Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg obviously loves working with Mark Rylance, but does he actually know how good an actor he is? “Whenever I mention the other films I’ve made to Steven Spielberg, his eyes go a bit glazed,” the actor told The New York Times in 2016. “Because in his mind he’s rescued me – rescued me from the slums of the theatre! You know, discovered me, bless him.” Considering the fact that Rylance gave one of the most ferocious and commanding stage performances I've ever seen in Jerusalem, or that he was willing to have real sex on screen in Intimacy, we should all be aware that there is no limit to his range or his courage. And yet, Spielberg keeps him at a distance. In Bridge of Spies he was a quiet, deadpan presence wearing a mask of ambiguity, and in The BFG he was a twinkly, bumbling figure of innocence and benevolence hidden behind a cartoon. At the start of Ready Player One, he has the added distancing effect of being dead.

Rylance plays another big friendly giant in Ready Player One – an entrepreneurial giant rather than a literal one, in this case. His James Halliday is a small, timid, emotionally stunted man, but he created The Oasis, making him God to the millions who lose themselves in his virtual reality universe every day. The year is 2045 and the future is bleak. We are long past the point where “People stopped trying to fix problems and just started trying to outlive them,” with existence in the shiny world of The Oasis being understandably preferable to this grim, dusty reality. Some people enter The Oasis with a sense of purpose, though. Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) is an egg hunter, or “Gunter”, searching for the clues that Halliday left after his death, with the first person to claim the hidden Easter egg winning sole ownership of the creator's entire kit and caboodle. Wade dedicates himself to learning everything there is to know about Halliday and the 1980s pop culture ephemera that dominated his life, and in his virtual guise he chooses to go by the name Parzival, rather implausibly evoking the Arthurian knight who sought the Holy Grail.

This isn't the first time Spielberg has taken us on a Grail-hunt, but the sense of genuine wonderment and awe that I felt in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sorely lacking here. Ready Player One is spectacle without meaning; a world where “the only limit is your own imagination,” but a world that critically lacks any tangible stakes or consequences. Get killed in The Oasis and you'll lose all your coins and weapons and whatever else you've gathered, but then you can just start again. The only notable real-world deaths that occur in the film are Wade's aunt and her deadbeat boyfriend, who are killed in a botched attempt on Wade's life that he witnesses, but he doesn't take a moment to mourn their passing before the plot rushes onwards. (And we get the impression that he didn't like living with them anyway, so whatever...) It's not like Spielberg to drop the ball on these integral dramatic elements. Think of the family units at the core of Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. or Jurassic Park; think of the child yearning for a family in A.I. or the grieving father in Minority Report. What drives Wade Watts? Aside from his obsession with finding the golden egg and therefore controlling The Oasis, he's a complete blank whose most critical decision comes when he has to actually kiss a girl. This is not a particularly strong hero narrative on which to hang a 140-minute movie. I kept hoping that Olivia Cooke – a breath of fresh air every time she appears – could somehow take the reins from this insipid protagonist and become the film's chosen one instead.

But there are precious few surprises in Ready Player One. This adaptation of Ernest Cline's book, written by the author himself and Zak Penn, is one of the worst scripts Spielberg has ever handled, jumping haphazardly from one challenge and riddle to the next, and leaving no room for character or emotion. It's rife with nonsensical plotting (I refuse to believe that anyone in 2045 (a) uses passwords and (b) writes anything down on paper), and Cline frequently resorts to arbitrary devices to leap out of the narrative corners he has painted himself into, such as the Zemeckis Cube (which allows composer Alan Silvestri to pay tribute to himself). Some will be delighted by the Back to the Future references, of course, and for many viewers the multiple layers of reference and homage will be the biggest thrill Ready Player One offers, but it feels like empty name-dropping and cheap nostalgia. The Iron Giant, King Kong, Chucky, something called a Gundam (which gets an inordinately long build-up to little effect), Akira, Marvin the Martian...they all just become part of the digital noise. The one homage that Spielberg takes his time with is one that will surely be his most contentious, with an extended sequence being set in the Overlook Hotel. Would an artist as fiercely protective of his work as Stanley Kubrick have consented to one of his films being turned into a garish haunted house video game? What on earth was Spielberg thinking?

While I groaned at the misuse of The Shining I had to applaud the skill used to incorporate these characters so seamlessly into it. Ready Player One is undeniably an astonishing technical feat and  Spielberg being Spielberg  it's more fluidly and intelligently directed than it would have been in the hands of almost any other filmmaker. Who else could have kept the action so clear and coherent with so much stuff flying at the screen from every angle? In many ways, he is the only man who could have directed this film. He is one of the fathers of the blockbuster age and Ready Player One represents a large part of his legacy, but he is unwilling or unable to interrogate this pop culture obsessiveness or his own relation to it in any interesting way. It might seem churlish to attack an effects-driven popcorn movie for lacking complexity or depth (and Spielberg has insistently defined this as a “movie” rather than a “film”), but we hold Steven Spielberg to a higher standard than other blockbuster directors because he is the standard for other blockbuster directors.

What's ultimately missing from Ready Player One is a sense of the world beyond The Oasis. My interest perked up whenever we left the virtual realm, but everything about its portrait of 2045 USA is so sketchy. How did “the bandwidth riots” affect the existence of The Oasis? What exactly is corporate villain Ben Mendelsohn planning to do if he gets his greedy hands on Halliday's egg? Does anyone have jobs in this dark future or do they all live in The Oasis for free? Is the entire economy built around this VR world? Ready Player One eventually takes a shift towards a cautionary tale about the limitations and dangers of spending your entire life immersed in video games and pop culture, but it doesn't offer us a convincing alternative. At one point Wade even suggests turning off The Oasis twice a week, but what are these people supposed to do then? “Reality,” he tells us in the film's final scene, “is the only thing that's real.” Hollow words from a film that has spent the previous two and a half hours blithely ignoring the complexities of the real world.