Sunday 1 April 2018

Electric dreams: "Ready Player One"

They warned pop will eat itself, and it did; the question may now be what it has left to fart out. A cloud, maybe? The Oasis, the online kingdom central to Steven Spielberg's film of Ernest Cline's bestseller Ready Player One, presents as a substantially less dystopian upgrade of the Matrix: a refuge wherein the put-upon and hard-up, like troubled adolescent hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), can hide out - for an hour, a day, or weeks at a time - from the miseries of the analogue world as we find it in 2045, and console themselves among the cultural detritus of the past, memories of better times. Given that Spielberg's film lands at a moment when the majority of moviegoers are hooked on Marvel movies that seek to push our pleasure buttons by running together moves and beats from previous big pictures (and, increasingly, from one another), we may be given to wonder how much Ready Player One is taking place in the future, and how much of it is taking place roughly five minutes from now.

Still, if the goal of any modern blockbuster is worldbuilding - the assembling of a complete and credible environment, in order to blow it all sky-high come the final reel - then Spielberg gets there in record time. As Wade traverses the Oasis, in search of an Easter egg hidden there by its trillionaire creator Halliday (Mark Rylance), we are invited to marvel at the cameos from Marvin the Martian and a robot Jeeves (of search engine fame), a passing Beetlejuice and the King Kong who turns up as the big bad at the end of one of our hero's missions; we get references to adverts that never made it across the Atlantic, and Van Halen riffs that, rather regrettably, did. Cline's novel was, by all accounts, an attempt to synthesise somewhere between three and five decades of popular culture, a task that Spielberg - who played more of a part than most in generating all this iconography - picks up and runs with; the film's I Heart the 80s aesthetic is such that I half-expected Tom Hanks to show up as Paul Morley, explaining the rationale behind a particular font choice.

Beneath the feverish surface nostalgia, one glimpses a pop rewrite of Orwell's dictum that he who controls the past controls the future. The Easter egg hunt is soon joined by Ben Mendelsohn as a buttoned-down corporate tyrant who wants to litter consumer eyelines with wall-to-wall advertising, while the Oasis itself falls subject to a power struggle between one exec (Simon Pegg's Ogden) who wants to push things forward at the speed of light, and Rylance's awkwardly lovable old cove, clad in Space Invaders merch, who wants life to remain as simple and predictable as the graphics on an Asteroids console. Yet viewed from afar, one might equally see something sad or haunting about Halliday - that here is the endpoint of the kind of arrested development that sets grown men to wetting their Spider-Man pants over every last release off the Marvel factory line. (Call it the "cor!" demographic, left dribbling credulously over every climactic sequence of city-trashing.) 

That we're watching Ready Player One inside the same megaplexes currently trailing Avengers: Infinity War should tell you whose side Spielberg takes. Some 75-80% of this 140-minute movie takes place inside the Oasis, a virtual domain populated exclusively by mocap creations - the highest percentage of pixels assembled for a major studio release since 2009's Avatar, and possibly even the all-digital Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within before that. For much of that, Ready Player One has the look of a film directed by VFX house, a project Spielberg could very easily have delegated while he was away making The Post with and for grown-ups; it bets the house on its audience sharing young Wade's desire to spend extended periods of time there, whether to get away from Trump or Brexit or those Nationwide adverts with the singing sisters. That we do is down to one thing, and one thing alone: the story, basic as it is, works just as well on screen as it must once have done on the page. 

Sure, the peril is milder than it once was - milder than it was back in 2005 with War of the Worlds, which had parents querying the suitability of the 12A certificate, milder than it was back in 1993 with Jurassic Park, which had parents hiding behind their seats. (According to mainstream movies, we are all snowflakes now.) When Wade and fellow gamers pass into a meticulous recreation of The Shining's Overlook Hotel (superlative non-virtual production design here from Adam Stockhausen), we're offered a witty but circumscribed highlights reel, editing around Kubrick's terror and perversity; a Hunger Games-style uprising gets no tougher or punchier from being soundtracked to the poodle-rock of Twisted Sister. Yet Spielberg pays us the courtesy of letting us know exactly where we are in this world - three keys need to be sourced, to unlock the Easter egg - and ensures that his characters' motives don't get lost beneath successive waves of digital artefacts. This is very clearly a story about a boy attempting to change the world out of fun (and maybe love) rather than for money, which actually pegs this as a slightly more autobiographical venture than it first looked.

Ready Player One is too vaporous to stand for much - for all its constituent forget-me-nots, it's very quickly forgotten - but it might at a stretch be claimed as an example of blockbuster classicism, the work of a people-pleaser who got into event movies before event movies got into some very bad habits. If Spielberg can be detected at all here, it's in a presiding fondness, and the insistence these things should move rather than get tangled up in superfluous subplots; having unboxed so many of these toys, he's returned to the junkyard in which they've wound up, determined that their pieces should still fit together relatively smoothly. The nostalgia piled atop these noble motives is often lazy, hit and miss, and another sign of a culture going nowhere very much in particular, because it's easier than creating anything new. Yet the filmmaking, crucially, never is - and starts to seem doubly impressive when you consider it's a septuagenarian's second movie inside four months. If we are going to have these innately nerdy, backward-looking datablasts disguised as cinema, let us at least turn them over to directors like Spielberg, who knows how to package them properly, and seems inclined to hand them over with something akin to care.

Ready Player One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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