Monday, April 2, 2018

READY PLAYER ONE might have thrived more with stronger world-building and a different lead character

So. READY PLAYER ONE. This is going to be an interesting review. I didn't hate the movie, but I'm pretty sure I didn't love it either. And as I start this examination, I'm left with so much that I want to unpack that I can already feel this coming off more negative than I intend.

Let's get this out of the way - I've never read the book by Ernie Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn. I saw a few excerpts tossed around online with entire paragraphs that were more of a word salad of pop culture references than Dennis Miller having a stroke during a taping of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that was mocking a Kevin Williamson movie.  Lest you think that colored my opinion against the film, if there's one thing Spielberg excels at is making awesome movies out of shitty books.

(Yes, yes... he couldn't save THE LOST WORLD, but I'm not sure if anyone could have.)

It is the year 2045. We're in a vaguely-defined dystopia, mostly expressed by trailer parks built vertically. The point is, life sucks and so these economically destitute people escape their lives with expensive-looking VR gear that provides access to The Oasis - a sort of virtual reality cyberspace that's "limited only by your imagination." The denizens of 2045 must be a particularly unimaginative bunch because our tour is mostly limited to seeing people navigate the world in the skins of their favorite pop culture characters. The world-building is mostly limited to seeing the characters run races or go clubbing, leaving impression that the film could have worked harder to make this place limitlessly imaginative.

The hook - When the creator of The Oasis, James Halliday died, he left instructions for a scavenger hunt of sorts in the Oasis. The first one to solve the riddles and obstacles that lead to three keys will get complete control of the Oasis. In this five years since this particular starting gun has been fired, no one's made any real progress. An evil corporation, IOI, has devoted a great deal of resources and manpower to being the first to do this, with designs on polluting the virtual world with pop-up ads that would pollute 80% of the user's field of vision.

The good news is that Halliday superfan and all around blandly-inoffensive geek Wade Watts is also on the hunt. He's the first to solve a riddle and get the first key, and he's soon joined by Art3mis, a female player of some notoriety with whom Wade is smitten. Of course, during their first few encounters, he only knows her avatar and his interest in her eventually makes Art3mis uncomfortable.

One of the most interesting lines in the film belongs to Art3mis, in a scene where she reminds Wade that she doesn't look like her avatar and that he's not seeing the real her. In the Oasis, she only allows him to "see the parts of me I want you to see." That right there is a perfect metaphor for life online. It's the futuristic version of Instagram FOMO, where people see the curated images their friends post and get depressed that their lives aren't living up to it. (OR when depressed people only post the good images and everyone around them assumes their life is perfect.)

There's an entirely under-explored concept about how the Oasis gives people the freedom to be what they want to be by creating their own avatars. There's a version of this movie that could really sink its teeth into themes of identity and what it means to have the total freedom to escape into fantasy. We get a fleeting glimpse of this when the face behind the macho and muscular Aech avatar turns out to be a black woman named Helen. (She's played by Lena Waithe, who is WAY underutilized here, regrettably.)

I try to stick to criticizing the film I'm presented with and not the film I wanted to see, but it's frustrating to see the film walk RIGHT UP to a really compelling idea and then veer off at the last second. Especially when it writes a check that it fails to cash later.

Remember how Art3mis warns Wade that if he saw the real her, he wouldn't be in love with her? Well, when he meets her face to face, she's played by Olivia Cooke, who... fun fact... is probably FAR prettier in real life than as her Oasis avatar. So to compensate for this, they give her a red blotch of a birthmark that covers her right eye. She tends to cover it with her hair, which only makes me wish her in-Oasis avatar had been Veronica Lake.

That bit of silliness aside, Olivia Cooke is probably the one of the better reasons to see this film. Though she was often under-utilized on BATES MOTEL, her breakout performance was in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, in which she played the "Dying Girl." Between those two roles, she displayed a talent for playing characters who present as fragile, but prove to have deep strength and conviction. I'm not sure the script really sold me on Art3mis's love for Wade, but Cooke generates enough chemistry with co-star Tye Sheridan that it almost doesn't matter.

I couldn't help but feel that the more interesting film might have been told from Art3mis's point of view. While Wade is mostly into the scavenger hunt for the money and the escapism the Oasis offers, Art3mis has a much deeper motivation. She wants to keep the Oasis out of the corporate hands of IOI as a way of avenging her father. He fell deep into debt and then basically was forced to become an indentured slave to the corporation, who kept piling on fees and interest to ensure he never worked off that debt before he died. A lot of these concepts aren't introduced into the film until Olivia brings them up, leaving the feeling that something was cut that set all this up sooner.

But the point is that Art3mis is fighting for a cause, while Wade... really isn't, at least for a while. It's a little similar to how STAR WARS gives Leia an active motivation from the start, but Luke himself is aimless and has only a vaguely-defined desire to get off-planet until his aunt and uncle are killed. (Spoiler alert: there's a pretty heavy parallel to that here, one that almost certainly isn't accidental.)

Wade might deliberately be a blank slate so the audience can more easily identify with and project on to him, but he still feels half-formed. He's a bland blank slate, with little insight provided as to why these specific pop culture icons mean something to him. Yes, it's cool to drive the Delorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE, but why that? Why not KITT from Knight Rider or James Bond's Aston Martin? Wade was probably born around 2025, when BACK TO THE FUTURE was already 40 years old. What made that stand out to him amid a sea of films? Was it the setting in a simpler time? Does Marty's relationship with his parents press a few buttons for the orphaned Wade?

Tell me your fantasies and I can tell you who you are. The problem is that Wade's fandom is the most superficial kind of obsession. He's obsessed with Halliday because Halliday is the man who created the Oasis, but the heart of what the Oasis means to Wade is only broadly defined. What kinds of things did he do in the Oasis before beginning the hunt? Did he recreate his parents? Did he lose his virginity to a virtual Elle MacPhereson? Did he perform at Wembley Stadium with Queen?

Who is Wade Watts? Who is he without the Oasis? I don't think the movie really knows. He's not totally without merit - he proves his bravery in going to rescue Art3mis. His knowledge of trivia also unlocks the final challenge and then he passes a Willy Wonka-like test that proves his worthiness. (Which actually, means that there's a good chance one of the corporate goons wouldn't have ultimately won.)

A quest movie should ideally be a journey of self-discovery for the film's protagonist too. Let's look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, another Spielberg film. Spielberg has always described it as being a quest for the Grail, but in the end, the real Grail is Indy's relationship with his father. If it was just about finding the Grail, the story wouldn't have the resonance it does when Indy's father tells Indy to "let go" of his obsession with the object and in doing so, let's go of his own obsession so that he can heal his relationship with his son. It's a resonance that's missing here. The film tries some slight of hand to make us THINK such a thing has happened, but falls short.

The movie wants us to come away with the sense Wade has grown as a person through his adventure. You can see the end points of the arc called out. He's gone from being a lone wolf to having a group. He's grown from spending every free minute in the Oasis to shutting it down two days a week to force people to live in the real world. By extension, he's realized that there are good things in life beyond the Oasis. If you're taking the Oasis as a metaphor for modern internet life, this isn't a bad rule to live by - "Get out and experience the real world."

But for the purposes of this film, the meaning falls flat because we know nothing about the real world of this film other than it sucks. In THE MATRIX, freeing everyone from the simulation is unequivocally a good thing because they've been enslaved by the machines and are being exploited against their will. Sure, the "real world" there sucks too, but they've been conquered. Defeating the machines is a big enough triumph that it overshadows the truth that what everyone awakens into is going to be pretty depressing.

 In READY PLAYER ONE, the big win is about preserving the Oasis, but then it also shifts into "experience the real world," which thematically doesn't track from anything in the film. It also doesn't help that the action that plays over Wade's voiceover about this is him and Art3mis making out in the real world. Her outfit seemed to be some kind of Japanese dress, with her hair curled into two buns that might have been an attempt at a Princess Leia hairstyle. Whatever it is, it has the air of being some kind of geek fetishization, which is pretty much the exact wrong note to hit at that point.

The film really needed to give us some sense of how shutting down the Oasis is going to be a net gain for society. All the benefits that we can infer only come from mentions made in passing. We're told early on that most people communicate in the Oasis only, as face to face contact has decreased. It's demonstrated more than once that Wade hasn't met his Oasis friends face-to-face, but then he also leaps pretty quick to wanting to meet Art3mis face-to-face, in a way that suggests such contact isn't entirely unheard of.

The Oasis connects people and it's always shown to be a good thing. There's a lot going on in the film, but it would have helped if they'd found a stronger way to underline "These people need to go outside more." Perhaps if the real world was less dystopian, the cyber-addiction metaphor would have been more potent.

Spielberg still can crank out an inventive action scene - even if he REALLY needs to put cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on bee-guarding duty for a movie or two so that we can get a Spielberg film that doesn't feel totally bleached of color. I liked it in MINORITY REPORT, but I've long since lost patience with Kaminski's brand of hazy, overlit cinematography. The Oasis should have been a colorful, beautiful Land of Oz - not a place that alternates between blinding light and dark shadows (the better with which to hide several pop culture cameos in silhouette.)

But for all the faults and questions I have, I didn't hate the film. It falls right between a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. It'll likely land far outside of most viewers top Spielberg films, but that's a pretty high bar to scale. There are a fair number of moments that played well with an audience, but not enough moments that really connected us to the characters. If there's one thing that the best Spielberg films accomplish, it's vicariously experiencing a sense of awe and wonder through the characters. This film didn't make me feel about the Oasis that I did about Jurassic Park, but maybe I should take a lesson from the movie itself and not look to nostalgia for what I should be finding in life.

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