Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One: Game on!

Ready Player One (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sci-fi action violence, bloody images, suggestive content, partial nudity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.30.18

Pop-culture junkies will love this one.

I haven’t had so much fun with an iconic characters mash-up since Daffy Duck met Donald Duck, in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

As Aech (far left) and Art3mis (far right) listen attentively, Parzival queries the Curator
about a particularly telling incident in the life of the eccentric genius who created the
virtual reality enviroment in which they spend so much time.
While there’s no question that Ready Player One will resonate most with avid video gamers — and folks whose homes are clustered with artifacts from the 1980s — this exuberant sci-fi/fantasy certainly is approachable to mainstream viewers. It’s brash, boisterous and breathtaking by turns, and augmented at all times by the cinematic sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg has brought to his films since, well, seems like forever. (And aren’t we lucky?)

That said, the narrative — co-scripted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, from the latter’s popular 2011 novel — relies more on momentum than plot logic and common sense. Viewers are likely to exit the theater with plenty of questions that begin with the phrase “But what about...?” Even so, it’s not entirely soulless eye-candy; a strong cautionary note beats at the heart of this fast-paced thrill ride.

One hopes that civilization won’t come to this ... although I also whispered that fervent prayer after seeing 1982’s Blade Runner the first time. And just as that film has proven prophetic in a variety of disturbing ways, there’s enough current self-indulgent behavior to suggest that the message illuminated by Ready Player One should be taken very seriously.

The year is 2045, and our young hero — Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan — lives in “the Stacks”: a rundown vertical trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. (High fives to production designer Adam Stockhausen, for this terrifying vision of the near future’s life on the edge.) He shares this tight space with his grouchy aunt and her nasty, loser boyfriend; unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and utter hopelessness are rampant.

The U.S. government apparently has abandoned any pretense of environmental mitigation, human rights, corporate restraint or beneficial socio-political oversight; “outlying” cities such as Columbus have simply become huge trash heaps of discarded vehicles and other manufacturing refuse. The (rather too vague) impression is that the country has been split between the lucky 5 percent in the tech sector ... and everybody else.

In other words, life in the real world ain’t too good.

Whenever possible, then, Wade dons goggle, fires up a computer and “escapes” into a massive virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, where as his avatar, Parzival, he can go anywhere, do anything, and even change his very appearance at will. OASIS is a shared-universe experience, and he has made several friends ... which is to say, he has bonded with other avatars.

He therefore has no idea who the towering Aech might be in real life; in OASIS, he’s part human, part machine, and gifted with the ability to build or fix just about anything. One corner of his massive shop is devoted to the construction of no less than the Iron Giant, star of the under-appreciated 1999 film of the same title (whose director, Brad Bird, must be giggling with delight right about now).

(We can pause to wonder why one would need a mechanic, in a virtual reality realm where anything can be fabricated by one’s mind, but that’s the sort of issue that simply must be ignored.)

Although we don’t meet them right away, Wade/Parzival also has befriended Daito, a powerful Japanese Samurai warrior; and Sho, a skilled ninja fighter.

We pause for a bit of back-story, inserted painlessly during the first act:

OASIS was the brainchild of the brilliant but eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who with his partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) founded a company — Gregarious Games — in order to market their creation to the masses. But as OASIS became so popular that it began to consume all waking moments of so many users, Halliday grew uncomfortable and, ultimately, estranged from Morrow.

(Any resemblance to Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Apple is purely intentional.)

Halliday retreated from public life, then died without heirs. In characteristic fashion, he left a farewell message explaining that OASIS had been salted with three cleverly concealed challenges, the solution of each rewarding the user with a key; the first person to obtain all three keys then would obtain the realm’s “Easter egg,” thereby inheriting Halliday’s vast fortune and full ownership of OASIS.

In other words, a future to hope for.

But that was years ago. Wade/Parzival, his comrades and millions of other people have combed the many OASIS realms ever since, and not even the first key has been found. The sole obvious entry point is a crazed, obstacle-laden vehicular race that nobody has been able to win, thanks to the repeated interference of a cranky King Kong.

(We also can wonder, right about now, how anybody in this premise’s real world ever gets anything done — work, meals, sleep, procreation — if they’re always tripping out in OASIS, as clearly shown on numerous occasions. Another pesky detail.)

Everything changes when Wade/Parzival encounters Art3mis, a bewitching female avatar with wicked motorcycle skills. Suddenly clumsy and tongue-tied, in the manner of all young guys experiencing their first crush, Wade yearns to meet his new companion in the real world. Minor spoiler: They do, and she turns out to be Samantha (Olivia Cooke), a passionate young woman who ... well, that would be telling too much.

They collaboratively begin to penetrate the mysteries Halliday left behind, at which point they become the targets of the smarmy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, appropriately condescending), head of the world’s second-largest corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI). They produce all the way-cool gear that enlivens the OASIS experience, and Sorrento has trained thousands of willing VR “soldiers” in an effort to win Halliday’s contest, and take control of OASIS.

Until now, Sorrento hasn’t worried about all the “little gamers” also vying for the prize. But Parzival and Art3mis? They’re a problem that calls for an ultimate solution in both the VR realm — where they’re stalked by a humorously stoic and over-weaponed bounty hunter dubbed i-R0k (great voice performance by T.J. Miller) — and the real world, where IOI head of security F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) is determined to figure out who they actually are.

Cue all sorts of increasingly wild ’n’ wacky action scenes that — thanks to the retro sensibilities that Wade has embraced, after having studied Halliday for so long — increasingly reference everything from Saturday Night Fever to a hilariously extended sequence in the Overlook Hotel, lovingly re-created from Stanley Kubrick’s handling of Stephen King’s The Shining ... complete with scary little twins and the contents of Room 237.

Not to mention the fact that once this film hits home video, it’ll be a stop-frame delight, as obsessive viewers scrutinize every crowd scene for the likes of Hello Kitty, Batman, Marvin the Martian and far more than I could clock during Monday evening’s wildly popular preview screening.

Occasional heartwarming moments aside, for the most part this film can’t help being style over substance; it’s therefore difficult to discuss most of the stars in terms of acting chops. Sheridan and Cooke are good together: They make a cute couple, and they’re as believably intelligent and resourceful as a given scene (no how crazed) demands. Mendelsohn is quite successful as the Bad Guy We Love To Hate.

Rylance stands out, as he always does, as the flustered, distracted and maddeningly eccentric Halliday; I love the way he often pauses before speaking, as if trying to remember how to move the proper muscles. Somebody — aggravatingly, no credit is given — also has a lot fun voicing the imperious Curator, who oversees access to the archival, three-dimensional dioramas that catalog Halliday’s entire life.

Spielberg and editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn maintain a furious pace, but this can’t conceal the fact that — at 140 self-indulgent minutes — their film is at least half an hour too long. The OASIS novelties and pop-cultural winks and nods wear thin by the third act; as a result, the all-important resolution is oddly anti-climactic.

But there’s no denying, as we continue to read about self-absorbed Smart phone users who kill themselves by obliviously stepping in front of moving traffic, that this story’s underlying warning cannot — should not, dare not — be ignored.

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