Sunday, April 1, 2018

Steven Spielberg, part XXXVIII: Pop has finished eating itself, and now it's after you


The dumbassed pop culture stew and incredible visuals make it a great time at the movies, but the tension between what it says it is and what it actually is makes it more interesting than it ever had any right to be.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on the novel by Ernest Cline)
With Tye Sheridan (Wade "Parzival" Watts), Olvia Cooke (Samantha "Art3mis" Cook), Win Morisaki (Toshiro "Daito" Yoshiaki), Philip Zhao (Akihide "Shoto" Karatsu), Mark Rylance (James "Anorak" Halliday), T.J. Miller ("I-R0k"), Ben Mendelsohn (Nolan "Nolan Sorrento" Sorrento), and another actor whose name and face is in the marketing materials, but whose identity I won't spoil because it probably would've been a mild but nice surprise if I had not already known it ("Aech")

Spoiler alert: moderate

Ready Player One is, by my estimate, actually, shockingly great, and while a lot of the great things in it are definitely great on purpose, the strange mood that ties it all together is, I have to imagine, almost entirely accidental.  In fact, if it weren't accidental, I don't think  I'd have been nearly as taken by the movie as I was.  (And it is "a movie, not a film!", according to director Steven Spielberg, this being the kind of annoying distinction that we've nonetheless been trained to expect from him.)  But there that strange mood is, whether we asked for it or not.  I'll call it a film if I want, Steve.  You're not my real dad.

We'll circle back to that later, but let's get one thing straight right away: the most satisfying (hell, joyous) thing about RP1 is that it sees our Spielberg, co-inventor of the action-adventure blockbuster and once the form's most able practitioner, returning one more time to the big-ticket arena and reminding audiences exactly who built it in the first place.  Happily, those audiences have not forgotten: RP1 has practically paid for itself already, in just three days, and God knows it was not remotely cheap; but, with that in mind, it's worth pointing out that it was hard not to have grave, grave misgivings about the project beforehand.  For one thing, Spielberg's last try at adventure resulted in naught but the trifling pleasantry of The BFG (not a bad movie by any stretch, but certainly a wet noodle of one).  For another, the off-putting nostalgia-pandering marketing campaign (which, in fairness, did nothing more than embrace the fundamental quality of its source material)—not to mention the potentially off-putting brand of mo-cap animation that was used to bring it to life—honestly seemed like the stuff of instantaneous backlash, too dorky and insular even for an audience primed for dorky and insular shit.  Clearly, I have either underestimated, or overstimated, the American public, depending on your point-of-view.  (Or, as turns out to be more of the case, I have forgotten to estimate the Chinese public at all; but, still, the American numbers were nothing to sneeze at.)

The film is based, sort of, on the widely-read (and widely-maligned) 2011 book by Ernest Cline; but the fellow who seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of Spielberg's self-resurrection and Cline's willingness to sign off on his favorite filmmaker's changes is Zak Penn, whose screenplay is an enormously successful act of cross-medium adaptation, taking Cline's wholly-unfilmable novel and rebuilding it, from the title up.  Virtually every change Penn made is either more narratively palatable, more cinematic, or both—from the radically-rejiggered particulars of a quest plot that no longer hinges quite so entirely upon the thrilling sight of watching a man playing classic arcade games for hours, to the dialogue that no longer sounds so much like it was written by the Tamarians from the TNG episode "Darmok," except with more repetition and with not quite as much semantic coherence (obviously, the irony of referencing Trek in a critique of Ready Player One is not entirely lost on me), to the geek-boy fantasy romance at the very heart of the matter, that comes off significantly healthier in the movie in every respect but one, which we'll touch on below, but which (in any event) does still wind up being the most credible romance in a Spielberg movie since either The Terminal or Raiders itself (and the irony of using any Spielberg movie as a standard for the depiction of heterosexuality is not lost on me whatsoever).

Spielberg and Penn's Ready Player One is still basically about what Cline's was, though: in the year 2045, after four decades of economic and ecological collapse, the only thing left for humanity is the OASIS, the massively-multiplayer virtual reality platform invented by the mad autistic genius James Halliday; in particular, it is the only thing that matters to our orphan hero, Wade Watts, for whom the OASIS, through his in-game avatar Parzival, represents his sole possible escape from the hellish destitution of his real life in the "stacks" outside Columbus, OH, this being one of the thousands of shantytowns composed of trailers literally stacked one on top of the other amidst the sprawling junkyard of America.  Halliday's been dead for years by the time we catch up with Parzival; but Halliday's legacy, as yet, remains unclear, for in contemplation of his passing he instituted a contest upon which the future of his invention turns, a quest within the OASIS itself, comprising riddles, and challenges, and games-within-games.

The first player to surpass these obstacles and find the "Easter egg" that Halliday left behind shall become the sole heir to his trillion-dollar empire.  Wade, like so many youngsters, has thrown himself into the contest as his only hope in a hopeless world; arrayed against him and his fellow egg hunters (or "gunters," if you must) is the corporatized army of IOI, a company built for the sole purpose of subverting Halliday's will and seizing control of the OASIS for their shareholders, led into virtual battle by Nolan Sorrento, the platonic ideal of corporate smarm and greed.  In five years, however, not even the first obstacle has been overcome—until our lad, in a stroke of inspiration, becomes the first gunter to solve any of Halliday's puzzles, putting himself on a path to realizing his destiny.  But he won't ever get there, not even with the help of his gunter allies Aech, Art3mis, Daito, and Sho, if Sorrento has anything to say about it.

What this leaves out, of course, is that Halliday's OASIS and Halliday's quest have been shaped, in inutterable ways, by Halliday's pop cultural obsessions, and the dominance of the OASIS has led to his obsessions becoming everyone's obsessions; in other words, civilization has become consumed with nostalgia for the retro detritus of Halliday's youth in the 1980s, with some nostalgia left over for stuff as old as Adam West's Batman and as current as Halo, and, yes, while I am old enough to consider Halo new-ish, I am being very sarcastic.  (Anyway, it should've been Red vs. Blue: after all, RP1 is, basically, faux machinima.)  Mostly though, the picture remains centered upon the decade of John Hughes and The Goonies and so on and so forth.  The least-unlikely phrase in Cline's novel is "vintage '80s," and, you know, we fucking get it.  RP1 The Novel (which I find, well, let's go with "fun") is certainly not well-written in any conventional way.  Let me say this for the book instead: it absolutely captures the voice of a protagonist who, in his impoverished yearning, has shrugged off the burden of personality, and replaced it with other people's art.

Let's just call this whole review an irony-free zone, okay?

Spielberg's movie sidesteps the clutter of Cline's book—in large part simply because it is already a movie, and despite having had it sitting around for a couple of weeks, I avoided reading the novel till I saw the movie it became, reckoning (rightly) that whatever pleasure of recognition this kind of mixed-up nonsense afforded would inevitably be stronger in a visual medium than it would be in the form of a long list of things Ernest Cline likes.  In seeing it, RP1 feels a lot like that other time Spielberg set himself to inter-company rights-wrangling in pursuit of a wink-and-nudge descent into reflexive hyper-nostalgia, though (oddly enough) Who Framed Roger Rabbit is rarely described this way.  (RP1 is less complete than Roger: whither Marvel, and, as Cline and Cline alone has ever put it, "the Wars"?  That is to say, I guess Disney must've gone and made their own OASIS, like dicks.)

But it's not solely because RP1's own little Easter eggs tend to be just as fun as Roger's (rather than tedious or terrible or, charitably, indicative of pitiful malaise, as they often were in the novel).  It's not even because, in its overstuffed geek grandeur, it looks kind of like a deranged fan artist aping a George Perez double-page splash and somehow pulling it off.  It's because Spielberg is at least as interested—more interested, no doubt—in the intoxicating visual and emotional possibilities of the OASIS as a cartoon (that is, as a piece of animation) than he is in its narrative possibilities as a place where myths go to languish.  Obviously, then, it reminds you even more of Spielberg's other mercurial mo-cap cartoon, The Adventures of Tintin, which RP1 resembles and exceeds.

The motion capture performances, apparently achieved with the aid of actual VR technology, are remarkably solid things, though by design not very deep ones: RP1 at least presents itself as Spielberg's most uncomplicated yarn since his visits to Jurassic Park.  (Indeed, moreso: while the orphanage of its two main characters is certainly Spielbergian, as is the warmth and humanity projected onto Parzival's wished-for surrogate dad—in this case, pretty intriguingly, an ambiguously-mindless bot version of old Halliday—the actual story barely has any analogue in Spielberg's history, this being the very first time he's opted to fully riff on the uncut Joseph Campbell of his pal George's Star Wars, up to and including the violent, nominally-sad removal of Wade's interloping aunt-and-uncle figures.)  And so my favorite little note in the whole film made me return an extra's grin right back at him when he is ordered by his IOI superior, "Play Adventure!"  Also, fuck you.

In this context, then, what those performances do is serve.  Some serve better than others—of the primary cast, only the person behind the hulking CGI of Parzival's best friend/peer competitor/better angel Aech really shines; though Mark Rylance, on the sidelines, is probably alone in the whole film in putting on any kind of significant performance, an enigma buried deeply inside Halliday's cutely stereotypical autistic tics.  Speaking of stereotypical: an Asian character unaccountably knows martial arts (another tries to commit suicide when he loses the game), and I feel like I should dislike this, but this is one of RP1's truest callbacks to the era of its fixation.  The bigger problem, anyway, is more timeless.  The novel, sincere if always artless in its paean to the American geek, would not exactly have recommended casting pretty, thin Tye Sheridan or pretty, thin Olivia Cooke in the roles of its heroic leads; but Spielberg did, while nevertheless preserving a certain dysmorphia-inducing birthmark for young Art3mis' meatface, so that whatever might've remained sweet within the sexist hooey of the book becomes almost nothing more than another hot girl made even hotter, by the twin virtues of a non-flaw flaw and rock-bottom self-esteem. And yeah, the appeal is self-evident; but perhaps it's worth aspiring to better.  (Not to blame Cooke, though, who's an easy no. 2 after Aech's performer, doing the lion's share of redeeming Parzival and Art3mis' hurried love story.)

What wind up more interesting, therefore, are their animated counterparts, in part because despite everything that is monumentally weird about everything in the OASIS, it actually does capture the souls behind the pixels, in some cases so well that it rises right up to level of thematic: Sheridan is so much more lively as his bishounen rentboy Parzival than he is as Wade Watts that you'd acknowledge his avatar as the real him before you would the real flesh of Spielberg's teenage stand-in, even with all the hyper-aggressive video game character design that skates (presumably intentionally) right down the slopes of uncanny valley—though from precisely which side, I'm not even sure.  (I suspect it'll tend to futureproof RP1's stellar special effects, too, because nothing about RP1 is supposed to be legitimately "realistic"; for all that RP1 is Spielberg pulling an Avatar, I imagine I'll enjoy watching RP1 more ten years from now than I do Avatar today.)  Meanwhile, one of the more likeable elements of RP1 is the treatment of VR as VR: it only once, and in a minor, tactical way, ever asks the question every stoner and Matrix fan (but I repeat myself) has asked aloud a dozen times, "What is reality, man?"

It does ask Cypher's more sensible question, however: "Is fantasy better than reality?"  And it's kind of cagey about the answer.  I mean, it isn't: I doubt it spoils a thing to say that the film ends with Wade learning, inter alia, that putting his penis inside a living human being is better than putting it in the fannish adorations of a dead man.  (Actually, as this is a Spielberg movie, maybe that does count as a spoiler.)  But nothing except the concluding voiceover actually tells you this, certainly not the movie you just watched.  It now reminds you vividly of Jurassic Park.  That was another Spielberg film with a morally-hectoring screenplay at war with the majesty of its own spectacle, though where Jurassic Park is just contradictory, RP1 is more fascinating: a motion picture capable of self-delusion, and, when it becomes aware of its hypocrisy, maybe even self-hatred.

But it delivers that spectacle like few films do, even in these spectacle-heavy days.  The movie begins with a sci-fi crossover demolition derby, a perfect example of classicism masquerading as chaos (marred only by the decision to let Alan Silvestri's strong, reference-heavy score lay dormant for the only time in the whole film, a choice evidently calculated not to distract from the visuals, and it's a credible choice, if not exactly the right one).  The movie ends with a multiplayer melee that is the most stupidly pleasurable thing I've seen in months.  It violates my position against universe-mixing totally; I should hate it.  But (following Spielberg's constant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's lead), it is a gray affair on a wintry planet, yet instead of being merely grim, the grayness tends to unify the aesthetics of its wildly disparate elements, while also mattering less in practice since the principal combatants are gray themselves—and bodaciously metal, of course, culminating in an ultimate showdown (of ultimate destiny, obviously) that, somehow, finds new resonances in its sampling, like a GirlTalk mash-up (or a LEGO Movie, or, for that matter, the actual "Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny"), rather than degenerating into the joyless listicle any written description would make it sound like.  I said this already: words are the wrong damn medium for any version of this story.  (Meanwhile, if it is colors you're after, the true centerpiece of RP1 probably isn't even an action scene at all, but a protean, neon-inflected dance that sells Parzival and Art3mis' attraction better than any of their semi-good dialogue.)

This spectacle of pleasure is set against a spectacle of misery, especially the rancid stacks Wade calls home—in fairness to Cline, it's a damn fine metaphor for the world he created, garbage atop garbage, a combo of senseless whimsy and high-test bitterness that Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhauser (and Kaminski and Kaminski's brittle light) turn into the film's one genuinely novel image of the future.  (Though this is not to discount the IOI offices as a remarkable piece of visual shorthand themselves: what amounts to a Chinese gold farming operation, populated by what amount to slaves, right here in the American heartland.)

And so what RP1 actually becomes is a frothy adventure, placed directly atop of a world that absolutely cannot support it.  They mix about as well as oil and water, albeit in incredibly interesting ways.  Brief shots of Parzival's army of allies in the real world—an army of the borderline-homeless, decked out in goggles and haptic gloves—turn Spielberg's movie-movie into a Black Mirror episode that doesn't know it's a Black Mirror episode.  Imagine if Spielberg directed Blade Runner 2049, cinema's other recent interrogation of this 21st century.  RP1 is about all the same things, but clearly doesn't want to acknowledge it is, which (after a fashion) makes it even more about the future we're living in than BR2049 was.  Spielberg hasn't flirted with the darkness this hard in his science fiction since A.I.

But that is fitting: halfway through RP1 comes a scene that, by my lights, radically overestimates how much of a debt the dead Kubrick owes Spielberg for finishing A.I. for him.  It feels a little bit like Spielberg's spitting on his grave, in fact, as he recreates The Shining as a video game (and I don't even love The Shining like everybody else does), doing so in a stunning, technologically-marvelous clash of aesthetics.  I don't think I even like this scene, but I do like the way I don't like it: in its shameless destruction of everything valuable and artistic about a film that Spielberg's own good friend made, you wonder, eyes wide and mouth agape, if Spielberg, 71 years old, has finally discovered satire.

I don't know if he has, but I can't help but feel like he's playing a game of his own—quite plausibly without realizing it, so that what RP1 resembles most of all out of the whole Spielberg canon is Close Encounters, the other movie he made in such a fugue state he had no idea what it was about until it was pointed out to him years afterward.  There, a father's abandonment of his family turned out to be in service of a cosmic plan; this being the thirty-eighth time I've inventoried the director, I won't belabor why that story might be significant to Spielberg's psyche.

Here, it has less to do with its maker, more to do with us.  Cline's novel already spoke to a world that was explicitly dying; Spielberg makes that extremely concrete, and reminds us that it is our world.  (If the constant usage of existing pop culture has any artistically credible excuse, it is to hammer this into our skulls: that DeLorean, that Mechagodzilla, that Iron Giant—this is Earth Prime, no two ways about it.)  I don't want you to make any mistake: this movie is fun as hell, often funny too, and has enormous love in it; a common criticism of RP1 is that Spielberg, an old man, could not actually share Cline's nostalgia for the 80s, but I think this misunderstands this particular filmmaker especially—hell, I think it misunderstands humans, generally—on a fundamental level.

So, yes, above all, it is fun: like any great Spielberg adventure, it blots out the world for a while, flawlessly performing the task that most art is intended to do, but which most art does not do this well—namely, allowing you to enjoyably waste some time while awaiting your death.  That's what the OASIS was built for, too.  But unlike those great Spielberg adventures of old, this one leaves a mild depression in its wake.  You consider what it was you actually saw, which was your civilization collapsing in every way possible, from the basic underpinnings of its physical existence, down to its ability to tell new stories about a future that, in fairness, it doesn't actually have.  The greatest hope found here is that the man who wins control of the painkiller supply may be more responsible than his opponent.  Ready Player One has the character of a requiem.  In its more optimistic moments, it can also sound like a swan song, for Spielberg, for Spielberg's disciples, for the long shadow of the 1980s, for a mode of storytelling untroubled by sexism or racism or the problems of the world.  One more time, with feeling.  At its most optimistic, Ready Player One seems like it wants to be the crucible that keeps what's worth keeping about the past, and burn away the mistakes without necessarily forgetting they were made in the first place, while trying desperately to point the way to something new.  But it's pointing at a void.  Optimism is a luxury only those with coin can afford, like Parzival, like Spielberg, and maybe what you saw at the end was not an action scene, but the götterdämmerung.  This time, it had a Gundam in it.  Admittedly, that was cool.

Score:  10/10


  1. Dear Lord, Hunter. We can't take you anywhere.

    I AM glad you found the novel underwhelming though, and perhaps me approaching the movie having read the novel accounts for the wide gap between the scores. Although honestly reading the novel before might help out because the movie is such leaps and bounds ahead of it.

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    2. Indeed, to the extent I do like the book, it's mainly because it's bad in ways that are extremely easy to mock. (I have never seen any human being so unable to process meaning or significance as Cline. RP1 is the kind of novel where the Vogt-Kampff test is a puzzle clue in a world of childlike, emotionally walled-off nerds,and all this amounts to is a hyper-perfunctory action scene with replicants, described as "like a John Woo movie." It's a book that references Shakespeare's Tempest, and the pleasure of that reference drains away because you are almost totally sure that the author has not *actually* drawn a parallel between its sad wizard on an island and the bard's. No, if it turned out that "Cline" was an ai, RP1 would be a genuine posthuman masterpiece, a joke played upon our species by our successors. But, as he appears to be a person, it is not good at all.)

      As for the movie, you wouldn't be the first to imply I'm being silly. (My girlfriend accuses me of motivated reasoning, and it's not an unmerited charge; the review, after all, dips dangerously toward the sentiment, "Actually, everything bad about it is good!" But hey, a fanboy knows a hater, right?) (UGH. That's not even IN the novel!) Still, it worked for me, good or bad, at least 98% or so of it did!