Friday, March 30, 2018

"Ready Player One": review

[NB: a minor spoiler or two—nothing big.]

2018's "Ready Player One" is many things, but despite being an action-adventure that takes place primarily in the digital world, it utterly lacks that sleek, hipster cyberpunk feel. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, TJ Miller, Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance, "Ready Player One," adapted from a 2011 young-adult novel by Ernest Cline—who also co-wrote the screenplay—is a story taking place in the near future of 2045. Columbus, Ohio, has become the fastest-growing city in the world, and like all big cities, it's a mishmash of rich, middle-class, and poor neighborhoods. Somewhere toward the poorer end of the spectrum is the district nicknamed "The Stacks," essentially a trailer park gone vertical (imagine trailers stacked atop each other with crude metal scaffolding) and sitting amid huge, random piles of trash. This is the near future after global warming and a series of human crises have all had their way with the planet. Humanity has mostly retreated into the lotus-eating comfort of the Oasis: a cyberspace wonderland, brainchild of James Halliday (Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Pegg), offering varying delights for varying tastes. Some regions of the Oasis (the word is actually an acronym: OASIS = Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) are labeled "planets," but it's possible for anyone inside the realm to navigate from planet to planet with ease. "Coins" are the means by which to gain fuel for your virtual vehicle, acquire the ability to buy (and then conjure) weaponry, and to navigate the various precincts of the Oasis. A person inside the Oasis—an "avatar"—can earn coins in various ways, including by "killing" other avatars. An avatar that is killed is "zeroed out," and the human player controlling the avatar may "respawn," i.e., resurrect, but must re-earn coins from square one.

Our hero, Wade Watts (Sheridan), lives in the Stacks and spends his time in the Oasis, using his avatar Parzival (yes, based on the Round Table knight who, in one version of the story, finds the Holy Grail) to have adventures, earn coins, and make friends. Like most of the people inside the Oasis, Wade/Parzival has been engaged in a particular adventure that Halliday set up before he died: Anorak's Quest, where the object of the quest is to find three sets of magical keys and clues in sequence, culminating in finding the hidden "Easter egg," which grants the finder half a trillion dollars and total ownership and control of the Oasis. When the movie begins, we're told that "Gunters"—egg hunters—have been trying for five years to find the first key and clue, but thus far, no one has succeeded. Parzival, along with his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe; the moniker is pronounced like the letter "H") and his new rival/friend Art3mis (Cooke), spend the rest of the movie tracking down clues, using what they know of Halliday and Morrow's past to figure out where to go next. In hot pursuit is IOI (pronounced "eye-oh-eye," not "one-oh-one"; it stands for "Innovative Online Industries"), the menacing corporate entity that wants control of the Oasis so as to further monetize it, filling the realm with ads for various products. IOI is led by the sinister Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn), and after Parzival finds the first key and clue, Sorrento—dismissive of Parzival at first—eventually makes it his mission in life to take the young Gunter down.

Despite the visual torrent of old-school cultural and video-game references from the 80s, the 90s, and even before (not to mention references from our own century), "Ready Player One" is actually very easy to follow. The story is clearly structured and moves at a brisk pace, lagging in only a few sections, and while the ending is easy enough to predict, there are a few small surprises along the way. Spielberg provides us with an incredible racing scene at the beginning, one that involves all the traps and dangers normally associated with 3-D racing games, but amped up to ridiculous levels: when a tyrannosaur and King Kong both make an appearance, you know that shit just got real.

Of course, none of the Oasis is real in a tangible sense, although there are real-life benefits to earning coins, just as is true with today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Wade earns a mess of coins at one point, thus enabling him to upgrade his haptic interface by switching from a mere visor-and-gloves setup to a full-body cyber-suit that provides a wider spectrum of sensation and movement capability. In fact, the movie does little to explore the philosophical issue of real-versus-simulated. There's one surprise at the very end of the movie that hints at a greater ontological mystery, but that's about it. "Ready Player One" has little interest in treading the same metaphysical territory as "The Matrix" or "ExistenZ." Its major themes are adventure, friendship, over-dependence on online life, and liberation from corporate oppression.

Since CGI is such a huge part of this film, I should spend some time talking about the good and the bad of such an effects-heavy movie. One problem with CGI adventures is that there's no sense of real danger, and when "Ready Player One" does serve up a helping of real danger by threatening Wade's trailer-trash aunt and her abusive boyfriend, the danger feels distant and half-hearted at best, despite the tragedy that ensues: Wade simply shakes off what befalls his family, almost as if nothing has happened. In the Oasis, meanwhile, that massive car race at the beginning of the film is an incredible spectacle, but it does suffer from that same underlying lack of suspense: you know that anyone who "dies" on the track doesn't die in the real world: he or she simply "zeroes out" and has the option to "respawn" with no coins. I was thankful, though, that Spielberg didn't opt to situate the film in the uncanny valley: he kept it obvious that everything in the Oasis, from the avatars on down, looked like CGI. I'm glad he took that route, to be honest; the movie would have felt creepy otherwise. And while the CGI removes any fundamental suspense, it does provide a greater sense of spectacle, especially in the later battle scenes involving characters from all over the video-game and pop-culture spectrum. It also allows for some gory comedy, from a quick scene involving Goro (the four-armed villain from the fighting game Mortal Kombat) plus a chest-bursting alien (from the movie "Alien") to an absolutely incredible re-creation of the massive ski-lodge-cum-hotel from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"—a set piece that took my breath away, leaving me unsure whether I was looking at a mere digital rendering of the old movie set or a real, physical rebuild. That "Shining" sequence, more than any other pop-culture reference in the film, succeeded in actually taking me back to an earlier period in my life. For my money, that was the most emotionally powerful scene in the film, and I'd bet that the filmmakers didn't intend it to be so.

The movie had problems, though. One major problem, aside from Wade's bizarre indifference to his family's fate (I use the term "family" loosely: Wade's aunt, who has taken care of Wade since he lost his parents, has had a succession of abusive boyfriends; it's doubtful that Wade sees the boyfriends as family), was how quickly the boy seemed to fall in love with Art3mis. One reviewer on YouTube suggested that this may actually be a commentary on modern youth and the social awkwardness that comes of spending too much time in cyberspace and not enough time in the real world. When your life is mostly lived as if you were in a cartoon, real emotions like actual love can't manifest themselves in a natural way. (We see that sort of social awkwardness here in Korea, where gaming-nerd teens have little idea how to interact with those around them except in artificially prescribed ways.)

A second problem, noted by other reviewers, was the movie's talkiness: for such a visual movie, too much time was wasted on narration and expository dialogue. I assume the dialogue was there to help us old fogies follow the action, but even if it was, it was just too much. A third problem, for me, was the nature of the haptic interface. "Haptic" come from the Greek haptein and haptikos, referring to touch, so a haptic interface works via touch. We already have virtual-reality devices—gloves and wands and such—that allow our virtual characters to navigate the virtual space of a 3-D game; "Ready Player One" shows us more advanced versions of that equipment. People with little money enter the Oasis by using gloves and visors; people with more coins have access to omnidirectional treadmills, wire-suspension systems, full-body suits, and even—in the case of corporate baddie Nolan Sorrento—an egg-shaped couch with powerful in-world capabilities. I had trouble understanding, though, how the interfaces allowed people to move in the virtual world of the Oasis. There's a 3-D floating dance hall, for example; how do people with only the glove-and-visor kit move around in that space? How do avatars throw jumping, turning kicks like martial-arts pros? How was Sorrento, nestled inside his cocoon-like egg-seat, able to walk around in the Oasis without needing Wade's omni-treadmill?

A fourth problem: Wade (who also provides voiceover narration) tells us that what goes on in the Oasis is limited only by the imagination, but from what I saw, the avatars inside the Oasis exhibited no creativity at all: they contented themselves with playing around in worlds created by other people, presumably programmers in the real world who simply uploaded their creations into the Oasis, adding yet more playgrounds for avatars—who are essentially consumers of culture, not producers—to play around in. The only act of real creativity that I can remember involves the above-mentioned Goro/chestburster joke. Everything else is just a matter of selecting from a drop-down menu, and that includes conjuring guns.

A final problem is in the movie's portrayal of the hoi polloi: pretty much everyone is wearing a headset in 2045, even when walking down the street, so these folks, when we see them, seem to be engaged in business within the Oasis, but they also seem to be on their way somewhere in the real world—going shopping or something like that. It's never made clear just what, exactly, these good folks are doing, nor is it clear how they're able to navigate both the virtual world and the real world at the same time while walking somewhere physical. At one point, we see a group of passersby break into a run; we cut to their Master Chief avatars (from the game Halo) also running toward a battle happening in the Oasis. How does that work, exactly? We're back to the interface problem again.

I saw "Ready Player One" as following the template of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Wade/Parzival is Indy; Samantha/Art3mis is Marion Ravenwood; James Halliday is Marion's father Abner Ravenwood; Nolan Sorrento is Belloq. The object of the game is to grab the golden egg, which stands in for the Ark of the Covenant, and both items confer enormous power on those who find them, thus necessitating a renunciation of the power... but to pursue that line of thinking would take us deep into spoiler territory. Some of the puzzle-solving was similar to that found in Spielberg's other opus, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," so the new film is retro in more ways than one. You could counterargue that "Ready Player One" follows an action-movie template that dates back long before "Raiders" ever appeared on the scene, and I'd agree, but the 2018 film often felt like an allegory of the 1981 film.

Another comparison that's tempting to make is between "Ready Player One" and "The Matrix," but as I mentioned above, "Ready" has little interest in the philosophical and religious questions brought up in the Wachowski Brothers' film: for Spielberg, it's all about the chase. The two movies can, however, be compared in other ways, e.g., in terms of how one accesses the online world. In "The Matrix," the process is invasive, bordering on a form of rape: a phallic, probe-like device is inserted deep into the user's brain, providing direct contact with the world of the Matrix such that everything one experiences in that green-tinged world feels absolutely real. That was one of the central concepts in "The Matrix": one's experience of the virtual world is so real that, with the exception of a small group of enlightened people, it's impossible to realize that one has been enslaved by the machine intelligence currently at war with humanity centuries in the future. "Ready Player One," meanwhile, takes place in 2045, i.e., in the near future, so interfacing with virtual reality isn't quite that invasive or technically advanced. Another point of comparison involves the theme of liberation: IOI isn't evil simply because it wants to slap ads everywhere: it's evil because, when people in the Oasis end up incurring debts they can't pay off, they become effectively indentured servants of IOI known as "Sixers" for their six-digit ID codes. Once pressed into service for IOI, the Sixers are forced to take part in Anorak's Quest in a bid to help IOI gain control of the entire Oasis. In "The Matrix," it's the Matrix itself that is the enslaving entity, with Neo and his crew doing what they can to free humanity from machine tyranny.

In the end, I found "Ready Player One" to be entertaining fluff. It was a callback to the Spielberg of old, full of well-directed chase scenes and infused with a sense of adventure. At the same time, the CGI and the characterizations kept me from being too emotionally engaged in the proceedings. Wade falls in love far too quickly for my taste, and when tragedy befalls his folks, there's no emotional aftermath. Certain aspects of the haptic tech didn't add up for me, and the lack of any philosophical underpinning for the story also made things feel a bit empty. A writer for Time Magazine once critiqued George Lucas by saying that Lucas's films "affected the heart rate but not the heart," which is, strangely enough, a criticism that also applies to "Ready Player One." It's not a bad film at all, but like the virtual images themselves, it's has all the heft and substance of cotton candy. If I have any desire to re-watch the movie, it's because the movie contains so many damn references that I'd like the chance to pause the film every few seconds just to catch what I had barely seen out of the corner of my eye.

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