Weekly Cinematejka: Ready Player One

Welcome to the Weekly Cinematejka, a review roundup of the movies I’m watching each week – when I have time to watch movies, that is – including box office hits, classics I’ve never seen, and other thoughts and tidbits on movies in general.

Feature Review: Ready Player One

Nostalgia is a really fun part of popular culture that I happen to enjoy in a lot of my movies and TV. Starting from my days as a fan of Psych, I’ve always been a big fan of referential humor or a director calling back to a certain style or narrative detail from a much-beloved work. It keeps things fun, light, and familiar.

However, there’s a difference between being gleefully nostalgic and relying on it to carry the whole weight of film. Again, let’s go back to Psych. The recent Psych TV movie was a fan service dream, chocked full of references and inside jokes, reminding fans of the show they’d loved and missed over the years. But it was missing something to make it anything more than an enjoyable experiment: heart. Memories are fun, but ultimately they’re a reflection of reality as it once was, not the reality that currently is.

It’s that reliance on the comfort of nostalgia that made me so worried about Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One when I first heard about it. Not having been familiar with the book, I understood it to be a conglomeration of empty nostalgia porn and bad marketing. Those concerns seemed to be present amongst much of the cultural landscape, a weird place to be for an upcoming action-adventure film helmed by the legendary Steven Spielberg.

Taking place in a dystopian future, Ready Player One focuses on the events taking place in the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by James Halliday, the Steve Jobs of this universe (if Steve Jobs were severely crippled by social anxiety). The OASIS dominates much of life in this world, as it has meaningful financial and physical implications for everyone involved. Years after Halliday’s death, players are largely focused on his famed Easter Egg hunt, a quest promising a majority share in the OASIS’ parent company.

The film doesn’t waste any time throwing us headlong into this quest, namely following the exploits of a group later known as the “High 5.” By their gamer tags, they’re known as Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, Sho, and Daito. The narrative is ripe for late-career Spielberg magic, and the Hollywood stalwart is able to craft masterful set pieces galore. Much of the film’s referential content come within these confines (including one spectacular sequence set in the world of a classic horror movie.) Here, Spielberg is allowed to have his cake and eat it too, injecting his world with a quadruple dose of 80’s-90’s-00’s references without things going overboard in the film’s central thread. Each set piece is like a miniature escape, allowing audiences to have fun getting lost in the film’s visual callbacks without feeling detached from the story as a whole. And while it could do without the tidal wave of exposition in the first few minutes, I suppose there’s an argument that audiences wouldn’t come to see a 3 hour movie.

Spielberg also pulls some tricks out of his sleeve with his actors, who often have to work with an inconsistent script. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke do great work as Parzival (Wade) and Art3mis (Samantha), while Mark Rylance and the ever-underrated Ben Mendelsohn give effortlessly great performances as Halliday and the head of the company trying to take over the OASIS. Rylance is particularly good, pulling emotional sustenance from thin air. It’s a testament to he and Spielberg’s relationship as he continues to put in great performances for the director (Bridge of Spies, The BFG.) But this doesn’t stop with Rylance. Spielberg’s ability to get audiences caring, even with threadbare character structure, is mostly found in the performances everyone in the film gives. It would be easy for the cast to act up to the level of insanity Ready Player One is always throwing at the audience, but Spielberg grounds his actors in a way that proves essential for the film’s success.

Unfortunately, even the best Hollywood artist can’t cover up all the flaws. Much of Ready Player One’s emotional heft comes clunky riffs on the “reality is better than virtual reality” theme. It’s not an entirely weighty debate to begin with, and the film undercuts itself with the characters’ habitual referencing. There could’ve been a “less is more” approach here, allowing the real world circumstances of the movie to drive home the stakes, rather than bluntly spoken truisms. As a result, many of the film’s emotional beats don’t work, leading to an effort that is fun, but can feel cold at times.

And yet, Ready Player One is ultimately a worthy exercise. There seems to be a critical desire in our current age for science-fiction film to act as an indictment of our increasingly virtual world. This is a criticism Ready Player One is not interested in taking up – aside from the aforementioned morality bits.

Instead, Spielberg finds something to celebrate a world that is increasingly spent behind screens. The OASIS is a marvelous invention from the mind of an individual who longed to connect somewhere he felt comfortable. Wade recognizes this special element of the VR universe, and displays an awestruck innocence at the beauty of human connection. While many players view the OASIS as an escape or financial prize, Wade celebrates its ability to bring people together in a way that can and should lead to the outside world. He also displays a genuine affection for the game’s creator, a sweet connection that resonates all the way into the film’s final moments. It’s as if he sees through the noise of the OASIS into Halliday’s mind, developing a timeless friendship that goes beyond the digital realm.

So while Ready Player One may look like an indulgence in vacuous nostalgia, there’s a timeless celebration at its heart. While celebrating our collective past, Spielberg highlights the things that have always connected us – games, movies, etc. – and effectively finds the beauty in being a part of something bigger than yourself.

Grade: B

The Rewind: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Japanese cinema lately with the controversy surrounding Isle of Dogs – for more on that conversation, I recommend this piece from K. Austin Collins of The Ringer and Emily Yoshida’s piece for Vulture. There are many blind spots to my love of movies, but foreign film is easily the biggest. I’d like to try fixing that over the next few years, and one of the most enjoyable ways I’ve found is taking in the films of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. I just watched Spirited Away for the first time last year, and yes, it’s as good as everyone advertised.

I’ve currently got most of Miyazaki’s film’s on my Letterboxd watchlist, and I was able to knock one off this week when I watched Howl’s Moving Castle. Much like Spirited Away, it has a loose narrative that is nonetheless captivating because of the rich characterization and great voice work. But unlike its predecessor, there’s a closer tie to the narrative, which tends to float in and out of focus. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it could have taken a page out of Spirited‘s book by keeping the story simpler and choosing to bore in even deeper on the colorful characters. I cared deeply for most of them, but felt distanced by Miyazaki’s insistence on committing to a more traditional narrative structure.

Still, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delight, two hours of magical whimsy that are well worth the sometimes confusing trip. Miyazaki’s talent is as undeniable as his voice is special, and I’m looking forward to my continued journey into his extensive filmography.

Grade: B

Special Features

  • I’ve really tried to focus on movies since I graduated college, and I’ve had to kick my ravenous TV habit. I still have my go-to relaxing shows (Bob’s Burgers, Psych, Futurama, Rick & Morty), and I’m slowly making my way through a few others (Twin PeaksThe Path). But I largely reserve my dedicated weekly watching to a small handful. Those include HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld along with Netlix’s Stranger Things and The Joel McHale Show. However, there is a show that I will drop anything for: FX’s Legion. It’s an unapologetically wacked-out fun house of a show that takes everything wrong with superhero films and TV and flips it on its head. It comes back next week, and I am HYPED. (Catch up on Season 1 of Legion on Hulu.)

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