Thursday, December 27, 2018
RiffTrax-Watch: Ready Player One (2018)
I am not a gamer. The only console I own is one of those 2600 emulator boxes and it hasn't been out of the closet in a year. I get that people spend a lot of time on video games, and that I have no stones to throw about people wasting their time and money on non-real-things. I write on a blog that needlessly analyzes movies and occasionally comics and talks a lot about comic-based movies. Take all of the below with the necessary grain of salt.
It's no secret I wasn't a fan of the book that spawned Ready Player One (2018). It felt like a really weird wank-fest for dudes my age who harbored a fantasy of being richly rewarded for basically passively watching stuff on screens and getting good at video games. The future it posited of a dystopia in which everyone spends their time in the OASIS - a virtual reality construct that includes 1980's nerd-culture elements as keys to the gaming portion of the VR environment - seemed semi-plausible in a last-gasp-before-the-real-crash kind of way.
What the book really had to offer was an endless list of references an 80's kid would be familiar with to begin with, but a D&D-playing sci-fi nerd would definitely get. If you knew Atari 2600 cartridges, D&D RPG modules, arcade video games, TV reruns... a list of things with which it's possible to have at least a passing familiarity just by showing up and not spending much time outside, you could feel like "hey, I'd have a shot at this with my 80's-trivia-brain. Being a white kid born between 1970 and 1979 would make me a HERO."
Sure, I had issues with the character development of the leads - a sort of solipsistic worldview that, even as the character is supposedly growing, never shows that the author himself quite gets how emotionally stunted his characters appear even by the end of their arc, their growth never really getting beyond a sort of self-congratulations for starting to edge around to not being somewhere along the lines of a sociopath. And if I thought the book might lead to the characters realizing "hey, maybe shoving your face into a screen and memorizing the minutia of pop culture and playing a game 20 hours per day isn't going to actually save the world", boy, was I wrong.
Deaths of actual humans are never reflected upon, trauma is more about bruised egos than the horrors inflicted by a corporate slave-holding agency, and the actual problems of economic collapse, America's tailspin into a third world plutocracy, and the near certainty of mass deaths because no one is fixing the problem in an Idiocracy-like fashion never comes up.
But the world of the book at least set it up so that the OASIS was also where kids could go to school, experience field trips, feel first hand a simulation of other environments. Adults could telecommute, take a cheap vacation, etc... the reach extended beyond spending all day playing a very fancy video game. It does not explain how the economic conditions of the world haven't meant that children are not pressed back into labor or how our hero isn't standing at a grill at fast-food restaurant 40 hours per week to have money to eat, let alone be online.
Weirdly, the movie drops all the possible advantages of the OASIS, the stuff that makes it something that is not just a very popular video game, the thing that makes the systems vital to the world's infrastructure, and just never mentions how or why this is such a big deal and why seemingly everyone spends their time plugged in without making it look like people are wasting their time while the world collapses around their ears.
Even if I didn't like Wade Watts much as a character in the novel, he's more than a vaguely douchey cipher. The movie brings us a Wade Watts that's an ideal "fiction suit". He's absolutely nothing in the movie - just a point of reference into which an audience member can insert themselves. And is part of the chain of Spielberg casting young men that look like they could maybe be one of his own children.
Whether this kid is a good actor or not, all he does IRL in the movie is sort of stare around like a dope, his jaw hanging open and his eyes sort of locked on middle-distance whether he's wearing the visor or not (and he mostly is). The movie cuts the parts of the book where he both (a) tries to improve himself, (b) tries to infiltrate the villainous corporation and (c) does literally anything not tied to the A plot. But mostly it vitally cuts the obsessive research required to do what Wade does in the book - which was kind of the point. I may find it nonsensical to believe a teenager in 2040-whatever is pouring over 1980's pop culture minutia and would outrace their elders to finding the answers (but that's the conceit of the book, so whatever) - but it's a vital building block to what's going on.
The specificity of the time frame actually had a point to it in the book - the era of the OASIS creator's childhood - and that had meaning, at least within the novel. By blowing apart the timeframe of reference, the "we're all living within this one guy's view of the world" aspect of The OASIS never materializes, doesn't matter. He's just the Wizard of Oz, not someone for Wade to understand.
While I may read it as an unintended indictment of a culture locked in navel-gazing nostalgia and celebrating endless adolescence (as someone with tickets to see both Aquaman and Spider-Man movies in the next 48 hours, I understand the gross hypocrisy of this statement), somehow the movie reduces the surroundings to components of a video game that happen to be homage to the past. That getting around King Kong in the video game requires doing what any bored gamer would do on try six or seven just to screw with the game rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of King Kong (be it the 1930's, 1970's or 2000's version) demonstrates either Spielberg's distaste for the book or the idea that he never actually read the book. Or played a video game.
My hope for a movie of Ready Player One helmed by Steven Spielberg (who is name dropped intensely in the original novel) was that he would take what Cline had done and give the story some necessary tweaks to improve Wade's characterization and - as someone who is living a remarkable life himself - maybe improve upon the finale, give Wade and Art3mis some goddamned perspective. And I think he tried, in a very lazy, slapdash way. Art3mis isn't just a "cool girl", she's a revolutionary here to recruit Wade! - but the relationship arc is hammered into oblivion and makes almost no sense when she decides to rub his haptic crotch piece. We get a mini-revolution, but Spielberg himself is so bored of the idea of a bunch of nerds playing videogames (ON THE STREET! WHY????) he fails to set up the growing fame of our heroes, why anyone would back them up and then throws in a GD car-chase while the virtual final battle is taking place.
Somewhere along the line, it struck me why so many kids liked this movie - which was a surprise to me when it was released. I mean - how much do they care about the motorcycle from Akira or a T-rex biting at cars? Somehow the movie becomes entirely about the game. Without the classrooms, virtual work spaces, etc... all we know is that this is one big f-ing videogame. And whatever war is going on is just there to keep a company from adding pop-up ads.
If Cline's book was an accidental celebration of gate-keeping/ a la GamerGate, the movie just winds up being about super serious about being pretty good at a particular video game while the world is crushing down around you. And to a 13 year old kid who doesn't have a job, pay taxes, wonder where their next meal will come from... the movie strips that stuff out of the novel and makes it essentially another 80's movie about the best bicycle racer, best bartender, best race car driver, etc... only about a topic 13 year olds really, really get: getting lost in a video game and figuring out a specific move to win the boss battle.
I watched the movie with RiffTrax. It was literally one of the few saving graces of the movie. The ffects are... okay. There's no beauty to them. There's nothing special about anything you're seeing on screen, and it does all just look like a shitty, off-brand video game with IP tucked in here and there. And, frankly, less than advertised and nothing like the novel. But the Rifftrax guys had plenty to work with here.
As Jamie said partway through: if we had gone to see this, we'd have walked out. Which is a crazy thing to say about a Steven Spielberg movie, but looking at the movie, I sort of wonder "was this really directed by Spielberg, or did he just put his name on it as a project lead?". Or has he really gotten this lazy?