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Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.

In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.

Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.

With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”

I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.

Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.

I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.

Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!

With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Jurassic World (2015)

217255Director Colin Trevorrow won the proverbial lottery after his 2012 film, Safety Not Guaranteed. The charming indie gem won many hearts, one of them Steven Spielberg. Trevorrow went from a rom-com that was made for under a million dollars to directing a Jurassic Park franchise reboot. Even last year’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards, had a previous film that somewhat primed a logical path for his impressive new gig. Enough time has passed for Jurassic Park to be new again, and the extra varnish of cutting-edge special effects, high-profile stars, and a renewed sense of fun remind us just how universally enjoyable it is to watch dinosaurs and then watch dinosaurs eat people.

Jurassic World has been open for a decade plus now and audiences are getting bored. As a result, the board of directors for the park is looking to “up the wow factor.” They’ve genetically engineered a new hybrid dinosaur (Indominous Rex) that has never existed before in history, but nothing bad could happen, right? Owen (Chris Pratt) is a Navy trainer who is working on training a group of raptors to follow commands. A security leader (Vincent D’Onofrio) is convinced that there’s money to be made with military applications if dinosaurs can follow orders. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of the day-to-day operations at the park. Her nephews (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson) are visiting as one last holiday adventure before mom and dad get divorced. She knows little about her nephews (she’s a workaholic – what originality), but when they’re put in mortal danger, Claire’s protective nature kicks into overdrive. The Indominous Rex escapes its paddock and heads from pen to pen deeper into the park, killing for sport. It’s up to Claire, Owen, and a team of trained raptors to stop this newest monster.

JWSuperBowlTrailer-Raptors1What Trevorrow and his Safety writer Derek Connolly do well is establish a summer thrill-ride that places fun above all else, and it achieves this goal. Jurassic World is consistently entertaining and engaging, with action sequences that are shorter but constantly push the narrative forward. With all the Jurassic films, there’s a palpable sense of dread, of holding back before things get really nuts, and Trevorrow has fun teasing an audience; however, he also delivers on what he promises. The dinosaur action is visceral and rather violent for a PG-13 film, but the segments are diverse in orchestration that it never feels like the movie is repeating itself. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that the Jurassic sequels have mainly been a series of chases. There’s a definite nostalgic reverence for the original 1993 film, summed up with Jake Johnson’s geeky control center character. Trevorrow takes more than a few nods from the almighty Spielberg with his own directorial style. There’s also a surprise sense of humor, which can be quite amusing in moments and far too comically broad in others, like the forced screwball romance between Owen and Claire. The story this fourth time is less a cautionary tale of science and more of a monster romp, imploring a finale that feels reminiscent of Godzilla being called out to save the rest of us tiny humans from the newest and biggest monster. It feels like Trevorrow and Connolly accepted they would never recreate the magic of the original, so they’re aiming to just make the best sequel possible instead. If you’re looking for dinosaur mayhem, Jurassic World has plenty and a sense of what makes summer movies work, mixing in the right amount of suspense, humor, and well-crafted payoffs.

There are a few subplots that have to be swallowed or ignored for maximum benefit. The Raptor Force Five subplot is either going to be cool or silly, or both, and will go a long way to determine your overall feelings on Jurassic World. I know this idea has been in the works for several Jurassic sequels, so there doesn’t seem like there was ever going to be a movie that did not involve raptors being trained into some kind of combat role. This subplot connects to other points in the film about the nature of control/accepting being out of control, the building of a relationship, and the coordination for corporate interests. There’s a reason that the Indominous Rex seems to have special abilities that the handlers were not informed about, and this will be carried over into an assured sequel. For me, I thought the raptor hunting party was more fun than dumb. It had a Disney Wild Adventure feel for it, like we’re crossing over into Call of the Wild. I liked making the raptors allies to the humans who could be rallied for the final fight.

I appreciated how thought out the world building was; Jurassic World feels like a living, breathing amusement park in operation. From the Seaworld-like Mosasaurus aquatic shows, to the baby dinosaur petting zoo (I would totally spend hours there), to the celebrity-recorded comedy bits educating riders about safety supervision, to the listless park employee wishing each new rider to have a happy day. During the pterodactyl attack sequence, which is the most frenzied and exciting sequence, the crowds run for cover, including one guy who runs away while still carrying a clearly identified margarita in hand. That’s fantastic because it means that the park probably has a cheesy pun-laden menu of adult beverages (Tea Rex?) but it also means that even during an attack, a customer is determined not to lose his, likely, $10 margarita. While the “we can’t close the beaches” corporate mentality is somewhat tired as a plot obstacle, it’s still entirely fitting in a modern setting. It was the little details that told me that Trevorrow and company really thought the premise through and made their world feel far richer.

maxresdefaultOne could also look at the social commentary in a fairly cynical manner and find Trevorrow giving in to the summer movie machine. Claire’s character explains that after years of operation, the public has grown tired of dinosaurs, and so they have to engineer a new bigger, badder dinosaur just to grab flagging interest. What once was magical has now become accepted and everyday. It’s easy to apply this critique on movie audiences themselves; we’ve become jaded from movie spectacles. What once blew our minds, like the original Jurassic Park, has now become passé. We’re constantly looking for the shiniest new toy but will lose interest soon enough. And then there are the fleeting images of people being more involved with their cell phones than the spectacle they paid to see. That’s right, annoying moviegoers who are unable to break from their phones for a two-hour window, Jurassic World is making fun of you, and rightfully so. The chief product of this desperation to give the audience what it wants is Indominus Rex, a beast that slashes a rampage through the island. In a sense, Trevorrow is externalizing the audience’s demands into the antagonistic monster, and finally just gives in, essentially saying, “This is what you want, right?” I can’t tell whether the social commentary holds up well, especially with the end that relies upon a metaphorical power of nostalgia to conquer the manifestation of audience apathy, or if Trevorrow just gives up. Is the concluding monster-on-monster brawl just mass appeal pandering?

I have a major solution to this dangerous park scenario. First, only herbivores allowed. Is any person going to reasonably refuse to go see millions-year-old multi-story extinct creatures because they primarily eat plants? I’m sorry, no way. That right there would solve most problems if the animals inevitably get loose. I would not believe a single person who would refuse to see living dinosaurs just because they lack a T.rex or other predators. That’s like Internet cretins refusing Angelina Jolie as a one-night stand because they don’t like the way her knees look. Nobody is this picky when awe-inspiring greatness waits. From a legal standpoint, I would also make sure guests sign a waiver before entering the park, thus mitigating any potential lawsuits over being attacked and eaten. How expensive is this park by the way? You have to charter a boat off the coast of Costa Rica, so that sort of price range already eliminates plenty of would-be customers.

I know many millennials who consider Jurassic Park to be their own Star Wars, a film that delighted the imagination and imprinted a love of movies at a young, impressionable time. Movies have never been the same since, especially in the sea change of computer generated effects replacing practical (Oscar-winning Sam Winston is retiring because of our over-reliance on CGI). We all want to experience that sense of awe again, like when we saw the T.rex roar for the first time. Movie moments like that send shivers but they are rare, so it’s unfair to compare Jurassic World to Park. However, it’s fair game to compare it to the lesser sequels, and that is where World stacks pretty favorably. Its sense of fun above all else, while remaining true to its larger vision of a real park, is a satisfying summer diversion. The dinosaur mayhem is satisfying and occasionally scary. The script does just enough to keep you from wanting to watch the human characters get squashed. In the wake of its box-office shattering opening weekend, expect the park to stay open.

Nate’s Grade: B

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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