Monday, April 2, 2018

Review: "Ready Player One" has deep thoughts buried in a dizzying pop culture landscape

Ready Player One Review

Its no secret how much I love movies. But they are not the only thing I am highly passionate about. I don’t know if any other “critics” have ever had this problem, but it can be kind of tricky to review something based on something else you love. Yes, I have a long list of favorite books, favorite TV shows, favorite video games…other pieces of my personality that gives me happiness. I think lots of people who have other passions have heightened awareness of their fandom when these things get turned into movies. Like I said, it can be tricky to review, because how do you leave your bias and baggage at the door? When changes are made in movies, its because the filmmakers are trying to make something that’s accessible to everyone, including general movie goers. I know many people who hate superhero movies because their origins aren’t exactly how they happen in the comics. The Tolkien family wants nothing to do with Peter Jackson and his Middle-Earth movies. Their gripes and plights have nothing to do with character development or theme, but superficial things, like what costume Wolverine wears in an “X-Men” movie.

I read “Ready Player One” prior to its release. The story was still fresh in my head as I went to see the movie. The book and the movie are two very different things though, and I was a huge fan of the book. So how do I go about seeing this movie? Did knowing the book hurt my experience with the movie? These are some fair questions, because I’ll tell you right now, there are some big changes from book to film. If you read the book, and if you are a dear fan to the book, then you may not like some of the liberties Steven Spielberg took with adapting the book to the screen. If major changes bother you, then you might want to skip this. I liked the book, and I think Spielberg did some great work in the movie. I can say that “Ready Player One” wasn’t a perfect book, its not a perfect movie. But you may enjoy yourself if you go looking.

I am sure even if you haven’t read the book, you’ve surely seen previews for it. You are probably thinking that it’s a nostalgia overload. Yes, that’s kind of true. I collected action figures as a little kid, and when I invited friends over to my house, we would divide my action figures into the good team and the bad team then had them fight with vehicles and weapons we found. Copyright infringement never entered our minds. Ernest Cline wrote the ultimate fantasy of seeing all your favorite characters together onscreen. But that’s not the whole story, not nearly the whole story. There are pitfalls though of having a movie that’s full of pop culture icons, and yes, the movie is overloaded with them. If you don’t like an overabundance of pop culture references in movies, then skip this.

“Ready Player One” takes place in 2045. The world is going through a social collapse, global warming is real to everyone, even the conservatives. But with all these bad things going on, nobody seems to care. Because not too many people live in the real world. Not since James Halliday (Mark Rylance) created the OASIS, a massive, open-world, virtual reality where someone can essentially be anybody, go anywhere and do anything, the sky is the limit. Some people may get exhausted by all the pop culture references in this movie, but it kind of makes sense. Look at internet forums, look at your friends X-box names, look at Twitter handles, heck looks at your old AIM screennames. If this type of virtual reality was real today, would you create a personal avatar that was you, or would you dress yourself up as Batman? I have a feeling that it would be the latter, because that’s the world we live in right now.

James Halliday died with no heir and no family. So, he creates a contest, to find an Easter Egg hidden inside the OASIS. The first person to find this Easter Egg gets possession of the OASIS, and a half-trillion-dollar fortune. Its nearly impossible though, and for the first five years, nobody can find it. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of these people who loves everything that is the OASIS and he is a huge admirer of Halliday himself, and he’d love to get his hands on that Easter Egg. But of course, he’s not the only one looking and of course there is an evil corporation bent on bending the rules to get the Egg for themselves.

I have loved the output of Steven Spielberg over the years, and there aren’t many artists out there that have a filmography as impressive as his. One of his films I am not-so-crazy about is “A.I.” precisely because there is so much narration that it kills any emotion you might feel towards the characters and their story. For at least twenty or so minutes at the beginning of “Ready Player One,” I had a feeling we were going to get “A.I.” again. Simply put, there is lots of exposition dropped in the opening moments of the movie, so much is explained that you feel you might get a tour of the OASIS instead of an actual movie. I worried that Spielberg didn’t take a fair chance at truly adapting this book, and perhaps it was unadaptable.

Once the first contest for a clue to the Easter Egg begins, all of that begins to disappear. Spielberg proved how he has been known as a connoisseur of adventure, because there are moments in the movie that are just exhilarating. The racing scene maybe a complete reinvention from the book, but Spielberg has fun playing in this world and making the concept unforgettable. The script, which was written by the original author and Zak Penn, reinvent many things, but there is still plenty of fun to be had here. There is a moment in the middle of the movie, when Spielberg pays homage to one of his biggest influences, and I honestly believe its going to be one of the most talked about moments he’s ever put on camera. It’s certainly a moment I’ll be thinking about lots the coming weeks, and I can’t believe I saw it.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t fix some of the books problems. Watts falls for Artem3s (Olivia Cooke), buts much like it was in the book, it’s not a genuine romance that builds over time based on attraction and personalities. Artem3s says herself that Watts doesn’t love her, but the idea of her and its that idea that plagues their relationship in the whole movie. Watts falls for her because she’s the cool girl who knows everything about every movie and song lyric, and Watts knows that stuff too. So that means their meant to be, right? The movie even turns Artem3s into a damsel in distress instead of a genuine character like in the book. It may not be as an offensive when a guy abruptly grabs a girl’s ass at the bar. But its still a form of objectification and its distracting here. A friend of Watts says in the movie that Artem3s could be a man in his forties named Chuck, the movie would have been a little interesting if Arem3s turned out to be just that, and I kind of wished they went there.

Performances are good all around. Ben Mendelsohn has become the new go-to guy for villains and he’s getting really good at it, playing the leader of that shady organization. Tye Sheridan is a bit of a blank at times in this, but I think that’s appropriate. He’s one of those introverted, John Hughes-style heroes and he does that well. Mark Rylance continues to build a magnificent filmography and he does some truly unique work as Halliday here.

The OASIS itself is pretty spectacular to behold. I know many people have complained about the CGI in the movie, that it wasn’t realistic enough. But I honestly think that’s by design. Video games, no matter what counsel you have, doesn’t have hyper-realistic features, I think its purposely unrealistic to make it feel like virtual reality. I liked it fine. But even though people come to the OASIS in droves, some begin to realize that too much of something isn’t good for you and the movie begs us to drop our digital selves and not forget to go outside. I actually couldn’t believe how the much the ending hit home. In a world where we are glued to our cell phones and children would rather play on a tablet then play outside with you. It’s a pretty powerful observation made by a guy who made a career getting people to watch movies.

It was that sensibility that ultimately won me over, and I was actually kind of surprised that such an endearing, important message showed up in this endless ocean of references and nostalgia. The thing is, audiences may have to really dig in order to get there.

FINAL GRADE: B+

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