“Ready Player One”
Directed by Steven Spielberg
So, I’ve never read the book. This means half of you have now decided I have no right to critique this film. That’s okay. I understand. BUT, the film was made, and made by Spielberg, and marketed with the fervor of a political campaign…so, I’m going to.
Here’s the thing. I REALLY wanted to love this film. After all, the original “Tron” remains one of my favorite movie-going experiences as a lad, so, I assumed, this would just be a bigger, noisier version with the added bonus of Spielberg’s expertise and a not-so-subtle comment about our current world (I could go on for days about the duality of characters in a shitty future world escaping in to a game, just as we, stuck in a 2018 filled with shitty goings-on, escape in to a movie theater, but I’m not sure this is the film for that essay)! Also, as an adult, I have mostly enjoyed the recent practice of cramming as many cultural references as possible in to a film…a la “Baby Driver”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, etc. So when I heard about the beloved book’s unwavering attachment to all things Generation X, of which I am a founding member (born in 1964), I could hardly wait. And those references to my early/late teens are certainly there, and many are delightful (even if they feel awfully forced, at times). But, you know, maybe leave SOME room for our attachment to character? For me it falls in to the same trap that the second “Guardians” film does. Yes, the personal memory-inducing mixtape was essential in both, but the first one connected the nostalgia of the character to the nostalgia we felt while watching. “G2” gave us all the nostalgia and not a lick of shared experience with the characters. In a nutshell, that’s my issue with the film…
BUT, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a million reasons to see it…especially if you can catch it in a large-format theater. Firstly, when the pop-culture nods are at their most specific, the film is really effective. There is a long section of Act 2 that references a famous thriller with the specificity that only a cinephile like Spielberg could display. It was, for me, the best part of the entire experience. Secondly, when our characters are inside the game, it is an amazing visual achievement. From the intro of the digital world, through to the end, everything in the Oasis is spectacular. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is… well… excellent? It’s really difficult to figure out where his camera work ends and the work of Neil Corbould & Keith Dawon (and about a thousand other special effects, animators and motion capture experts) begins…’cause the effects are EFFECTIVE! Really! Yet another film made for that giant 4K TV you want to show off so badly (he said, pretending he wasn’t referring to himself). But, truly, the entire design team deserve mention: Adam Stockhausen (Prod. Design), Mark Scruton (Art Dir.), Anna Pinnock (Set Decorator), and Kasia Walicka-Maimone (Costumes). They’ve made this digital universe feel more real than the real world of the film (which somehow always feels like a set).
And then there’s the work of Mark Rylance. The man is simply incapable of delivering anything but a painstakingly complete human performance. Here, especially, his character’s odd and idiosyncratic behavior seems more real than anyone else. Granted, the script helps NO one in the film. Even the brilliant Ben Mendelsohn comes across as a weak version of David Warner’s Sark from the original “Tron” – it’s pretty hard to make a master, like Mendelsohn, come across as average. But Rylance grounds the film with such force, you desperately look forward to that third act, and he certainly makes it worth your while!
Alas, the rest of the cast, like Mendelsohn, fares much worse. Although in his case we can blame the script. Not so for our utterly lacking in charisma lead, Tye Sheridan. Granted, in a film like this it would be difficult for anyone to live up to the pulsating rhythms of an alter ego living within the most realistic video game ever filmed. But Sheridan is simply dull…bringing neither energy, nerdiness nor fear to his performance…a performance which, like a piece of fruit in a bowl on a kitchen table, is merely there. Even after a life-altering catastrophe, he merely shrugs…no regret, no sense of loss, no…nothing. The same can mostly be said for his entire gang of pals with the exception of his female counterpart, Olivia Cooke. She, at least, brings some history, some weight to her inner force. When she is on screen the main story actually goes somewhere. It should be noted that they ALL give terrific voice over performances when IN the game. But the game is a vessel for their human existence, not the other way ’round. Special mention to T.J. Miller. Same old shtick, but man, he adds some much needed, well-delivered levity to the proceedings.
I’ve heard many tout the Alan Sylvestri score, and it certainly matches the sweeping grandeur of the film – especially a Spielberg film. But after listening to it a couple times, it kinda sorta feels like an interpretation rather than a score made for the film…almost a mashup of John Williams’ “Superman” and “Raiders” scores. It would have been cool to see what a Sylvestri score inhabiting the digital existence of the film would have sounded like, rather than the all-adventure-all-the-time music we are given.
So…listen…everyone who was already predisposed to see “Ready Player One”, will, regardless of what any critics/bloggers have to say about it. And those folks will find things that are a ton of fun in it, whether you read the book or not. But for those of you who don’t particularly like movies that are loud and bright, yet who might be thinking, “it’s a Spielberg flick so I should probably go,” I’m not so sure the few Spielbergian touches will be enough for you to overcome the problems I had with character development.
Well, there is Rylance. The man is a genius.
Written on 4/7/2018