Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One

It just now hits me, after seeing it twice opening weekend, that Warner Brothers opened a movie about gamers trying to find the ultimate "easter egg" on Easter weekend. I gather it wasn't the original plan - I believe the film was originally scheduled to open in December - but someone at the studio apparently remembered that the last time Steven Spielberg had two films open within a couple of weeks of each other, neither Tintin nor War Horse particularly benefited, and why go up against Star Wars? Heck, it probably wouldn't have helped either party for this and Jumanji to open close to each other, either. Heck of a backup plan for them.

It also left me a clear-enough schedule to catch it twice opening weekend, which is not necessarily something I'd do with even a great movie very often, but I saw no reason to actually make a choice between my love of actual film and 3D here. And, make no mistake, I was very glad to see the film in both formats - the 70mm print the Somerville got is pretty darn nice, and I'll go for that every time a studio will give them a real print, but this is kind of a film that seems like it should be shown in digital 3D. It's a bit pricey to do both - although, surprisingly, the online member prices for the Icon can be affordable; $14 for 3D on their Icon-X screen at 3:30pm. There aren't nearly as many 3D screenings as I'd hope for, considering that this film was made for it. Of course, I'm finding that's the case on home video, too - when RPO hits disc, the odds that I'll be able to buy one box that contains both 4K and 3D versions are slim. I get it - there's only a few of us weirdos that wanted 3D in our living room, and I'll probably go with the 4K version most of the time I watch it. You practically have to hope there's a special-edition region-free UK release for that.

Thankfully, it's good enough to work on a second viewing, and honestly good enough to leave me with a lot to write about. Like a lot of Spielberg's work, it's probably something I'll come back to and see as something more impressive later because he's good enough to make a lot of things look effortless, only to find that there's always more there when you keep digging.

Ready Player ONe

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 70mm)
Seen 31 March 2018 in Showplace Icon Boston #6 (first-run, RealD 3-D DCP Icon-X)

It can be hard enough to take a movie (or other piece of art) for what it is and talk about that rather than what you want it to be, especially in a case like Ready Player One, which features a guy as incredibly talented and successful (and yet somehow still polarizing) as Steven Spielberg adapting a novel that has been accused of being little but a shallow exercise in unthinking nostalgia. The result seems to be something of a Rorschach Test that reveals as much about the viewer as it does stand on its own - or that may just be me trying to impose my own conflicted opinion upon it, trying to find a reason why I don't like it quite as much as I want to and feel a little guilty about the reflexive smile that appeared on my face throughout.

Start with the opening scene - Van Halen's "Jump" plays on the soundtrack while Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) makes his way through "The Stacks", a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where trailers and prefab homes are piled atop each other in a huge jumble, making his way to a little nook where his virtual-reality gaming rig is located. On the one hand, it's the sort of casual world-building that's never as easy as it looks, with Wade's narration about economic malaise and the population's retreat into the virtual reality of "The Oasis" reinforced by sight gags seen through windows while octocopter drones delivering pizza and the throwback logo of the chain on the box show how both street-level automation and a 1980s aesthetic permeate its 2045. Structurally, it's kind of clever as well - Wade crawling through his neighborhood like it's a Nintendo platformer foreshadows his skills within The Oasis and maybe wedges itself in the viewer's head just enough that when fellow gamer "Art3mis" (Olivia Cooke) tells "Parzival" that he's always lived in the game, it's got a little extra oomph; it's also introducing secret rooms early on in a movie that will see Wade and his friends continuously questing for keys that unlock hidden chambers within hidden chambers.

It's oddly muted, though - there's not a lot of expression on Wade's face as he does this; it's not a speed-run or the joy of exploration and puzzle-solving of parkour, and "Jump" is just the first of a half-dozen up-tempo 1980s cuts that just seem to lie there on the soundtrack, not exactly adding to a scene's energy but not serving as an ironic counterpoint, either. It's tempting to say that integrating pop music into a movie is just not something that Spielberg has done that often - why bother, when you've got those great John Williams scores? - but it's fair to wonder if he and writers Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (adapting his own novel) are maybe trying to talk a little bit about pop culture stagnating at some point and just being remade, revived, and re-released forever, but without making it less fun for those - including this writer - who genuinely love many of the things referenced in ways big and small, all over the screen. It's a balance that's almost doomed to be off at some point, because it's difficult to be sincere in one's love for something and simultaneously know that hanging onto something from one's youth (or someone else's!) without occasionally reconsidering it does oneself and the art little good, even for those who seem like they'd be clear-eyed about it.

Full review on EFC

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