READY PLAYER ONE (2018, Steven Spielberg)
I used to bag on Twitch and its users, because who in the world would waste their time watching someone else play video games? Well, joke’s on me. At least on Twitch they’re real people and it’s free to watch. I just paid money to see READY PLAYER ONE, which is fictional people playing a video game.
If robots had guts and innards, this movie would be what you’d see if you cut one open — a lot of ones and zeros crammed into the frame in a disgusting and tasteless barrage of noise. Alternately dazzling and boring, it’s a thin, surface-heavy children’s film masquerading as a meditation on pop culture nostalgia and the dystopian vision of a future dedicated to VR consumption. It’s so packed with shit that think-pieces are more interesting than the movie itself, which feels overly conflicted — not by profound design, but just because it’s a sad and cynical chassis bolted onto a crowd pleaser.
Zak Penn and source novelist Ernest Cline’s screenplay is unbelievably inane, over-explaining everything at least twice, just to make sure the cheap seats get the point. Conversations are repeated, characters are lectured to about things they just saw and heard, almost as if neither writer trusted the director (and why would they? What has this Spielberg guy ever done of note?) to communicate anything visually. But the fact that Steven left in all of this repulsive dialogue just shows how much he was checked out of this. A key line that I’m sure all the fanboys and hot-take crickets highlight is about Halliday being a creator who hated his own creation. Clearly that resonates with Spielberg, who finished principle photography on this in 2016, then let post-production run rampant for a year (IMDb lists 627 visual effects crew members) while he green-lit THE POST in February 2017. He prepped it, shot it in the summer, cut it in the fall, and released it in time for Oscar season. Then while Meryl Streep was doing the rounds, he must have trudged back into the mix bays to watch final looks of this hot garbage, give a few notes, and then daydream about working with Tom Hanks yet again.
Because none of this feels like a work that’s been mulled over by a strong artist for very long. Why does every major character happen to live in Columbus, Ohio? Why can’t Art3mis solve the game herself, being clearly as skilled as Wade? Why does the third act have our white hero being driven to the slums by his black chauffeur? Why do the Asian characters have accents if they live in Ohio? How did the second-biggest tech company in the world get where they are staffed with nothing but idiots? Why is the entire third act basically an expensive episode of Scooby Doo? Is the reason nearly the entire cast is British or Irish (Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins…) that it was filmed in London? If so, why doesn’t it take place there?
As for the pop culture touchstones, the movie wants to eat its cake and have it too — it says that the people who will own the world will do so based on their trivia knowledge of movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE SHINING (while tossing in some random TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, and Mario Kart stuff), but then urges them to put down the controllers for two days a week because, as it says twice (par for the course) “the only thing that’s real is reality.” Oh, fuck off, man.