Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five

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Isle of Dogs(3/28/2018)


Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children.  However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs!  In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs.  I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time.  I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning.  But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people.  The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them.  They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans.  All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.

Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception.  The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).  From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans.  The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.

Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment.  I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people.  Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it.  This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that.  The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.

The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor.  Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent.  A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered.  It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs.  The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.

I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything.  If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan.  A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place.  I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human.  Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.

Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message.  I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom.  These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want.  But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.

***1/2 out of Five