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Awesome: 11.11%
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3 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Ready Player One
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Token Effort"
3 stars

In the past, I have found myself occasionally invited to area sci-fi/fantasy/horror conventions to take part in some of the panel discussions, either because of my reasonably vast expertise in the field of popular culture or, far more likely, someone else cancelled. These discussions are usually entertaining enough but when they are not going and I find myself mingling on the main floor with the thousands of other attendees, that is where things tend to sour for me. Oh sure, walking through the costumed throngs (especially the heartening number of attendees decked out like Leeloo from “The Fifth Element”) and browsing through some of the wares on display (while mentally adding up how much the detritus of my youth would now be worth if I hadn’t ruined it all by playing with it) can be fun for a bit but after about 20 minutes or so of listening to oddly costumed people jabbering at length about the most insanely minute details of TV shows I never watched, comics I never read, video games I never played and movies I didn’t care for that much when they first came out, I tend to be seized with the urge to scream and flee as fast as I can to a place where a slice of pizza does not cost the same as a home entertainment system. Watching “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel that was essentially the literary equivalent of the world’s most over-the-top pop culture convention, I found myself having a similar reaction. For a little while, I was enjoying the spectacle of it all and trying to pick up as many of the references and homages crammed into the margins as possible—I daresay that even experts in such things will miss a few even after subjecting it to a frame-by-frame analysis once it hits Blu-Ray—but after a while, it goes from enchanting to enervating since, as it turns out, it doesn’t really have much of anything going for it but the unending slew of cultural references and in-jokes that ultimately do not add up to much of anything.

In the not-too-distant future of 2045, the world (or at least Columbus Ohio, where the film more or less takes place) is, following the “corn syrup droughts and the Bandwith Riots”) a vaguely dystopian nightmare in which the poor live in slums constructed of dilapidated trailers stacked to the skies. Virtually the only relief that the masses have from the drudgery of their daily lives comes from donning VR-style headsets and gloves and entering The Oasis, a massive online universe jam-packed with insanely detailed worlds in which participants can do whatever they want and be whoever they want to be, mostly characters and situations derived from films, TV shows and video games from the 80s and 90s. If you want to become Robocop and kick ass against the violent denizens of Planet Doom, you can. The Oasis was the creation of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a lonely and socially maladjusted genius who designed it as a celebration of the cultural touchstones that he could understand far better than even the most basic human interactions. As the story opens, Halliday has been dead for a few years but continues to live on via a game that he announced after his passing. When planning out the Oasis, he planted a trio of keys along with enigmatic clues as to their whereabouts—the first player to acquire all three keys will not only win Halliday’s massive fortune but assume control of the Oasis itself.

Among those trying to win the race and the ultimate prize is Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), who escapes from his grim life by touring the Oasis as the adventurous Parzival,. Amazingly, he manages to crack the first clue and triumph over a seemingly unwinnable racing scenario to win the first key. Along with best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), fellow players Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) and another gamer who goes by the name Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and who makes him feel tingly in certain areas that has nothing to do with the hardware he dons during the game, Wade is now the leader of the game, a move that brings him to the attention of Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a one-time intern of Halliday’s who is now one of the top suits at the evil Innovative Online Industries. Seeing the contest as his chance to take control of the Oasis and monetize it through such tactics as in-game advertising and charging different price levels for the currently free game that will leave only the rich able to afford it, Sorrento has a vast army of gamers trying to find the keys and tries to recruit Wade to his nefarious scheme by promising such things as making all the high schools resemble those found in the films of John Hughes. Presumably recognizing such a suggestion as a sign of unmitigated evil, Wade wisely turns him down and in response, Sorrento begins a two-pronged attack to stop the upstart once and for all—he recruits the literally trollish I-ROk (T.J. Miller) to take him down within the game and when that doesn’t work out, he deploys security officer F’Nale Zander (Hannah John-Kamen) to simply blow him to pieces in the real world.

In essence, “Ready Player One” is like a hybrid of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as conceived by Sally Forth’s husband and this is pretty much the reason why I have so far successfully avoided reading the original book. I don’t know how much the screenplay by Cline and Zak Penn veers from the original story but I have to admit that for maybe the first hour or so, I was surprised to find myself kind of going with it. Admittedly, there are some rough moments in the beginning—the screenplay does not do a particularly good job of establishing either of the worlds that its characters inhabit or how bar trivia came to replace baseball as the great American pastime—but Spielberg and his army of technicians have done an impressive job of presenting the Oasis as a sort of wet dream version of the Internet (sans the actual wet dreams—there is not even a hint of anything even vaguely suggesting eroticism to be seen here) that provides the same kind of heady rush that one felt when going online for the first time and discovering all the things available at the click of a mouse. The film begins to stumble during the big centerpiece sequence (and those who want to be surprised should check out for the rest of this paragraph) that finds our heroes searching for one of the keys in what proves to be an insanely detailed replication of the Overlook Hotel as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” as though they had stepped into the actual film a la “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” The initial effect is startlingly effective in the way that it combines CGI imagery and footage from the actual film into a practically seamless whole and the scene grows absolutely inspired when it turns out that one of the characters has never actually seen the film and is thus unaware of the dangers posed by such seemingly innocuous elements as two little girls standing in the hallway or an arriving elevator. So far, so good—though it may prove to be baffling to anyone in the audience who likewise has never seen the Kubrick film—but the scene just goes on and on long after the initial burst of inspiration has given way to visual pyrotechnics far removed from anything on hand in “The Shining” proper. It may start off on a note of genius but by the time it finally arrives at its conclusion, even the most dedicated fans of Kubrick and “The Shining” will find it to be long overdue.

Unfortunately, it is at this point that the film as a whole finally begins to run out of inspiration and the problems that were initially disguised by all the razzle-dazzle wind up taking center stage. The narrative is pretty thin, especially for a film clocking in at nearly 2 1/2 hours and I found myself wishing that a portion of the energy put into the cleverness of the references had gone into making things less rote than the standard lad-on-a-quest storyline of display here. Likewise, the characters, both in the Oasis and out in the real world, are one-dimensional to the point where it is impossible to work up much of any real rooting interest towards them. (At one point, someone close to Wade meets an untimely and all-too-real demise but it is tossed off so arbitrarily that it barely registers.) The only character who is close to being relatable at all is Halliday, ironically enough, and that is almost due entirely to the performance by Mark Rylance, who actually makes something real and tangible out of all the nonsense. Even the onslaught of cultural references gets tiresome after a while, in no small part because of the way that it largely ignores anything outside of the 80s-90s genre purview favored here—even “The Simpsons” (to name but one cultural institution notable by its complete absence here) manages to work in references to things like “My Dinner With Andre” without the republic collapsing. If these shoutouts had actually meant something of real emotional value, either to Spielberg or the audience, they might have meant something but the effect is more like what happens on “Family Guy” when just the appearance of a familiar face alone is supposed to be entertaining instead of leading to something entertaining. At one point, perhaps inevitably, King Kong makes an appearance in the fray and I suspect that if it had turned up in the jerky stop-motion version seen in the 1933 original, it would have brought down the house because that comparatively low-tech iteration has fueled imaginations ever since debuting 85 years ago. Instead, Kong appears in the form seen in the Peter Jackson remake and the effect it has on the proceedings is of a profoundly meh nature. And while the film makes room for super-violent characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Chucky, there is evidently not a trace of anything erotic on display in the Oasis—this probably makes sense in the long run but it just seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.

I think my biggest disappointment with “Ready Player One” has to do with Spielberg himself. Yes, he is perhaps the only filmmaker working today who could have pulled off the kind of massive technological achievements on display here and as his occasional return forays into fantasy filmmaking since shifting towards more adult-oriented narratives go, this film certainly beats the ghastly likes of “Hook,” “The Adventures of Tin Tin” and “The BFG.” That said, it is more than a little disconcerting to see the director responsible for creating so many iconic pop culture moments reducing himself to replicating those created by others instead of coming up with new ones of his own. Even that might have been forgiven if there was any sense that the cultural shoutouts meant something to him or the characters but most of them tend to be trucked in just to get a momentary reaction and nothing more, as if Spielberg were only intent on making the longest and loudest episode of “Family Guy” imaginable. This is something that he has done in the past with great skill—perhaps most notably in the hilarious and strangely touching bit in “1941” where General Stillwell (Robert Stack) tries to break away from a Los Angeles going mad with war nerves by taking in a screening of “Dumbo” and even shedding a tear during it—but outside of a few fleeting exceptions, none of these bits stick in any meaningful way. (Perhaps not coincidentally, none of Spielberg’s own legendary contributions to the cultural firmament are on visible display save for the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” and the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” and in those cases, he can hardly claim to have devised them on his own.)

As “Ready Player One” went on and on—and like most Spielberg films of recent vintage, it runs perhaps 20 minutes or so longer than it should—I found myself thinking back to another one of his productions, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” After all, it too was a massively complicated technological undertaking that also trafficked heavily in the iconography of American popular culture by shoehorning an incredible number of well-known cartoon characters into the proceedings. The difference is that in “Roger Rabbit,” those characters and what they represented clearly meant something special to Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis and you could feel that affection in every frame. More importantly, those characters were deployed in the service of a screenplay that was strong and complex enough to work on its own without them—strip out all the cartoon references and, as some have noted in the past, you have a narrative that could have easily been used for the never-produced third JJ Gittes film following “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes.” That film was a complete meal that continues to satisfy today, even to those poor misbegotten souls who have never actually seen a Droopy cartoon.

“Ready Player One” is more like a seven-course banquet made up entirely of Pixie Stix and Pop Rocks—you certainly get a rush from it for a little while but once the initial effect wears off, there is not much of anything else going for it but the sick feeling of overindulgence. There was once a time when Spielberg’s fantastic visions writ large would have entranced younger viewers and inspired them to want to go out and become filmmakers themselves in the hopes of recapturing that magic. Coming out of “Ready Player One,” most people will be less astonished by his efforts than by the exertions of the lawyers charged with getting the clearances for all the things on display here—in the case of this film, they are ultimately the real heroes.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29780&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/28/18 10:43:24
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User Comments

5/05/19 PUMP UP THE JAM Admire the imagination of the old director, this film is really amazing. 5 stars
4/05/19 Kengh It’s really amazing. 5 stars
9/26/18 morris campbell not bad but nothing special 4 stars
9/07/18 sevarian5 reasonably entertaining--but that's all 4 stars
8/04/18 the giver of the law Nobody will admit it but this is actually Spielbergs best film. 5 stars
7/08/18 Loopy Enjoyed it more than expected, though understood gaming references 3 stars
6/18/18 oz1701 enjoyed the book but the film is a hollow shell (like an Easter egg) 2 stars
4/01/18 the truth Unlike PIXAR, emphasizes the artificiality of its characters. Unengaging premise and boring 2 stars
4/01/18 Bob Dog The flashy adhd foreground doesn't alleviate the boredom of the story. 2 stars
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  29-Mar-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2018


  DVD: 24-Jul-2018

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