Sunday, April 15, 2018

Film Review: READY PLAYER ONE by Mike Sullivan

“...Shawn Brown’s classic hit "The Rappin’ Duke is Back" blared in the distance as I crashed through the side entrance of the vintage Hickory Farms. The customers, gawped in Reagan-era amazement at my '80s centric vehicle and all of its period specific finery. My car was the same car from GHOSTBUSTERS. Not the Ecto-1, but that Model-T buggy thing from that off-brand GHOSTBUSTERS cartoon. Y’know, the one with the Gorilla in the Panama hat? That one. I’d swapped out the wheels with the larcenous ferrets from the first BEASTMASTER movie and replaced the doors with the title sequence from YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION to remind everyone that I was very young during the '80s but now I am not. Finally, a hologram of Robert Guillaume’s BENSON character was my silent co-pilot. I programmed it to nod in solemn agreement at everything I said to show I was cool with black people. Especially when they didn’t challenge me. Excitement filled the air until I stepped out of my gnarly, radicle (rad-vehicle) and started waving around an exact replica of the gun Peter Weller waved around in ROBOCOP. Before this day is through, I vowed, everybody inside of this goddamn Hickory Farms will be able to recite every last word from THE BREAKFAST CLUB. Backwards and forwards. And that’s a final truth...”
- An excerpt from Ernest Cline’s upcoming novel, “Hey Dudes, Thanks for Rescuing Me. Let’s Go for a Burger... Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

If you managed to get through the paragraph above, you’re probably a fan of Ernest Cline. For everyone else, it was probably like a boot stamping on a human face forever, except the boot is an elbow attached to a 40-something man in a Rush baseball jersey and it’s not stamping your face as much as it’s nudging your ribs. Forever. And that is the READY PLAYER ONE experience in a nutshell. It was a novel that seemed to ask the question, “What if we made a book out of all of those passages from American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman described the things he owns in clinical detail but swapped all the references to Rolex watches and Brooks Brothers suits with anything fetishized by that guy who works at Gamestop who just wants you to know that Cuphead isn’t some Candy Crush thing. It’s actually very hard. Is it for your boyfriend?” To be fair, READY PLAYER ONE was exactly the kind of novel I would expect from an author whose photo on the dustjacket is of himself leaning on the DeLorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE. By which I mean insufferable. But even though I didn’t expect it to be good, I still expected it to be a novel and not an episode of VH1’s "I Love the 80s" after a vague narrative structure was imposed upon it. And call me crazy, but I really can’t stand when even my disposable airport fiction is constantly bogged down with the literary equivalent to Mo Rocca riffing on the underrated qualities of the keytar to an off-screen researcher. Yet as bad as READY PLAYER ONE was as a novel, it still had potential as a movie. It needed creative collaborators to recognize that Cline’s obsessive, pop-cultural monologuing should be dialed back to a point where it didn’t remind the audience of all the times in high school when an acquaintance would pelt their face with half-chewed Bugles as he shouted MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL quotes during study hall. Maybe Paul Verhoeven or Terry Gilliam or his less grope-y alternative Jean Pierre Jeunet would offer a satirical, darkly silly approach to a book whose basic message is, “I can name all of the Swordquests, so I deserve things!” Unfortunately, Steven Spielberg was the director we got and instead of the funny, thoughtful approach, we got the Iron Giant recreating the tearful T-800 thumbs up scene from TERMINATOR 2. This isn’t a love letter to geek culture, it’s an unsolicited dick pic.

To its credit, READY PLAYER ONE the movie isn’t quite faithful to Ready Player One the novel. Sure, it’s still about a virtual reality scavenger hunt set in the far off year of 2044 and a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who knows so much about The Mighty Orbots and Cassingles that he’s a much better person than you. But a lot has changed because a truly faithful adaptation would mostly amount to Wil Wheaton reading a listicle of 90 Things Only '80s Kids Remember over YouTube footage of a Robotron 2048 walkthrough. Clearly, some liberties were taken with this adaptation and, at least initially, it’s the right kind of liberties. At first glance, Spielberg appears to be mocking Cline’s (who, sadly co-wrote the screenplay) pathological need to lionize anything and everything he consumed as a child. Within the first twenty minutes, characters get caught in the middle of a race across an elegant, Manhattan hellscape to capture one of the film’s trio of Macguffins. What makes this sequence so exhilarating is the fact that it involves the destruction of iconic vehicles from movies and television. The 1966 Batmobile, The Mach 5, Akira’s motorcycle and others are crushed, stomped by the T-Rex from JURASSIC PARK and even eaten by King Kong. There’s a sense of joy in the way Spielberg reduces iconography to rubble. “Here’s this stupid thing you love”, he’s saying. “Now watch me burn it to the ground.” Unfortunately, this gentle, Cineplex nihilism is unintentional and you suddenly remember that READY PLAYER ONE opens with the overplayed strains of Van Halen’s "Jump", which is the '80s nostalgia equivalent to opening your Vietnam movie with "Fortunate Son". If "Jump"’s inclusion was to get me misty-eyed over ads for Time Life CD comps, well, mission accomplished. READY PLAYER ONE the movie is every bit as empty and shallow as the book because Spielberg doesn’t have anything to say about fan culture beyond, “Isn’t it great!?!” Jeepers, I remember Wacky Wallcrawlers too, guys!!!” Spielberg is striving for the epic crossover spectacle of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? and misses. Hard. When Daffy Duck interacted with Donald Duck in ROGER RABBIT, you were seeing full-fledged characters with personalities bounce off of each other in a way a classic comedy team would. In READY PLAYER ONE, when a Xenomorph pops out of the chest of Goro from Mortal Kombat it feels lifeless and rote. Partly because they’re reduced to props in a not very funny sight gag but mostly because we’ve seen this kind of pop-cultural mash-up a million times before on the laziest tumblr posts imaginable. Usually in between the pictures of Obama riding a unicorn and Spock carrying a lightsaber. The cameos in ROGER RABBIT added something to the story around them. Here the cameos are never anything more than a cynical showreel for corporate IP, dead-eyed action figures lined up along the desk of the “quirkiest” guy at your office. All of this might be irrelevant if the central characters didn’t carry all of the depth of the teens who passed over the purple stuff in old Sunny D ads. This is a problem, especially in scenes like the extended SHINING riff where the characters’ distinct relationships and personalities are supposed to serve as an amusing counterpoint to the familiar goings-on at the Overlook hotel. But being that the characters in the film have neither, the whole sequence plays out exactly as it appears: a bunch of visually unappealing avatars playing through a customized mission on a modded Grand Theft Auto rom. 

In his novel, Cline managed to flesh out the characters and their dystopian world to a point where they were at least a little more than faceless, audience surrogates. Spielberg reduces them to faceless, audience surrogates. Presumably to make more time for exploding Madballs and walk-on appearances from Michael Bay’s iteration of the Ninja Turtles. At best, Wade Watts and his gamer buddies are vessels for fun facts and embarrassingly geeky wish fulfillment. At worst -- well, let me tell you a story: When I saw READY PLAYER ONE in the theater, there was a kid in the back row who made a stereotypical karate guy noise when Win Morisaki -- a fellow member of Wade’s scavenger hunting crew -- appears on screen. It’s a dumb teen thing a dumb teen would do during a movie that’s probably boring the living shit out of them. It’s something that would be offensive if it wasn’t so inane. Yet shortly after that, READY PLAYER ONE reinforces this kid’s narrowminded observation by showing Morisaki karate kicking bad guys in the back of a van. So, really, who’s the bigger asshole here? A shitty teen in the back of an Ohio theater trying to piss off an audience who have mostly checked out at this point? Or a director and two screenwriters who pay lip service to not judging a book by its cover throughout their terrible movie but, in their own way, still manage to yell “Hwhaaaaaaa!” the moment one of the film’s few Asian actors stands in front of the camera? I won’t answer for you, but I’ll give you a hint, the kid in the theater had nothing to do with THE COLOR PURPLE or even MUNICH.

Aside from being vapid, READY PLAYER ONE is riddled with plot holes. The biggest one being, why are so many kids in 2044 obsessing over things that were created about 60 years ago? I mean are kids today totally into all the great pop-culture from 1958? Are 15-year-olds cosplaying as Richard Boone from I BURY THE LIVING? Re-listening to all the songs on the KING CREOLE soundtrack? Streaming episodes of SUGARFOOT on their Ipads? I’m not saying as others have weirdly suggested that there should be some pop-cultural representation from 2044, because why would you want to feature made-up iconography that doesn’t exist yet? Besides, its inclusion would mean even more exposition and the last thing this film needs to do is to take an even bigger info-dump on its audience’s laps. But shouldn’t there at least be some Caveman SpongeBob, Walter White or Demogorgon avatars wandering around? Why would teenagers in 2044 be intimately familiar with BUCKAROO BANZAI when teenagers in 2018 aren’t even aware of its existence? Still, I can understand why these kids are latching onto the iconography of the past. The non-branded elements of the Oasis -- the virtual reality world the characters inhabit -- are surprisingly generic. The avatars Wade and the other gamers embody look like they were designed by your elderly mother at gunpoint as she struggled to remember that cartoon from Japan you liked so much. Ike Hearya? A-KerKoo? They had those, y’know (opens hands) eyes.  What isn’t generic looks oddly familiar. Parts of Oasis eerily resemble that Grand Central Station Purgatory the cast from WRECK-IT RALPH hung around in during breaks from their video games while more than a few set-pieces mirror those from the 2017 box office smash THE EMOJI MOVIE. Both films include a pivotal moment revolving around a mid-air dance off, both allow TJ Miller to just totally riff and, most importantly, both rely heavily on their audience’s knowledge of branded products. Too bad THE EMOJI MOVIE wasn’t smart enough to make sure its product placement was at least 30 some years old. Otherwise, THE EMOJI MOVIE might be at 74% instead of 8%.

Yet, the absolute worst thing about READY PLAYER ONE is that it fails to address just how nightmarish the future featured in this movie really is. Now, I’m not talking about the severe economic inequality of this world or the “wifi famine riots” or whatever that inexplicable, unfunny laugh line was about, I’m talking about the fact that, in READY PLAYER ONE, true human worth is determined by how much junk culture you’ve absorbed. Spielberg reinforces Cline’s message that unless you’ve spent a majority of your life re-watching KRULL in between your marathon attempts to reach the kill-screen in Super Pac-Man, you’re probably some evil, dumb, corporate Chad who will steal the internet while they dump the world’s Magic Cards down the toilet. You get the sense in READY PLAYER ONE that the bad guy’s (Australian Ben Mendelsohn, speaking in one of those flattened out “I’m American from America-town” accents usually favored by Rachel Weisz) plan to essentially end net neutrality within the Oasis stems from the fact that he never understood how to enjoy a John Hughes movie. Yet, as much as this film evangelizes over studying and retaining useless knowledge, it still has the nerve to tell you to, “Put your phone down and just live life, man” even though the star of the film just saved the world by knowing an obscure fact about an old Atari game that he spent countless hours playing on his future, virtua-phone-treadmill-helmet. Obviously, it’s ok to like this film, but understand, by liking this film (and book) you’ve forfeited any right to make fun of TWILIGHT or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Sure, they’re all wish fulfillment at their most dreary and pathetic, yet for all of their faults, TWILIGHT and FIFTY SHADES allowed its viewers and readers to step into exotic worlds involving vampires and mysterious, possibly dangerous millionaires, READY PLAYER ONE allows its readers to step into a world where they live in a trailer with their aunt, hang out in an abandoned car yard where they play D&D in total isolation and are aware there was a live-action Japanese Spiderman series. That’s so much better than mom porn or some dumb vampire thing for girls, right?