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New Release Review - READY PLAYER ONE

ready player one review
A nostalgia obsessed teen searches for the three keys that will grant him control of a virtual reality world.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Letitia Wright, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Hannah John-Kamen, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, McKenna Grace

ready player one poster


When it comes to modern Hollywood, everything old is new again. At time of writing, the top three Hollywood movies at the US box office are based on a comic book character created in the 1960s (Black Panther); a children's novel written in the same decade (A Wrinkle in Time) and a rebooted adaptation of a '90s video game (Tomb Raider). I guess it makes a change from properties that have their roots in the '80s, the decade that's been mined more thoroughly by a Hollywood increasingly reliant on brand recognition than any other.

The irony is that the '80s was itself a decade obsessed with nostalgia. The pop stars of the day drew inspiration from icons of the past - Michael Jackson appropriated the dance routines of Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and Sammy Davis Jr. and made them feel fresh and vital; Madonna modelled her sultry blonde image on Marilyn Monroe, the lyrics of her songs packed with references to classic Hollywood stars; in his Kid Creole guise, August Darnell brought back the style of '30s bandleaders Duke Ellington and Louis Prima.

In cinema, the auteurs of the day looked back on the movies of their childhoods, sometimes reworked into original material - Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones series, an '80s update of the action serials of the '30s; Fred Dekker's Universal Monsters homage, The Monster Squad - but usually remakes that added neon, nudity and nastiness to products of more censorious times - John Carpenter's The Thing; Paul Schrader's Cat People; David Cronenberg's The Fly.

ready player one

The key difference between the nostalgia of the '80s and today is that the former was primarily artist driven, while the latter is driven simply by the bottom line. Jackson and Spielberg weren't riffing on Fosse and Zorro as a means of making a fast buck - few '80s kids were familiar with either - but because they had a sincere and genuine affection for the entertainment they grew up on, and sought to translate that sense of wonder to a new generation of wide-eyed rugrats. Today's Hollywood execs pull from the '80s simply in the hope that Dad will bring his kids to the cinema to watch the same characters he watched at their age.

Fittingly, it's Spielberg himself who is responsible for what feels like an exclamation mark (if only!) at the end of Hollywood's '80s obsession - his adaptation of Ernest Cline's cult novel, Ready Player One. From the opening chords of Van Halen's 'Jump' that introduce the drama, it's a movie packed to the gills with pop culture references, mostly to the decade of Rubik's cubes and leg-warmers.

It's 2045, and Columbus, Ohio is the world's fastest growing city (anyone who has ever been to that provincial American city will ask why???). So overcrowded is the city that its populace lives in suburbs known as 'the stacks', trailers piled sky high on top of each other. To escape from the glum reality of life in Columbus, the citizens have embraced 'The Oasis', a virtual reality world that allows anyone to take on any form of avatar, with most opting for the guise of a popular character from, well you know which era.

Our hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, possibly cast due to his uncanny resemblance to a young Spielberg), a teen who spends his days in the Oasis (the concept of school and work doesn't seem to exist in this future - now that's a utopia!) searching for three keys left in the game by its deceased creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, channelling Rick Moranis on heroin). Whoever manages to obtain the three keys will become the sole proprietor of the Oasis. Copying Roy Kinnear's method of winning a Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (a movie this one owes more than a debt to), evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has his staff working around the clock to uncover the keys, but to no avail, and becomes increasingly aggressive when Wade figures out how to obtain the first key.

ready player one

For a movie so heavily reliant on its nostalgic hook, Ready Player One is ironically emblematic of the modern blockbuster - soulless and bloated, all plot and no story, with characters that are little more than mannequins whose sole purpose is to verbalise the plot. It may constantly reference the decade that largely defines Spielberg, but it's the least Spielberg-esque movie the great filmmaker has ever made. Even the bearded one's misfires are saved by glimpses of magic - the house falling off a cliff in his biggest disaster, 1941; the one-take airplane flyby in the otherwise dull Always; the cracking glass in tepid sequel Jurassic Park: The Lost World - but there's nothing of note on display here. Save for 'the stacks' - a practical set built in Pinewood that was visible to passing motorists on nearby motorways - I can't recall a single image that made me think "huh, I haven't seen that before."

Like most modern blockbusters, it's dogged by a reliance on storytelling through expository dialogue and voiceover. At times it's remarkably crude and condescending to the audience, such as how the film tells us Mendelsohn's baddie is "a huge douchebag" through voiceover narration, rather than, you know, SHOWING him being a huge douchebag! Come on Steven, you know you're better than this - you're not Michael Bay, Brett Ratner or Zack Snyder, you're Steven bloody Spielberg, the boy wonder heir to Hitchcock. Nobody knows how to tell a story in pictures like you do (as demonstrated a mere two months ago in The Post), so what happened here?

Halfway through Ready Player One I began to get a feeling I had seen all this before, but not back in the '80s, rather a mere few years ago in 2014's The LEGO Movie. That film did a far more effective and succinct job of telling a very similar story. Like Lord and Miller's animated comedy, Ready Player One is a Warner Bros. product, which means most of the pop culture properties referenced belong to the Warner stable. We get Batman and a quote from Superman; The Movie, but Spider-Man and Iron Man are conspicuously absent. We get The Iron Giant, King Kong and Godzilla, but no Transformers. The soundtrack gives us artists signed to Warners' music label - including Prince, who famously denied filmmakers use of his music while he was alive - but no Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston et al. To pad things out, Spielberg uses his Amblin clout to give us Back to the Future's DeLorean.

What does the film have to say about nostalgia? I'm not really sure it says anything, either positive or negative. Its message regarding video games and online immersion amounts to little more than telling its audience it's all fine once you get some fresh air once in a while ("Reality is the only place you can get a hot meal," is the movie's most memorable line). Wade falls for Samantha, a girl he meets in the Oasis, or rather he falls for her sultry avatar (I guess he's one of those guys who masturbates to the animated Catwoman or the husky-voiced rabbit from the old Caramel advert - each to their own). The movie cops out by revealing that Samantha happens to be equally physically attractive in her real world form, played by Olivia Cooke ('scarred' with a facial birthmark that does nothing to negate her young Winona Ryder looks), which erases any possible commentary on the falsity of online avatars.

ready player one

Spielberg makes little use of the many properties his legal team has assembled, and the result often feels like a deadpan version of those awful Friedberg and Seltzer movie parodies - Epic Movie; Disaster Movie; The Starving Games (ugh) - that expect an audience reaction simply by referencing another preexisting cultural property. You may release an involuntary 'huh' when Chucky, Freddy Krueger or a Gremlin pops up, but that's about it.

A major sequence set in an immaculate recreation of The Shining's Overlook Hotel will have you asking who the intended audience for Ready Player One is - the kids too young to have to seen Kubrick's film or those old enough to understand the reference? It's a set-piece that encapsulates Ready Player One's central conundrum - anyone over the age of 12 will struggle to endure its insufferable, soulless cavalcade of colour and commercial culture (I lived through the entirety of the '80s, and that decade went by faster than this movie's third act), while anyone younger will struggle to make sense of references aimed at their parents.

Like most filmmakers, Spielberg made his best films at the beginning of his career. Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters featured protagonists who looked forward, actively endeavouring to escape their past and present. Hell, Richard Dreyfuss left his family and the entire planet to explore his sense of curiosity. If only modern Hollywood was similarly willing to look ahead and take a risk on some new, currently unknowable pop culture properties rather than simply pandering to our lizard brain recognition like those UK TV specials in which third rate comedians watch clips of '80s sitcoms and give us 'insightful' comments on how nobody was convinced by a 17-year-old Gary Coleman still playing a child at the back end of Diff'rent Strokes' run. To quote Close Encounters' Roy Neary, "You can't fool us by agreeing with us."

Ready Player One is in UK/ROI cinemas March 29th.




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