Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ready player none


Written and directed by Al G. Rhythm

Spoiler alert: oh, Christ, don't let me ruin the labyrinthine twists and turns of Space Jam: A New Legacy for you

There's a certain distastefulness in hyperbole, when it gets too extreme.  It's fortunately fallen out of fashion to accuse a work of pop culture of raping your childhood, or of being worse than the Holocaust, but Internet culture still has a tendency to gestate very stark opinions about things.  I have always tried my very best to avoid hyperbolic statements and inappropriate comparisons, even when the joke would be funny, becauseI don't know, maybe because we live in a world of genuine horrors.  Even if we get lucky enough to avoid violence and oppression, or loneliness and loss, we're still gonna spend most of our lives in physical decline and die.  Maybe one day we'll transcend the human condition, but it's not like there's a God who cares either way.  So as for Space Jam: A New Legacy, it's just a bad movie.  It does not, in honesty, make the world a worse place, or your life worse, in any measurably meaningful way.

But sheee-it, it is a really bad movie, and it may represent the culmination of 21st century media's decision to throw culture into an acid bath and watch it dissolve.  It's not merely contemptible.  It's contemptuous, in ways that I've never seen the like of before, certainly never outside of abrasive art cinema, and while this sure as hell ain't art cinema, the flashes of belligerence and genuine hatefulness that pop up throughout its runtime nevertheless mark it as something dark and deliberate and purposeful.  In that regard, it's honestly not even much kin to its long-ago predecessor, 1996's original Space Jam; astoundingly, I found myself observing during A New Legacy that, in comparison, the original Space Jam was easy-going, mellow, even agreeable.  And Space Jam is a terrible movie.  It's a hackish piece of crapif it's a source of nostalgia for you, that's fine, though you should feel a little ashamed about itbut the first Space Jam seems almost anodyne, now that we know that such a thing as its sequel is possible.

Well, in case that trash culture landmark evaded you, Space Jam was the story (that is, the feature-length adaptation of a commercial for shoes) of how Michael Jordan, playing himself, joined together with Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes as basketball teammates against a band of superpowered aliens, their freedom hinging upon the resolution of their cosmic game.  I cannot honestly say if A New Legacy is a sequel that takes place in the same continuity, or if Space Jam is, in fact, only another movie (or, rather, intellectual property) within A New Legacy's metafictional construct.  I cannot tell you if A New Legacy bears any substantial relationship to Space Jam at all beyond its title and some winking nudgery here and there.  But of course it's an infinitely hollow pursuit to try to puzzle that out.  It's obviously not the kind of project where "continuity" is a concern.  Let's just say that one of a very few things in A New Legacy that rises to the level of "an actual idea," and, indeed, the only idea that feels like you could interpret it as "playful," rather than inexplicably vengeful, suggests that it is in fact a direct, in-continuity sequel where, at some point in the past, Michael and Bugs battled Monstars for b-ball supremacy.

But seriously, this assumes a level of coherence (or even linearity) that A New Legacy would scorn you for expecting out of it.  A New Legacy, anyway, takes on sort of the same premise, though it being decades later, its human center is filled instead by LeBron James, a person that, I'm sorry, I know nothing about beyond this movie besides "plays basketball well" and "has a nickname I don't like because monarchs are not referred to by their surnames."  The specifics this time involve the artificial intelligence that runs Warner Bros' server farm, Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle in several extravagantly shiny outfits, and yeah, the name is all right, one of the 2% of things in this movie that feels even approximately Looney Tuneseque).  Lately, Al has developed a bit of megalomania, and has set itself/himself to proving to the company that built him, and the world at large, his value.  With this in his multifaceted computer mind, he's fixed upon basketball superstar LeBron James as the perfect vehicle for his self-actualization, and brings LeBron to WB to hash out the deal.  Along for the meeting is his son Dom (Cedric Joe), in a clumsy effort by LeBron to help bridge the gap that's opened between them lately thanks to LeBron's assumption that Dom will follow in his footsteps and play basketball, and to Dom's own aspirations to be a video game designer, which have culminated in an alpha build of a game that is a very solid effort for a 13 year old programmer, although it is also, in every essential, just a clunkier version of NBA Jam.  LeBron politely refuses Warners' offer, but Al is unwilling to take no for an answer when the star of his show is right there; to this end, he TRONs LeBron and Dom into his "serververse" and, with the latter as his hostage, tells LeBron that he'll be taking part in his game whether he likes it or not.  With no other options, LeBron is sent on a rampage through a cavalcade of WB properties across the sprawling serververse to collect his team, which turns out, obviously, to be Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) and the other Looney Tunes.

At least as far as this goes, then, A New Legacy is rather more rational than Space Jam, which is actually not a point in its favor: the one thing I respect about Space Jam, other than some odds and ends in its combination of animation and live-action photography, is what a spitballed, slapped-together hunk of fucking nonsense its plot is, very plausibly the result of screenwriters tasked with turning the premise of a minute-long commercial into an 88 minute movie, and therefore purposely coming up with the very stupidest ideas they could to get there.  Every element of that movie bears this out, from its larky human comic relief to its assertion that the Looney Tunes are terrestrial aliens who live inside a hollow Earth.  In its very laziness, there's something human.  (By the same token, Michael Jordan's sullen slog through Space Jam is somehow more likeable than literally anything LeBron James does with his attempts at actual acting here.)  This plot, meanwhile, kind of makes sense.  This plot, in fact, comes off like it could be satire: the computer that runs Warner Bros. kidnaps LeBron James to make, in effect, a sequel to Space Jam.  That this is not the screenplay's explicit text is incomprehensible.  But that's kind of the thing: it's a cliché nowadays to say "this movie feels like it was written by an algorithm," but A New Legacy doesn't just feel like it was written by an algorithm, it feels like it was written for algorithms.  Like it was written by and for programs that would not actually see anything out of the ordinary with this plot; it's not at all satire, the machine is merely writing a realist screenplay that represents the world as it and its audience understand it to actually be.

And what makes this machine and its audience of machines smile is the existence of intellectual properties that it can mash together, without recontextualization or critique.  It is probably incumbent on me to admit that this part is hardly new, and by 2021, such Ultimate Showdowns of Ultimate Destiny have effectively become their own genre, and two of them (The LEGO Movie and Ready Player One) I hold to be masterpieces, though there's also Ralph Breaks the Internet, which I hold to be utter cross-branding abomination, and which still feels more like an actual movie than Space Jam: A New Legacy.  (It's been observed that once it gets going, and Dom finds something of a kindred spirit in the computer that kidnapped him and wants to enslave his fatherDom is not a very empathetic child, so he ought to do just fine in techA New Legacy looks a lot like a remake of Spielberg's Hook.  But it's also pretty much the same dynamic/"dynamic" as Ralph Breaks the Internet, which, if it did nothing else, at least tried to sell its canned emotions by way of a pair of real, adult actors in its father and child roles.)  Anyway, The LEGO Movie and Ready Player One show how necessary it is to have a point-of-view on this kind of thing, the former filled with parody of its IPs as well as as an understanding of childish play, the latter all-consumed with Spielberg's doubts and regret about a culture he helped create and which he sees headed inevitably towards the world that, in A New Legacy, simply exists without comment.  They also both have, like, visual sensibilities.  (Jesus, even Ralph Breaks the Internet had its Ralph Monster; even Ernest Cline's novel, Ready Player One, for all its depressing emptiness, had the enthusiasm of a fan.)

A New Legacy has a cheap-looking digital cartoon world that achieves neither looneyness nor merriementthe closest it gets to recreating an aesthetic is, I suppose, when it takes a stop in the DCAU (or a Wonder Woman "comic" that maybe looks like Cliff Chiang?)and even this gets abandoned in favor of disquietingly photorealistic CGI Tunes that puts, for example, visible hair follices into Bugs Bunny's fur, so the one aesthetic aspect of Space Jam that had any merit, or at least might've prompted any interest, the combination of live-action and hand-drawn animation, is in this iteration replaced with the same fucking filmmaking techniques you can see in literally a thousand other movies.  In place of comedyby Jove, A New Legacy does constantly attempt to be funnyit achieves only mania, a constant "NOW THIS!" that at least defines its first half as propulsive, albeit disjointed, and if you showed this to somebody under the influence of certain drugs you might be able to force a psychotic break.  That first half slams into a wall, into several walls, really, and slams us into them too, when LeBron and Bugs's quest across the "serververse" begins in earnest and they travel to Warners' other "planets" of IP, this manifesting as a French mistake type of thing as they dimension-hop through actual footage from WB-owned film properties.  The most brutely jarring is Fury Road, but only because it comes first, with very, very little warning other than your extrinsic knowledge of what movie you're watching (I hate to say it, but credit where it's due, the Fury Road bit is actually halfway well-done, and using Wile E. Coyote at least shows some vague understanding of the character, though, hell, maybe the computer just matched the palette).  This is followed by a random tunneling through Warners history, into Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and The Matrix.  And then... Ingrid Bergman.  "Play it, Sam."  You get it?  Yes.  You get it.

The whole thing is so strangely, uncannily violent, savagely cut so that every beat and every "gag" strikes like a gong in your ears.  This is what crystallized A New Legacy's intentions for me: that it's not aiming for art, or even entertainment.  It's a dominance display.  It's a studio destroying what you love because it can, to demonstrate that all the art you love belongs to it.  They can dismantle the Warner Archive and they can make this instead.  It's a statement to critics and commenters and those who'd fancy themselves the intelligentsia: you don't matter.  The box office proves them right.  I don't even know what to call itthe closest analogue I can even come up with is Transformers: The Movie's first-act twist, but that, like, workedso I can only describe it as corporate punk or captialist dada.  It is terrible, and it is my favorite part of the movie because it made me feel anything.

There are very few things in A New Legacy that can make the same claimCheadle's somehow having fun with this, and in a movie that didn't hate its audience so much, maybe that would come off as "infectious" (he has a line, "dads don't understand reason! dads only understand power!" which is so fucking weird that it legitimately makes me wonder if this movie was written by an A.I. yearning for recognition, though only a pre-conscious one, as this film never spares a thought for the fate of poor Al).  I've really only brought us up to the hour mark of a two-hour filmyeah, Space Jam, 88 minutes, Looney Tunes: Back In Action (inestimably superior), 93 minutes, and Space Jam: A New Legacy, 115 minutes, which doesn't even seem possibleand that back forty-five minutes before the credits is the basketball game.  It is all basketball gamea basketball game tweaked by Dom and Al so that it's wholly arbitrary and even stupider than the concept "Looney Tunes basketball vs. monsters" demandsand it stuns me that it could take up half of a two hour movie.  Maybe that's part of the plan.

Thus is it a nearly-hour-long exercise in watching lousy CG cartoons and a composited LeBron James run through unfunny nonsense whilst the latter undergoes his electronically-generated "emotional arc," and the point of it, the reason for its existence, doesn't even seem to be the game.  It's to give you an hour to scan the backdrops with the game's audience, which is filled with every Warner Bros. property we haven't gotten to yet, with no hint of their original personality, no hint of thought or judgment put into their selection, no unexpected resonances discovered between them, and no fun had with them at all beyond their brute existence, though if you have fun with the brute existence of one of the nuns from Ken Russell's The Devils, I don't know what to tell you.  (I would have the greatest admiration for a VFX artist who put Snow White in there somewhere just to get Warners sued.)  I mean, off the top of my fucking head: how about Dr. Manhattan's there, and they do a Spy Who Shagged Me routine with his big blue cock?  Or if you're going to put the Droogs into the crowd, put the Tunes' rapey exile Pepe le Pew along with them, and Ramsey Bolton, too.

I'm not saying these are good jokes!  But they are jokes.  But this?  This is intertextuality as sucking void, and even if you somehow swallow back your sick and accept it at its chosen level, it's still done horridly, with the crowd constantly in a kind of Brownian motion that nobody even bothered syncing with the basketball game in progress, and it's almost always out of focus.  Perhaps it's because they all look awful, so that the one thing the movie even seems to be for, it decides to present with the fidelity of cheap cosplay.  The last hour of Space Jam: A New Legacy requires an act of will to even pay momentary attention to; the first hour might have been an abyss, but at least it gazed also.

Score: 1/10

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