March 26, 2018

CINEMA | Spielberg Levels Up Nostalgia – 'Ready Player One'

"A fanboy knows a hater."
Tye Sheridan Olivia Cooke Steven Spielberg Ernest Cline | Ready Player One

Plug into Episode 166 of the Vertical Viewing Podcast (available on iTunes) virtually to hear our audio review of Ready Player One and talk last week in movies alongside co-hosts Scott Willson and Jared Sargent. (53min)

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One, adapted from the Ernest Cline (who also co-wrote the script) pop culture manifesto, likely depends on your nostalgia for the era and specificity of its 1980s references. Childhood keyholder Steven Spielberg returns to blockbuster filmmaking to adapt the divisive 2011 bestseller into a mishmashed spectacle that both self-critiques and celebrates our adoration of throwback American culture and fandom.

Set in the dystopic future of 2045, Earth is an overcrowded wasteland where the masses spend most of their time in the virtual reality kingdom called the OASIS created by a James Halliday (think Willy Wonka) played by a woefully miscast now regular Spielberg collaborator Mark Rylance. He sports a godawful wig, Space Invaders t-shirt, and laboured pop culture obsessed geek personality he barely tries to awkwardly embody. It's an unfortunately painful combination of actor and material.

Youngsters Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke star as Columbus, Ohio teens, Wade and Samantha (codenamed Parzival and Art3mis), hellbent on winning a near-impossible virtual Easter egg hunt from the now deceased, '80s obsessed Halliday to redeem his fortune and gain control of the game. The pair's chemistry is forced and the entirely shoehorned love story is the stuff of the problematic retro films they reference.

A scowling Ben Mendelsohn really hams it up as the stereotypical future version of the evil '80s businessman villain, aptly named Nolan Sorrento, in his best soft grey suit equally hellbent on winning the game and taking control of this future world's most valuable economic resource. It's a welcome but hollow encapsulation of greed that quickly moves into futuristic terrorism.

Simon Pegg, in another bad wig, shows up sporadically in flashbacks as Halladay's co-creator to provide clues and layer the complex exposition of the VR world. A host of random actors of colour, including Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki, enter the picture late in the game after first establishing themselves online and don't get to do much outside of supporting Sheridan and Cooke.

Godzilla Steven Spielberg Ernest Cline | Ready Player One

The bulk of the performances are in the VR world with animated avatars and fantastical set pieces that only Spielberg could seamlessly construct. Janusz Kamiński's cinematography in the open world game feels at times truly wondrous and recreates the thrills of role-playing gameplay superbly without trying to be photorealistic.

Screenwriter Zak Penn and Cline himself change most of the level challenges to incorporate different pop culture allusions and tastes, mostly other Warner Bros. film properties, including an all-timer extended in-game experience taking on the work of Spielberg colleague Stanley Kubrick. Yet, their adaptation spits just so much exposition and player nonsense to really live up to Spielberg's marvel as a visual filmmaker. There are not enough ideas and genuine performances to really make the film pop beyond its action.

The grade-A production value and other high-quality cinematic elements make the lack of obvious cultural commentary around film's message against the corporatization or profit of nostalgic pop culture and abuses in the gaming industry all the more tone deaf. Its sheen and playful uprising adventure story never quite fit the extolled so-called purity of true fandom and geek culture the characters express.

Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri fills in for the usual John Williams and layers the film with a nostalgic heavy tinge of musical notes between propulsive action scenes set to over the top '80s pop anthems from Van Halen to Prince and Twisted Sister.

That Spielberg was able to elevate such problematic material shows his mastery of form but he can only do so much. His talents both raise the surface level subject matter yet reveal its artificiality in the process. Why future teenagers born in the next decade from now would be so well-versed in a culture I was born into and am even too young to recall because of the whims of one reclusive, eccentric inventor is still boggling.

Spielberg's return to adventure filmmaking is often fun and dazzling but it's hard to get past the very superficial material. Ready Player One is so full of clunky, unmemorable storytelling that it sinks some of the more audaciously mesmerizing sequences of awe-inspiring visuals and pop culture iconography.

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