“Ready Player One” Review

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Only a few months after the release of The Post master director Steven Spielberg is back with a movie as different from the wordy and political film imaginable, with a special effects laden celebration of pop-culture and video games. Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, demonstrates how Spielberg is still able to keep up with the constant advances in technology and special effects after all these years, even if he lets the spectacle overwhelm the characters at times.

CGI has become so commonplace and accepted in blockbusters lately that it’s common for characters and action sequences to resemble something out of a video game (particularly in superhero films like last year’s Justice League), so it makes sense for Ready Player One to embrace that aspect and set the majority of its story inside an enormous online game world. In the year 2045 most of humanity spends their time hooked up to the virtual world of the OASIS – a combination between the Internet, an MMO, and social media. Anything in possible in the OASIS – one can change their appearance, engage in any activity imaginable, and connect with people all around the world. For our main character, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), his goal is to find three hidden keys spread throughout the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever finds the keys first is granted full ownership of the OASIS, which Watts is determined to do before a company like Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and its profit-motivated CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) can take control and privatise the whole place. The links to modern concerns like Net Neutrality and Pay-to-Play systems aren’t subtle, but then again little about this movie is.

The real selling point of Ready Player One is pure spectacle, and fortunately Spielberg has always been able to deliver visually stunning moments of cinematic excitement. The OASIS is filled with references to all sorts of real movies, TV shows, and video games – I doubt even the biggest pop-culture nerd would be able to spot them all on the first viewing. These references are both Ready Player One’s greatest strength and weakness, as while I can’t pretend to be iron-willed enough to not enjoy seeing Back to the Future’s DeLorean racing through an obstacle course avoiding Jurassic Park’s T-Rex or King Kong himself, too many of the conversations between characters end up divulging into spouting nerdy trivia back and forth. The script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline also relies too heavily on the 80s nostalgia that has been pervasive in pop-culture lately and is feeling increasingly tired. Modern properties like Overwatch and Halo have brief visual appearances, but it would have been nice to see Cline’s seven-year-old book be updated even more.

Spielberg has been responsible for some of the most iconic and original moments in cinematic history, yet there’s a disappointing lack of originality displayed in Ready Player One. The obsession with nostalgia goes so far that the characters literally end up invading the world of another film for a significant portion of the second act, which only served the purpose of feeling like a borderline blasphemous invasion on another director’s work while making me want to watch that film instead. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable spending time in the world of the OASIS, as Spielberg and the team at ILM have constructed a futuristic and flashy setting that Janusz Kamiński has the camera whooshing through, and one of the climactic battle sequences contains so many iconic characters fighting each other that its almost impossible to not get some geeky pleasure out of, but it never manages to avoid feeling artificial. When the characters that die can immediately sign back in and re-join there’s never any tension, and the attempts to introduce the threat back into the real world fall flat due to that setting being so underdeveloped and uninteresting compared to the OASIS. The cast is filled with talented actors, yet I could feel that they were so weighed down by the wires and motion-capture suits that they struggled to really connect with the audience.

Ready Player One ends up being incredibly entertaining, and a popcorn flick of high quality, without providing much memorable for itself. The overall message of the film, that we shouldn’t sacrifice reality for artificial worlds, felt particularly appropriate as I happily wandered back into the real world after 140 minutes in this one.

3 and a half stars.

“The Post” Review

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It’s arguable as to whether or not Steven Spielberg is the best living director, but he is indisputably the most successful. It’s hard to imagine a director who’s had a greater influence on film history, popular culture, or the very structure of Hollywood, excepting perhaps Walt Disney. While not all of Spielberg’s films are perfect, he has always had a remarkable knack for making nearly any topic entertaining and cinematic – a skill he demonstrates yet again with The Post, as a dry, wordy, and complicated real life story about journalists in the 1970s is turned into a tense and exceptionally relevant summer release.

The Post is centred around the publication of the Pentagon Papers, confidential documents concerning the role of the US Government in the Vietnam War, and the conflict between the media and the Presidency that emerged as a result. Spielberg’s favourite leading man Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, who is determined to continue reporting on the papers even after the New York Times has been served a court injunction preventing them from further publication. Bradlee’s determination puts him in opposition with Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who has inherited ownership of the Post from her husband after his suicide, and is hesitant to allow the story due to the damage it could do to both the value of the paper and her own relationships with members of Nixon’s administration. It’s incredible to think that Streep had never worked with Spielberg or Hanks to this degree before, as the three A-listers seem like such a natural combination and are all on top-form here. Refreshingly, the two leads seem to invert the roles they most commonly play. The famously affable Hanks brings a brashness and bull-headed determination as Bradlee, and Steep brings a nervous vulnerability to the out-of-her-depth Graham that’s a far cry from her more forceful depictions of figures like Margaret Thatcher or Miranda Priestly (even if she is too versatile an actress to ever truly be typecast). As would be expected with such a prestigious film the entire supporting cast is filled with famous faces, from Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sarah Paulson, and for those of us who are too young to remember this moment in American history it can be overwhelming to keep up with all the characters and names at first. Once the main story picks up, though, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay keeps things fairly focused to the main editorial staff, simplifying the story to just a few central figures who have to decide whether or not to publish.

Spielberg has never been a subtle director, and there’s no question that this is a film firmly on the side of journalistic freedom. Characters repeat their belief that the press exists to challenge the government so often that the only way Spielberg’s intended message could have been clearer is if Bradlee slipped up and referred to ‘Nixon’ as ‘Trump’ in a scene. Yet just because a message is obvious doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, as The Post demonstrates how relevant the lessons from decades ago still are today. At times The Post feels like a spiritual successor to 1976’s All the President’s Men, with the former ending right where the latter takes off, but while one film was made only two years after Nixon’s resignation the other is released one year into the Presidency of a man with his own reasons to combat the media. It exemplifies how tuned in Spielberg is to the zeitgeist, and how the entire purpose of making historical pictures is to encourage the audience to question whether or not anything has actually changed.

The Post tells an important story, and Spielberg knows it. There are a few too many grand speeches, even if they are excellently delivered from the faultless cast, and John William’s grandiose soundtrack threatens to overpower the performances at times. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has the camera rushing through the frantic offices of the Washington Post and up close to the printers, so we feel the impact of each word being pressed onto the paper and see how much work it took to get them there. It borders on being too much, but when the history on display in The Post feels so familiar to current events it’s hard to not see the need for a film like this.

4 stars.