Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ready Player One

Full Tilt Boogie (Midnight at the Oasis)
Virtual Encounters of the Shallow Kind

During the break that was required for the extensive special effects in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg prepped, cast, shot, edited and released The Post, a very fine film that did get some attention for its historical material that, given the world at large, seemed all the more relevant today.* Ironically, the gee-wizardry of his new film does not feel relevant—unless someone has lived under a rock or in Mom's basement since the 1980's—as RP1 is a monument to nostalgia of the most puerile and shallow kind, piling on pop-culture references on top of each other as they flash, then die, on the 3-D IMAX screen, only to be replaced by others upon others along the way. This movie could conceivably fund its own edition of Trivial Pursuit next Christmas—and it is sure to be the most "paused" movie of the last (and next) quarter-century.

Look, I'm not a gamer. I choose to waste my time watching movies and writing about them on this worthless blog (so, who am I to judge?), so to see Spielberg do his "take" on the immersive experience with the same peripatetic verve that he gave to The Adventures of Tintin is not my idea of the director progressing as an artist, no matter how much of a roller-coaster thrill ride this film might be. It hearkens back to the Spielberg, who grew up frightening his sisters with his horror stories. It's the same Spielberg of the intimate, brilliant detail—like cutting away (in Jurassic Park) while a jeep is trying to out-pace a Tyrannosaurus Rex to a shot of a side-mirror, with the etched warning that "Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear." That Spielberg is here in abundance, unafraid to toss in asides and joking references, which he'd never dared with his more serious films like Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, or The Post. This is Spielberg on top of Play-Mountain.
Oklahoma, City in the Year 2045, not so soon after "The Corn-Syrup Shortage" and "The Band-width Wars," and the cultural hub of the world, while looking like a dystopian nightmare that would depress Calcutta and Jo-burg. The populace lives in "The Stacks," literally motor-homes and trailers stacked on top of each other, under a drab pollution-filled sky. One imagines we're in Oklahoma City because the coasts have since flooded and drowned, and that things are in such a sorry state because through every window of those trailers, people are escaping their realities by entering "the Oasis."
"The Oasis" is its own alternate reality, with its own rules, its own culture, and its own economic system, built on lives and bonuses accrued during play. It is the product of a company called Gregarious Games, a somewhat ironically named corporation as its messianic co-founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance in a performance that resembles a morose version of Rick Moranis' accountant in the original Ghostbusters) is hardly the gregarious type. He and his former partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) established the gaming platform, which has virtually and literally supplanted the drudgery of real life, in which the participants can compete against each other using avatars of their choice accumulating personal fortunes that can be used to improve their game and their alternate lives.
The Game 1 Grand Prix containing such vehicles as the Back to the Future Delorean, the 1060's TV Batmobile, Steven King's "Christine," the V8 interceptor from Mad Max, the van from "The A-Team", K.I.T.T. from "Knight-Rider", and the Mach 5 from "Speed Racer".

The story revolves around Halliday's be-quest announced after his death of his challenge for control of the Oasis and Halliday's personal fortune of over a trillion dollars, which can be one by winning three particular games, each rewarding a key that will unlock the ultimate challenge to win the Oasis' easter egg that will give control to the virtual kingdom. Obviously, this is a really big deal to the world at play, setting up ultimate challenges between "gunters" (the term for "egg-hunters") and a corporate conglomerate (only one?) named Innovative Online Industries—an Oasis outfitter, run by a former Gregarious intern Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to corporatize the Oasis for his own ends—he has already run studies that he can commercialize 80% of the Oasis' playing surface before his flashing graphics induce seizures in players.
The High Five's—Sho, Aech, Parzival, Art3mis and Daito—
talk to the Curator of the Oasis archives.
That's the hissable villain. Who are the heroes? They are the "High Five," competing gamers who form their own coalition to study notes, compare strategies and research Halliday's life—in the Oasis' virtual archives—to gain an advantage in the competition, dubbed Anorak's Quest. They are Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a somewhat doughy 18 year old who plays as the avatar Parzival, his mechanic friend "Aech" (revealed to be Lena Waithe), the brothers "Daito" and "Sho" (Win Morasaki and Philip Zhao) and the mysterious "Art3mis," (she's ultimately Olivia Cooke), Wade's chief rival and finally partner in the quest for the keys. While they're all putting their minds together virtually, Sorrento is trying to learn their secrets in the real world to gain an advantage in the game.
Aech blows away Freddy Krueger and sets his sights on Duke Nukem.
Spielberg sets up the duel-matches as full-tilt battles royale whether in the neon -graced corridors of The Oasis or the begrimed back-alleys of Oklahoma City—it's just that the Oasis side has so much merch and copyrighted imagery that it's tough for the real world to compete (it's not too distant from another Spielberg production—Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—where the real world suffers mightily in comparison to the wonders of "Toontown"). And the three game-set-pieces are so splendidly realized (especially, for me, the second one which I won't reveal other than the clue that inspires it—"The creator hates his creation") that one's interest is drawn to the world within a world, which is probably the point, even while Spielberg is showing the exploitable madness of it all, frame by meticulous frame. I mean, didn't you rather live in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory—the thread and thrust of which this film has in its digital marrow.
So, yeah, everybody wants to be in the Oasis—it's bigger, flashier, and something of a shit-storm for the hyper-active and hyperbolic. So, why is the movie so melancholy, especially when, after the solving of every puzzle, the film goes into a post-traumatic depression when contemplating the inner life of Halliday, The Man Who Built Everything? It's because the whole thing is an Oz-ian "there's no place like reality" info-mercial designed to teach the sad lessons of Halliday's example. By the end of it, the most deserving will win the prize, but only by appreciating the clues along the way and learning the lessons to the keys of life that are merely trinketed as competition goals. The ultimate victory in the competition is in appreciating life beyond the Oasis. He who desires it least wins the most.
There's something almost biblical there. And, as with the Bible (or Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory), in Spielberg's fable, the winner is the one who can look beyond the competition, and look deeper to the lessons inherently learned, and—in that gaming environment—put away childish things, including hero-worship, to become one's own hero, avatar's be damned.
Ready Player One is a smart little reflection of one of the simplest goals of a game—to get a life. And walk away from the table.

* He did, basically, the same thing back in 1990, where, while prepping the special effects for Jurassic Park, he oversaw the production of Schindler's List—which he was only allowed to make if he did the more popcorn-oriented film.

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