Review: Ready Player One

In The Society of the Spectacle, French theorist Guy Debord argues that mass culture MASTER CHIEF JUST SHOT FREDDY KRUEGER! which Jean Baudrillard further develops, most famously in Similarity and THAT’S THE BACK TO THE FUTURE THEME! But the most damning indictment of mass entertainment THE IRON GIANT! Adorno’s essay in A RUBIK’S CUBE! AN ATARI 2600! CHUCKY!

That’s kind of what it’s like watch Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One. Well, that’s what the good parts are like,  anyway. The bad parts, which fill out the movie’s entire back half, consist of little more than no-stakes action and treacle that you would expect in a parody of a Spielberg movie.

An adaptation of the cult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes place in the near future, where some sort of cataclysm has put an evil corporation in near totalitarian control and leaves the commoners in a squalor they escape via a virtual reality game called “The Oasis”, created by enigmatic game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

Theoretically, there must be a lot of fun stuff to do in the Oasis, but nearly everyone’s attention is directed toward a series of three challenges that Halliday programed into the game before he died. Whoever completes that challenge gains control of the Oasis.

Nearly everyone wants to win the challenge, including Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays under the name Parzival (after the knight who went alone to find the Holy Grail). Owning the Oasis would give Wade the financial resources to live somewhere nicer than his trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. Conversely, evil businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his megacorporation 101 wants those resources to ruin the Oasis with ads, thus gaining more money. And to get that money, he spends a ton of money on VR facilities and an army of troopers who play the game to win the prize and… make more money?

None of this makes sense if you spend too much time thinking about it, because at its heart, Ready Player One is a video game that all of us watch and none of us play. The good guys come together in avatars made of (Warner Brothers owned) pop culture properties and they fight generic looking bad guys to go get the things.

This simplicity isn’t bad in itself, but this movie is ugly, certainly Spielberg’s ugliest since Hook. Spielberg knows his way around an action scene, and there are plenty here, including a sequence in which Wade drives the Back to the Future DeLorean through a racetrack, perused by both a Jurassic Park t-rex and King Kong. The camera swoops around the vehicles and the track and the monsters, set to Alan Silvestri’s stirring recreation of a John Williams score.

It might be all very impressive stuff, if it wasn’t CG. By this point, there’s nothing exciting about seeing what programmers can do with their very expensive computers. Spielberg deserves credit for making sure that we can always tell where the principle characters are in relation to one another – a skill not everyone has, to be sure – but the images are so ugly that we’d rather not look at them.

Worse still, they’re in a video game, so nothing really matters. When Kong nearly smashes Wade’s partner Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), we don’t feel a thrill or concern. If she “dies” she just comes back to life. The movie makes half-hearted attempts to ground the stakes in real life, but the action in these sections is so over the top and silly, it’s hard to discern between the two.

The movie’s attempts at a moral are just as flimsy. There’s a lot of talk that basically boils down to “it’s good to take chances with people in the real world”, but all of this comes in a form of catechizing Oasis founder Halliday. Players repeat to one another Halliday’s favorite movies and books to look for clues, and our heroes learn how to overcome the challenges by basically avoiding the mistakes Halliday made in his real life. Mistakes that basically boil down to “he needed to take chances with people in the real world.”

Of course, most people aren’t watching the movie for its story or its philosophy. They’re watching it to see references to stuff they like, and there’s lots of those. And a lot of them are fun, including a surprising sequence based on The Shining.

But if you made grimace at that thought, then you get a sense of how the movie even screws up the references. The Shining isn’t really the sort of thing that lends itself to a video game romp. Nor does the Iron Giant, who shows up here battling monsters and, yes, even shooting people with his gun.

Even the references, then, fail. Because the movie doesn’t even honor what we love about the stuff it purports to love.

Like the action or the sentiment or the philosophy, the references in Ready Player One show up to give you a momentary visual jolt, and then to forget before you start to think or care about them.


Review: The Post

Steven Spielberg is really good at making movies.

We all know that, of course; we all love Jaws and Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. But a movie like The Post , a movie that tells so cleanly and forcefully a knotty procedural tale, reminds us just how good he really is.

Just watch his camera follow Washington Post editor Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as she walks past a group of women outside the doors of the New York Stock Exchange to stand among the men inside. Watch him move in one unbroken take through the home of editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to highlight reporters pouring over the Pentagon Papers, lawyers debating the consequences of printing them, and Bradlee’s family coping with the mess. Watch his simple hand-held shot of a reporter’s desk quaking as the printing press below churns out the paper’s monumental issue.

With a touch this deft, one could switch off the sound and still follow the story of Graham asserting control over the paper she inherited by defying the Nixon administration and printing documents that reveal the government’s machinations in Viet Nam. There’s no need to get mired in names that viewers younger than 40 only know from history class. Spielberg’s direction moves us through the narrative.

Which isn’t to say that first time screenwriter Liz Hannah’s script, crafted with an assist from Oscar winner Josh Springer (Spotlight) is a mess. Although dense with incident, Hannah and Springer keep focused on the national stakes of the country’s relationship to executive power and the personal sakes of Graham’s transformation from society woman to the head of a reputable investigative newspaper.

That said, turning off the sound would lose both John Williams’s subtle, tasteful score and some fantastic performances. The supporting cast — which includes television standouts such as Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and comedy duo David Cross and Bob Odenkirk — follow Hanks’s lead and squeeze an impressive amount of nuance out of their limited roles. In every instance, from Michael Cyril Crieghton’s bullpen reporter sheepishly overexplaining his discovery of the papers to Hanks leaning into Bradlee’s squinty stare and growled oneliners, the cast reminds us that they’re at the top of their game.

That’s even more true of Meryl Streep, who reveals a powerful woman manifesting underneath Graham’s soothing tones and hospitable smile. When that woman finally emerges onto the national stage, Streep plays it with both determination and discomfort, fully humanizing what could have been an easy hero moment.

In light of such a strong central female role, it’s a shame the other women’s parts are so underdeveloped. Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife and Allison Brie as Graham’s daughter get little more to do than encourage their family members, and Deirdre Lovejoy, who was so amazing in The Wire, only gets to respond to Bradlee as his secretary. One cannot help but lament the talent being underused, even though the women all do great with what they’re given.

In this way, the actresses are in line with the rest of film’s cast and crew. The story about the free press defending the people against an abusive President, The Post is very much a movie of our time, and while Spielberg does indulge in an a few sentimentally rousing moments towards the end, it rarely tips into self-importance.

Without too much fanfare or pomp, The Post simply hums along like a well-designed machine, and strong and reliable is comfort enough in such troubling times.

JAWS: Amity Means Friendship (Renewed Mind Movie Talk, Episode 07)

New Episode of Renewed Mind Movie Talk available today!

Are you going to watch Jaws this Fourth of July weekend?

Of course you are! What else would you look at this weekend?

After watching it, take a look at this video essay!

Jaws isn’t a movie about a shark — it’s a movie about a community responding to a shark attack. As I will discuss in the video, the film repeatedly shows vulnerability to be the key part of a good community, and that communities who refuse to accept their vulnerability are bound to fail.

After looking at these parts of the movie, we’ll see how the Apostle Paul reveals his own vulnerability to the early Christian church in Romans 7.

Check it out and consider sharing with the film fan (or shark phobic) in your life!