Monday, May 14, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

There may be enough to like on the surface of Steven Spielberg's immersive foray into video and role-play gaming to make it a good movie, but mostly it felt empty to me, though it's always likable and often entertaining and even spirited. It is high science fiction concept, set in a bleak dystopic future, and majority visual attack, roaring at you with swirling, bobbing CGI that makes your head spin. It features a commodified virtual gaming reality that offers a Matrix-like escape for citizens of the post-apocalyptic world of 2045 (exact nature of apocalypse unspecified). The structure of the movie, naturally, mimics the structure of a video game. Fire up the gear, enter the game, and take a challenge to win a key which unlocks a clue to the next challenge, delivering another key, clue, and challenge. In this particular game (backstory provided), three keys will make you rich beyond your dreams. So rich that an evil corporation has thrown heavy resources and dirty tricks experts into winning, putting their evil corporate thumb on the scales to disadvantage our scrappy Scooby-Doo heroes jacking in from these future slums, which look like auto graveyards. Ready Player One riffs not just on the pell-mell boom and crash of fast-moving animated action—what do you think those challenges are about?—but it's also decked out with the frippery of a dense and constant stream of pop culture references: Rush posters, Back to the Future music, the Iron Giant itself, Freddy Krueger, Alien biology tropes, King Kong and Pong and the Batmobile and topics in the history of video gaming. That's approximately 0.1% of what you will experience in brief flashes. It had to be a licensing nightmare getting it all straightened out. And you're going to need a remote to pause some of these images and study the detail—hang on, that home product has to be almost here by now. It all feels more like a series of stunts than anything thought through very far. For example, one thing that definitely drags it down is the supersaturated nostalgia pop soundtrack, which always feels obvious no matter how much I might like the song (and I don't even like them all): "Jump" by Van Halen, "Take on Me" by a-ha, "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees, "You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oates, "Blue Monday" by New Order, and so on. They feel shoved in mechanically, with little sense for making the music connect and work with the narrative or visuals. It may be surprising, but Spielberg has spent most of his career working with John Williams. He doesn't show the least pop music soundtracking skill here. It's almost shocking since he is otherwise such a captain of pop culture. There's a reasonably inspired sequence in which the action enters the movie The Shining—the sets and locations and characters from that movie—which gives another opportunity (with A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to witness and ponder the unusual affinity between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Like the weather everywhere, if you don't like what's going on in this movie wait a few minutes. Maybe you'll like the next place it frenetically zaps to. I was hoping for a little more, probably because it's Spielberg, but the best video game movie I've seen so far is still Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

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