There came a moment during yesterday’s screening (in 70mm!) yesterday when I realized that among the group of kids sitting to my right, shepherded to a matinee during what I’m assuming was their Spring Break, was a boy nearly falling out of his seat.
His movement became part of my peripheral vision, so every now and again I’d look over. First, I was nonplussed. Why was he feigning shadowboxing? Then I turned back to the screen and it hit me. He was mimicking the action of Ready Player One. He didn’t even need a headset to enjoy this on-screen fantasy.
It reminded me of watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the big screen, some twelve years after it had first been released. I was, obviously, no longer the boy who’d been so excited to see it, and in this second theatrical viewing, I found myself drifting…only to be shaken out of it by raucous peals of laughter from a group of kids sitting nearby.
It happened again this past autumn when I saw Logan Lucky. The theater simply couldn’t get the projection right. First, the aspect ratio was off, then the automatic curtains impinged upon the screen. Then, they just compressed the picture a bit, and Channing Tatum was made to look like a Minecraft character. Then, they gave up and gave us a refund. I was annoyed; the kids sitting nearby had the time of their lives, laughing their way through the “ordeal”.
And I realized that this was an inversion of that Arcade Fire line from Month of May: Someone was standing—well, in this case, sitting—with his arms folded tight, but it wasn’t a kid.
I’ve struggled with this aspect of critique as I sail steadily away from childhood shores: how do you film’s capacity for manipulation, to enthrall a mass, who might just be there for entertainment. And is that such a bad thing?
Ready Player One is a strange case. There has never been any doubting Spielberg’s mastery of the film medium, and if you’re able to detach from the visual assault ($185 million buys a lot of cutting-edge special effects) for a minute, or moment, you’ll appreciate a number of his trademark dexterous camera movements. His tracking shots often seem to re-define the technique.
Anthony Lane made an interesting note of Spielberg’s camera work in his review of Bridge of Spies. With his opening shot, or Mark Rylance’s character, he not only showcased some serious visual nous, he provided a wonderful metaphor for the world of espionage, and the toll it takes.
Is there any such bridging of theme to visual style in Ready Player One? Is that really a problem? Well, Spielberg seems to hedge his bets when it comes to imparting lessons or providing meditations on his subject matter. His warnings against technological overuse and corporate evils seem like little more than after thoughts. You may feel the same way when you see what happens to the face of the big tech CEO in the back seat of a squad car in the film’s final moments.
Which is fine. The film didn’t need that above-mentioned moment. This is a blockbuster, in vintage visual-feast format. Long chided for failing to tether an appropriate sense of emotional weight to his visual genius, Spielberg has created what might best be termed a passion project, in that it allows him to reference many of his favorite pop-culture icons in what often feels like a 21st-century museum passage into all he finds awesome.
Which is why I don’t understand the necessity of these sprinklings of gravitas to the film. It doesn’t need them. They ruin the flavor. Trust the audience enough to allow them the space to find their own messages.
This film should be taken at face value: it’s Willy Wonka’s challenge laced with special effects steroids. Spielberg has once again utilized a theme popular in his oeuvre, Hook on down the line, of remaining young at heart. You see it in Halliday, the creator of the Oasis universe; you see it in Spielberg’s attraction to the project.
If, as Chris Hedges once said, culture’s essential function is to shift social consciousness, then this is perhaps the film for our age. Because it doesn’t shift social consciousness; rather, it indulges us and then pays lip service to the idea of having a higher meaning. Not that there’s any problem with that.
When I think of what I’ll take away from this film, it won’t be a pact to “only engage in the Oasis five days a week, taking the other two to, y’know, connect in real life or whatever”, it will be the sensational car race early on in the film. The studio has certainly agreed: they devoted an entire trailer to hype its initial release.
The car chase is vintage Spielberg, and one senses George Lucas squirming in his seat, jealous that he couldn’t have made pod racing look this cool. A kid needs to figure out a way to win; and he does just that through some very impressive outside-the-box thinking. It’s problem solving pure and simple; it’s part of why video games are so much fun for a kid. That’s where this movie shines; when it remembers why kids flocked to these things in the first place.
What expanded interactive parallel universes mean for our future remains to be seen. But even if they are co-opted into something nefarious; at least they grew out of something noble.