Friday, March 30, 2018

Game the System: READY PLAYER ONE


Leave it to Steven Spielberg, once the wunderkind of exceptional blockbusters, now the grand master of elegant Hollywood craft (two sides of the same coin, naturally), to make a gleaming, watchable, propulsive, largely entertaining movie out of a screenplay that’s charitably a pile of schlock. Plus, he’s too good a storyteller to avoid uncovering some small complexity where a lesser filmmaker would find none. This is Ready Player One, loosely adapted from Ernest Cline’s junk sci-fi novel by Cline himself and Zak Penn, a movie set in a future overcrowded with people and problems. In mostly off-hand and off-screen ways, it imagines we stopped caring about everything wrong with our society – the climate, the class struggles, the over-commercialized corporate surveillance state, the shallowness – and just wallowed in a late-capitalist decay. That’s frightening enough, but it also sees the entire populace plugged into and swallowed up by a Virtual Reality world called The OASIS. Bouncing between a heightened reality and this over-the-top imaginarium, Spielberg finds his typically expressive mise en scene, energetically filmic camera, and crisp editing patter letting the screen overflow with digital mayhem while almost entirely avoiding the senseless repetitiveness of his knockoff sub-Marvel competition. Only he would think to stage a second act set piece inside a recreation of a famous 1980 horror movie (a fine extra-textual tip-of-the-hat to a fellow auteur) and not only get the set perfectly realized, but to get the grain right, too.

The OASIS is an entire digital hellscape traveled via vision-enveloping goggles, omni-directional treadmills with bungee straps, and gloves and suits for sensory input. The thing is a combination social media and video game. There are casinos, branded game worlds, VR vacations, battles royale, sports, arcades, zero-G dance clubs, libraries, chat bots, and avatars representing several dozen Brand Name Intellectual Properties meant to be greeted with grinning recognition. It’s a chaos – like an entire universe made up of a Facebook that was also endless-Las Vegas inside a Grand Theft Auto Disney World – presented at once na├»ve and ugly (with just one winking nod toward the world’s digital Love Hotel pointing to how dirty the corners of such a place would inevitably become). I often found it flatly horrific, but the screenplay seems to find it praise-worthy. The structure of the story rests on a quest for three Easter eggs hidden by the late game’s creator (Mark Rylance). These special, well-hidden prizes, once obtained, will give the winner ownership of The OASIS, and thus, considering how many manhours and economic activity take place in the fictional space, the future itself. Spielberg splits the difference between my cynicism and the source material’s slobbering, following a team of scrappy underdogs fighting to beat cold-hearted corporate goons to the Eggs, while still fleetingly recognizing that maybe they should just unplug and chill out, at least for a couple days a week.

So perhaps it’s a shade too acquiescent to its society – and, by extension, ours – taking a bland, gamified approach to pop culture. It's as visually clear as any Spielberg, but undoubtedly his most thematically incoherent. Our heroes – orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his online friends (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao) who don’t know they all live in the same towering future-Ohio slums – view art and pop culture as trivia to be acquired, points to be won, hardly ever interacting with them as experiences or creations unto themselves. The kids mine the taste of the game’s creator – a child of the 80’s obsessed with Atari, John Hughes, Back to the Future, Van Halen and so on – for clues on how to win the game. It echoes the hollow nostalgia listicles and empty snark of some of the worst contemporary discourse from people who want points for catching references instead of experiencing and interpreting. But, though Spielberg serves it up, he can also see this problem. For all his rah-rah bombast about the underdog protagonists – and cheery hissing at the corporate baddies, including a boardroom tech company shark (Ben Mendelsohn) who is all-too chipper announcing they’ve been able to pinpoint exactly how many ads can be in one’s field of vision without “inducing seizures” – he watches as all their checklist skill pales in comparison to fleeting moments of real-world connection. OASIS may find them fantasy heroes, but the real world is where you can meet eye to eye, shuck off artifice, really know someone, and maybe even kiss. Only sometimes does the movie see this as the better option.

The point, ultimately, is that the game’s creator, given a quiet, recessive affect by Rylance’s charmingly soft performance, was terrified of the real world. He hated his inability to connect with others and therefore built a digital simulacrum of his fantasy life and cultural diet to share, yes, but in which he could have complete control. All he wanted was to make people happy, but watched as people loved it so much it slipped out of his control, even as he was made into a tech god. (A slyly stupid faux-archival headline reads: “Bigger Than Jobs?”) His genuine, eccentric fanboy love and isolation is lost inside too much muchness. What to do with this tension in the larger context? Spielberg, similarly deified by many who see his creations as shallow entertainments and miss the real humanity in every frame, builds a film that’s a dazzling modern sci-fi construct (climaxing in a CG characters swarming a computerized battlefield) uninterested in the bigger picture. How does this world operate? What are its technological practicalities? What is its economic outlook? The movie doesn’t know or care. (This is no A.I. or Minority Report.) It’s simply attuned to the rhythms of the action bopping through eye-popping Janusz Kaminski frames – the washed-out reality intercut with a vivid, colorful, almost-real animated space. The performers are charming, the world is a constantly shifting fantasy of the creative and the derivative, and the spirited pace is zippy. Its vision of a fight to save a massive VR world is simultaneously Pollyannaish and cynical, twinkling Spielbergian touches over a yawning void. It’s exuberant celebration of shallow pop culture love, and a melancholy vision of the creator’s need to let go. It’s a busy visual explosion of an anything-is-possible tech-dystopia, and a recognition that no matter how fun a virtual world may be, it’s healthy to take a break. In the end, it’s perhaps the most excessive argument for moderation ever mounted.

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