unlikely friendship.

Despite the vast differences between them, Sophie and the BFG are remarkably similar in a number of crucial ways. They are both outsiders, Sophie being an orphan and the BFG being the runt of the giants. Both are childish in certain ways and adult in others, meaning they must both be responsible for each other. Sophie is mature for her age but is still helpless against the giants, therefore it is the BFG’s responsibility to protect her. The BFG however is rather scatter-brained and timid, making it Sophie’s responsibility to mother him. Barnhill makes her splendid debut as the clever and witty Sophie while Rylance is simply magical as the odd and affectionate giant. In a motion-capture performance that rivals even those of Andy Serkis, Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s garbled lines and realisation of his peculiar movements amount to an utterly charming character. The friendship the two of them form is the heart of this movie and watching their interactions was a delight.

The BFG is a movie about dreams and stories, family and childhood, and having courage in the face of adversity. It is above all a film about friendship. It is a tale of kindness, valour and goodness winning against bullying, malice and cruelty. The movie is patient and clever enough that it doesn’t need to constantly keep the story moving forward for fear of losing the children’s attention. The magical world it depicts and the enjoyable characters it portrays are both fascinating enough to keep the viewer engaged, even in the moments where there doesn’t seem to be much happening. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of E.T. but it has the creativity, humour and wonder. The BFG is an endearing, kind-hearted movie that I’d like to think Mr. Dahl would’ve been proud of. I think it is a worthy fulfilment of the book I enjoyed so fondly as a child and I hope it is one that will resonate with children today.

★★★★

Bridge of Spies

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


In a year that has seen the release of many spy thrillers from Kingsman to Mission: Impossible to Spectre, Spielberg has created one of a very different kind. Instead of gadgets, stunts and explosions this film opts for an altogether more subtle, ambiguous and ominous tone as it builds its tension and suspense. The Cold War marks a frighteningly uncertain time in history when the threat of a nuclear war between two colossal nations was all too real and all it would take to set it off was a single mistake. Spielberg taps into this prospect by depicting a negotiation for an exchange between the Soviets and the USA where a single misstep could result in the deaths of the negotiators or of the subjects being negotiated. The history of war, diplomacy and espionage is Spielberg’s bread and butter and so what he crafts here is a suspenseful thriller in the way that only he could have made it.

When the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught by the American government, the task of representing him in a court of law falls onto James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is a principled man with strong morals and so he feels compelled to give this man the defence to which he is entitled despite the backlash it inspires. As this is happening Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) an American U2 spy plane pilot, is shot down and captured by the Soviets. It then becomes Donovan’s job to travel to Berlin and negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. These negotiations prove difficult and dangerous for Donovan especially when he takes it upon himself to include an American student who was arrested by the East Germans in the deal. Tensions rise and grow more palpable as the three parties involved continue to dispute each other over a deal that could blow up at any second and could even escalate into something much more serious.

As opposed to the Second World War which inspired mass destruction, chaotic battles and brutal deaths, the Cold War inspired a different sort of terror. The fear, from the American viewpoint, came from the uncertain nature of the enemy, the ever-present threat of a weapon that could cause global destruction and the oppressive state of such places as East Germany. This wasn’t a world where people died, it was a world where people disappeared and were never heard from again. It is no easy task to convey that sort of dread and despair in a film but it is one at which Spielberg masterfully succeeds. Through the use of expert cinematography, production design and music, the film is able to portray a cold and harsh world where the situation of any given person is consistently uncertain and where everyone’s actions are driven by a foreboding and constant tension that has yet to yield. Spielberg however, being who he is, allows hope and valour to break in at certain points and to ultimately triumph in the film’s conclusion. Bridge of Spies is rich in its atmosphere and tone and allows for an exhilarating viewing experience.

The task of carrying this film falls onto Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Tom Hanks who shines in a role tailor-made for him. Donovan is driven by a strong conviction for justice and fairness and refuses to compromise as much as an inch. He is asked to defend a man the entire country wants to send to the electric chair and resolutely stands up for his client’s liberty and rights. He comes to Berlin to negotiate the freedom of one man and instead fights adamantly for two. At the end of the film when we are given a post-script on what happened to Donovan following his time in Berlin, the story that is provided is one that summarises this character perfectly. My favourite performance in the film however was provided by Mark Rylance who stole every single scene he was in. His simple and unassuming manner made for a wonderfully understated performance that spoke volumes in surprisingly little screen time. Abel faces a disheartening prospect where the number of possible positive outcomes in severely limited. Nevertheless he faces it in such a calm and unperturbed way that I found myself rooting for him.

There is no doubt that Spielberg is a master director but, in his post-Saving Private Ryan career, I always felt that his work as a director suffered from a lack of innovation and inspiration and thought that he ought to consider retiring in order to preserve his legacy. With this film however, and Lincoln before it, I am glad to have been proven wrong. Bridge of Spies is a moody and fascinating film with ominous undertones and masterful performances and direction. There are times when I think Spielberg’s tropes are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and occasions when the film gets a bit preachy and idealistic for my liking but these are little more than nit-picks. Bridge of Spies is an excellent drama that delivers its suspense and thrills in a way unlike any other spy film released this year and is a fine addition to Spielberg’s filmography.

★★★★★