Ready Player One: a young man’s game?

‘Have you heard the news? Spielberg is directing Ready Player One!’ Thus went the geek cries across the interwebs – and I was one of them. For this was pleasing, one of cinema’s greatest directors was going to bring to screen a fast-paced and cinematic – but frankly tricky – book by Ernest Cline.

Mostly because it’s packed with ’80s pop culture references, which go some way to explain its huge popularity. So it made sense from a licensing point of view, that only someone with as many connections as Spielberg could pull it off. Plus, with the film straddling the real world as much as an artificial one, you’re effectively, almost, directing two films.

And there’s less than a handful of directors with enough experience to be able to juggle this effectively, and get something that’s both true to the book, cinematic and emotionally engaging to screen.

It also helps that it’s a young man’s adventure/coming-of-age story that’s set in a sci-fi future. One where humanity spends most of their time in a virtual world, because it’s better than the real one. Which is a perfect fit for Spielberg right?

At least, maybe it was almost two decades ago when he gave us films like Minority Report and AI. And to be honest, Tin Tin aside, this past decade he’s focused on more historical stories (War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies). Which had me wonder, would the heavy performance capture side of this film be beyond him? Is modern sci-fi and fantasy – on this scale – more of a young director’s game?

Well, we could argue that a director like Duncan Jones is (relatively) young and his performance capture fantasy fest Warcraft didn’t strike a huge chord with audiences and critics. So perhaps inexperience plays a part too. Moreover, computer game adaptations never seem to do well. Although Ready Player One isn’t an actual computer game, it does occupy a lot of that territory.

Ultimately though, beyond technology and techniques, a successful movie has got to be about the story and how much we engage with the characters. Spectacle can only get us so far. And granted, performance capturing huge chunks of any film must be a slog for a director of any age, but if we don’t connect with the characters we don’t like the film. Simple as that really.

Well, in the case of Ready Player One the story starts with the inventor of the aforementioned virtual world (the OASIS) James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his death. This releases a recording in which Halliday says he’ll gift control of his world – and his vast fortune – to whoever finds three keys hidden within the game.

The way you find them is by knowing as much about past pop culture (films and retro gaming in particular) as much as Halliday does (or did). Luckily, our main character Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one such geek. Perhaps the ultimate geek.

Although he’s not alone, other gamers (known as gunters) seek the keys, too. As does an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Halliday’s vision was that the OASIS was free, a place of escape. But Sorrento and his gang would prefer to run lots of ads and monetise it (shout out Mark Zuckerberg).

So that’s the setup. (And a bit of my usual brain dump and rambling thought process.)

Here’s the thing. I read the book, as did my partner. She enjoyed the film but I only found it to be a so-so experience. For me, more, meh.

Now I don’t want to be one of those people that loves a book and finds any excuse to hate a film, honestly. I really wanted to like this film. I just don’t feel like it captured the spirit of the story in the way I’d hoped. Particularly given it was Spielberg at the helm – the ultimate blockbuster adventure director.

Without delving too much into specifics (head here for that), I get why Spielberg made most of the choices he did. Books give you a chance to add in a lot more detail, a chance for characters to allow their inner monologue to run wild, a chance to build up certain timelines and indulge in specific things you just cannot get away with in a film. In short, you can take your time.

In a film you’ve no such luxury. So Spielberg ditches a lot of the early setup of Wade building up his credits within the game, his initial meetings with love interest and fellow Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and other such indulgences. Out goes much of the real world scenes early on, in favour of getting straight into the meat of the action. He also has Wade meet Art3mis face to face much earlier than the book, presumably so they have more of a connection that feels real.

For me, the film comes alive when Wade and his friends are united (in both the real world and the OASIS) around the time they’re going after the second key. This harkens back the sort of storytelling and sense of adventure Spielberg brought to The Goonies (he more or less co-directed with Richard Donner), E.T. and countless other films.

Perhaps, on a second watch, I’ll find more that I love about this film. Perhaps, despite enjoying the book, the film wasn’t really aimed at me (I am in my 30s) and is, in fact, The Goonies for the gaming generation, Gen Z or whatever they are. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had set my expectations too high. Whatever the reason, I found this film to be good, but not great. (Although other opinions are available.)

 

Rogue One: upping the game

So how on earth do I review a Star Wars film without spoiling it? It’s tough but let’s try. To start with, it’s not called Star Wars colon something, so it already sets itself apart from the others. It’s linked, definitely. But it’s a little rebel of its own, which is kind of great.

Plot wise, I’ll keep it light. Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has left the Empire behind, until they find him and recruit him to build the Death Star. His daughter witnesses this and then grows up to be Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a freedom fighter of sorts – who gets recruited by the rebels. They’ve learned of the Death Star and who Jyn is and want to use her to get close to Galen and perhaps kill him. Jyn learns that her father put a weakness in the Death Star and, if they can capture the plans for it, they’ll know how to take it down. Along the way she teams up with rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a force-believing monk (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Yen), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Trying to stop them is bad Empire chap, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best impression of close to maximum crazy).

So we’ve got a story that slots relatively neatly into the middle of the saga – in that the events that led up to the creation of Vadar come first, then this, then the original films (blowing up the Death Star), then the quest to find Luke (the most recent one, The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley). Got it? Make sense? Let’s carry on.

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Sticking with story, it’s funny. In that you could argue it doesn’t actually offer up anything new if you put it under a spotlight. We get a gang trying to get one over on the Empire on a planet’s surface while a space battle rages above. This gang is made up of a main guy and girl, a robot, a guy who believes in the force, and a shaggy man-creature who doesn’t say much. Our main character has major issues reconnecting with her father, convinced of the good in him when others doubt there is any, sound familiar?

I could go on, but I don’t want to criticise too much. It’s still, in some ways, more original than The Force Awakens. It might not have the same heft of character; in that you’re missing Adam Driver’s Ben Solo – possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the new films so far. But what you do have is a real sense of spectacle and weight. The battle scenes in Rogue One are visceral and impactful and put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy beach landings, and the city battles in Jedha conjured up images of Blood Diamond‘s street skirmishes and Children of Men‘s firefights, all of which are high praise indeed. So hats off to director Gareth Edwards (a normal director, not an evil Imperial one) for the sense of immediacy and danger he gets across.

And in general, the film looks gorgeous too (helps I saw it at the BFI IMAX) and Edwards has gone all out in terms of location and scale. You get a real sense of the different worlds that make up this universe. In particular, the Jedi’s homeworld of Jedha (now fallen into ruin) looks epic and suggests an ancient culture now largely gone from the universe. And the film’s finale on tropical planet Scarif – with all surf, palm trees and beaches, feels fresh and different.

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Cast wise, the film more or less belongs to Felicity Jones and Diego Luna – both of whom put in convincing performances. And there are numerous scenes where they exchange looks or moments that, if left for a second longer, could be seen as romantic. But the filmmakers resisted this, which is great. It isn’t that kind of story. This is war and it’s encouraging they didn’t waver and bow to audience expectation. It’s also perhaps testament to the direction, script and cast that, in a stand-alone film (that’s part of an epic saga), Edwards gets us caring about the main characters pretty quickly. There isn’t a huge amount of time to build their stories, but just enough so that their plight means something. There are high stakes.

So all in all, this is a highly enjoyable entry in the saga. It’s got humour, thrills, spectacle and a certain level of inventiveness. It nods to canon without being overwhelmed, and it puts a twist on a number of things we’ve come to expect to see, making them feel a little fresher, but still familiar. Which is no easy task. So it’s a bit like Russian roulette, in that Edwards has pulled the trigger, the chamber has revolved and he’s gotten away with it. Next up to try his luck: Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Still, after Looper and his past work, I’m pretty optimistic.