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Thursday, 29 March 2018

Ready Player One

(M) ★★★½

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Simon Pegg, Hannah John-Kamen.

Gandalf had stumbled onto the set of the new Final Fantasy movie by mistake.
Is it stating the obvious to say Spielberg is the greatest director of all time? Or is that too safe of a bet? Not "hot take" enough for ya?

Anyway, what's continually impressive about his career is his ability to switch gears. After the excellent Cold War spy drama Bridge Of Spies, he did a decent job on the family-friendly flick The BFG, before diving into this epic-scale sci-fi adventure. Oh and in the middle of the massive post-production period of Ready Player One, he made and released the tidy little journo-thriller The Post.

It's all evidence of Spielberg's understanding of what makes films tick. No matter the genre, his ability to give audiences what they crave (whether they know it or not) is what makes him the best in the biz. Understanding how a plot should roll, where the beats need to be, how to make you cheer and boo - it's all there in everything he does. Looking back, he hasn't made a bad film since Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, and from all accounts a fair amount of the blame for that can be levelled at his old mate George Lucas. Yes, not every film has been pure top shelf, but he rarely serves up anything crap.

So where does this one sit in his career? The definitive answer will come when The Incredible Suit slots it into his excellent Spielberg ranking list (although he didn't rate The BFG so nobody's perfect), but for now Ready Player One is in the pile of shameless entertainers Spielberg wheels out from time to time. It's part-The Adventures Of Tintin, part-Minority Report, and part-The Goonies (which he produced).

Based somewhat loosely on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One is set in a future where the majority of people spend their time in The Oasis, a massive online gaming experience where you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want.

In the wake of the death of The Oasis' creator James Halliday (Rylance), everyone is hunting for the Easter Egg he left behind in the digital realm - a MacGuffin that gives its finder ownership of the entire Oasis. This bequeathment pits lowly teens like Wade Watts AKA Parzival (Sheridan) up against evil corporations such as IOI, which is owned by the hissable Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn).

Mixing a CGI-enhanced real world with a fully motion-captured digital one, this is Spielberg's most visually ambitious film since Tintin. Both planes of existence are beautifully realised, although maybe a stronger palette difference would have been better.

But when it's firing on all cylinders, it's hard to top. An early car race (once the clunky world-set-up exposition is out of the way) is full on and a bit mind-blowing, as is the scale of the final battle. The pace in this is like that of a novice in a car racing game - foot to the floor, all the time.

Where it falls down is in its characters. The most fascinating creation is Halliday. Rylance (quickly becoming Spielberg's muse - this is film #3 with him) gives a fleeting but intriguing performance means Halliday looms over the film in a sadly beautiful way. His spectral presence helps make the MacGuffins less MacGuffiny and the clues less computer gamey, as they hint at increasingly interesting character depths.

The next most interesting role is Mendelsohn's Sorrento, who is surprisingly well-rounded for a villain, followed by the hero Parzival. Sheridan does a good job in the lead, but his character feels underwritten. We know enough to care, and his desires and actions drag us along, but he's nowhere to be seen on the leaderboard of great Spielberg characters.

Faring far worse is Cooke as Artemis (it's spelt Art3mis but I'm having no part of that shit). Artemis is an incredibly important player in the story but done a disservice by the script. She's headstrong and smart, which is great, but the whole "love interest" side of things slips through too easily and is undercooked, bringing her character down to a strangely bland level. Equally shortchanged are the rest of Parzival's mates (played by Waithe, Zhao and Morisaki), who turn up when it's important for the plot and are entirely one-dimensional. TJ Miller's B-villain I-Rok is also a little underdone, but a very welcome addition as comic relief.

The plot feels a little clunky in places, and devolves into a weirdly kidsy ending, which is pretty odd for a film that references Alien in a pretty full on way and bases a whole sequence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. But something it does incredibly well is manage to be, for all intents and purposes, a film based on a (admittedly non-existent) video game. With its various levels, puzzles and plot points that revolve around gameplay mechanics, Ready Player One shows it is theoretically possible (in a very meta kind of way) to make a computer game adaptation that doesn't suck.

I haven't read the book, but after reading a plot summary it seems like the film may have turned shit into sherbet. One hangover from the book that is inescapable however, and quite frankly odd, is the movie's fixation on the '80s. It's a bit cute for those of a certain age who might be prone to pop-culture fanaticism, and it is somewhat understandable - it stems from Halliday having grown-up in the '80s - but it's really weird for all these teens in 2045 to be running around with a love of an era six decades ago. It would be akin to adolescents in 2018 being obsessed with late '50s culture, listening to Bill Haley and Buddy Holly while greasing up their hair and idolising James Dean. Or kids in the '80s dressing up as flappers and listening to '20s jazz.

Peculiarities aside, Ready Player One is a burst of fun which is breathlessly paced and visually stunning. It never lets up and is thoroughly gripping, especially if you are Gen X or Gen Y and were known to game in your youth. It's unlikely to find its way in to a Spielberg top 10, but nonetheless it's another crowdpleaser from the master.

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