2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Ready Player One (2018)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

It must be a strange feeling to live in an era you played a part in inventing. Steven Spielberg is one of the few people who might claim it, when regarding today’s pop cultural landscape. And how frustrating, to feel the same desire to create with the same old fervour and retain eminence when so many imitators and acolytes are pounding on the gates. Lately Spielberg has been contending with a host of wannabes eager to claim his mantle, and the jarring flop of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (2016) raised the possibility his days as a maker of big popular hits might finally be over. Maybe it was time to sell out like his pal and collaborator George Lucas, or perhaps settle for making more of his modestly popular, smartly if cosily-done, mid-budget dramas like Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017). Ready Player One signals this is far from his intention, a film that is at once a work of startling energy and brashness from a seasoned talent, but also one that fits with surprising elegance into the director’s autumnal phase, a contemplation of the notion of legacy in terms of a receptive and interacting audience and also in personal reckoning.

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The source material, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is somewhat divisive as the “holy grail of pop culture,” as the film’s trailer proclaimed it. Cline’s book churned together a manic panorama of geeky emblems, conjuring a narrative that also worked as a literary equivalent of an online listicle, rattling off a swathe of appreciations and appraisals of various properties for a specific generational sensibility, in his fantasy world where the expanse of human imagination often boils down to repurposing myriad popular movies, shows, games, and books. To a certain extent Cline was only continuing a practice begun forty years ago by Spielberg and his generational fellows of the Movie Brat generation like Lucas, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and others, with their early intimations of the post-modern sensibility incorporated into mainstream storytelling. They amalgamated genre tropes and narrative forms they found cool and felt other people dug too, whilst working in a personal sensibility. It’s in this last part of the process where the trouble lies: what if you don’t really have a personal sensibility, other than the various wares you’ve bought and used to furnish your mental space?

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Most people aren’t artists or creators, and happy instead to wield the fare they love as a kind of livery, a phenomenon that’s easy to see all over our contemporary online lives, for everyone who clips out some screencap or piece of artwork to make use of an emblematic figure and infer to all and sundry our allegiances, self-concept, and ambitions. The setting of Ready Player One is one of near-future dystopia, one that could well be unfolding down the road from Spielberg’s last venture into this territory, Minority Report (2002). After a series of broadly described calamities, including “the corn syrup drought and the bandwidth riots,” Columbus, Ohio has become the world’s fastest-growing city, with most of the populace subsisting in crudely assembled slums called The Stacks. But many don’t care too much about their living circumstances, as they spend most of their lives immersed in an online virtual reality world called the Oasis, the brainchild of the late tech wizard and uber-nerd James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

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Wade Willis (Tye Sheridan) is one of the natives of this timid new world, a prodigious young talent in the digital world and, outside of it, the barely-tolerated ward of his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her sleazy boyfriend Rick (Ralph Ineson). Wade, who goes by the online moniker Parzifal, is one of a cadre of seekers who call themselves Gunters, or egg hunters, dedicated to the great quest Halliday built into the Oasis before he died: Halliday has placed an Easter Egg, coder slang for a hidden object, somewhere in the Oasis that will allow whichever intrepid and inspired soul can unlock it first to take control of Halliday’s company and the Oasis itself. Inevitably, this has spawned “clans” of unified competitors to dedicate their efforts to cracking the clues, and also corporate rivals in the form of the Sixers, an army of nameless, numerically designated gamers employed by IOI, a company founded by one of Halliday’s former employees, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

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Although intended as a vehicle of fantastical release, Halliday also built the Oasis to operate by certain rigid rules of cause and effect as well as be a zone of fair competition. Success in the Oasis depends entirely on the individual’s level of skill, and unlike the real world cannot by manipulated by other forms of influence, guile, or trickery. Certain extremely popular objects and effective tools can only be purchased with amassed credit, and to fail at a feat or die in the online world results in bankruptcy, and the player must start from scratch. The trouble with Halliday’s great quest is that nobody has ever managed even to surpass the first stage in the game, a colossal street race where the Gunters must attempt to outrace each-other and dodge ferocious threats, like breakneck plunges and a marauding King Kong, in order to reach the first of three promised keys that will grant access to the Easter Egg. Parzifal obstinately studies the assembled recordings of Halliday’s life, and races in the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985).

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Parizfal belongs to a subset of solo Gunters who disdain clans, but he does engage in friendly competition and downtime banter with Aech (Lena Waithe), who he only knows online as a hulking green mutant version of Vin Diesel and who’s a wiz at reconstructing virtual machines, and the dashing duo Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), who appear as a kung fu master and a samurai warrior with Toshiro Mifune’s face, respectively. There’s also Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Parzifal’s greatest rival and an enigmatic figure of legend in the Gunter community, a sleek, colourful, dazzling cavalier who competes in the race riding the red motorbike from Akira (1988). Parzifal saves Art3mis from her own bravado as she tries to leap over Kong, and begin to form a rugged alliance in attempting to plumb the mystery of Halliday’s quest once more. Parzifal finally unlocks the puzzle of the race in listening to Halliday’s testimonials and his wish to rewind, to go backwards, which proves to be exactly the right way to win the race. Parzifal becomes an instant celebrity and is courted by Nolan to help IOI unlock the rest of the puzzle. When he refuses, Nolan hires two potent heavies to try and nail Wade and associates, the enforcer F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), who rounds up debtors for the loyalty centers in the physical world, and the accomplished virtual goon I-R0k (T.J. Miller), who appears online as a walking heavy metal band album cover.

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To peel away the elaborate referential superstructure of Ready Player One is to find a straightforward story, pitting its young faithful against the forces of cynical exploitation, albeit traversing both the colourful digital universe and the grotty, dilapidated real world. Mendelsohn’s Nolan is revealed as someone who studied at the feet of the master Halliday but who even as an awkward whelp wanted to subdivide the Oasis experience according to real-world wealth, a notion explicitly at odds with Halliday’s meritorious world-building. There’s a damn clever reason behind the film’s pop cultural lexicon, as Halliday, a Gen Xer, made the Oasis an open zone for immersion in any lifestyle people desired, but structured his quest specifically according to his own proclivities as a nerd, and so to master the Easter Egg hunt demands mastering both his obsessions and his biography: the journey into the works is a journey into the creator. It’s believable when you consider the way nerd references are implanted in contemporary computing, like the phrase we use to refer to unwanted emails taken from a certain beloved Monty Python gag. The lexicon of a certain variety of entertainment has been hardwired into the technology created by its fans in the same manner as the classical education of the Victorian era’s inventors and entrepreneurs inflected their terminology and wares.

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It’s tempting nonetheless to describe Ready Player One as the ‘80s retro bar glimpsed in Back to the Future Part II (1989) transmuted into an entire movie: harvested, essentialised images from a time now fading into a similar status the 1950s had for the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ beloved trilogy, as a time of dogging nostalgia and niggling regret. Part of that lustre was of course the result of a general agreed contrivance, as filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis projected their own ‘50s youths onto the ‘80s whilst taking a half-suspicious sideways glance at the promise of Reaganism to restore that lost Eden, but constantly suggesting the new forces in play. I fit the generational template for this film pretty squarely, and although I have no desire to remain living in a perpetual bubble of 1985, I also don’t mind appreciating and celebrating the best of the age, particularly when much of it still has to fight for a seat at the table as far as critical standing goes. Not that the ‘80s is the only frame of reference: much more recent video game characters are also in the mix.

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Cline’s plot draws on a host of models – there’s the idea of the video game as a version of the sword-in-the-stone task from The Last Starfighter (1984) and the quest to assume the mantle of a mysterious and tricky creator from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whilst the conflict in the digital realm obviously echoes Tron (1982). I could compare Ready Player One to some other films that have similarly contended with the splintering of reality and the looming possibility of life lived in proxy, movies like David Cronenberg’s ode to digital dysmorphia, eXistenZ (1997), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Zack Snyder’s level-up dark fantasy of Sucker Punch (2011), Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011), Wong Kar-Wai’s dreamy emotional biography 2046 (2004), and the movie adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ thematically similar The Hunger Games books. It almost goes without saying that Ready Player One is far lighter and more pop in tone than some of those, although it manages to ply the same imperatives without succumbing to the leaden self-seriousness of the Hunger Games films in particular: Ready Player One aims, and succeeds effortlessly, in recreating the old, jaunty mood of ‘80s pop movies whilst still analysing the new anxieties of the present. It also lacks the dreamlike conjurations and shifting sense of self Kon was able to articulate in his alternate reality journey through the mind and the furnishing provided by formative fixations and the imaginings of others. And yet it manages to contend with the same reservoir of fixations and concepts on its own terms.

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The very premise of Ready Player One is the sort that tends to instantly polarise and inflame sensibilities, veering between delight and exasperation, and depending very much on one’s age and sensibility which. Some adverse reaction carries a strong whiff of generational prejudice: it was all right to remix old serials and pulp tales into the Indiana Jones films or churn together a host of references in the Gremlins movies because they were artefacts of baby boomers’ fond remembrances, but to remix more recent fare is to appease younger people who are all, if you were to believe some journalistic voices, boors, sexists, and racists. It’s true that the nerd creed long sported a proud badge of innocence as one fit for outcasts, oddballs, misfits, and proud weirdos to coexist harmoniously in a zone outside the competitive realms of other pastimes, but of late, as it’s become cooler to be considered geeky, an unpleasant side to this world has been growing, the vicious and competitive gatekeeping and internecine strife. Spielberg and Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, emphasise the positive side, as Wade’s progress is one of forging amities that bleed into the real world and bond together people who are on the surface rather different but who share a deeper essence.

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The way we consume pop culture has changed tremendously since Spielberg and the other Movie Brats started. Back then, except for TV showings, it was very hard to access older movies and TV shows. Pop culture of the moment was more definite, more enveloping and defining. Today, it’s very easy to live in a self-curated bubble totally different to the person next to you. There still are and always will be shared generational touchstones, but pop culture is far more of a bricoleur’s state now (although that might be changing again now that streaming platforms are effectively sequestering whole realms of culture and tightening the scope of interest to what services and sites choose to drip-feed their subscribers). Ready Player One’s survey is attuned to this phenomenon. All our concepts, all our pet fantasies, are a mask for something else, and the film’s human story is very much a tale that should be familiar to many of us, as the various young online swashbucklers become fretful about transferring their chemistry into the real world.

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Parzifal falls in love with the glamorous Art3mis, who warns him about the dangers inherent in blurring the Oasis life with the real world, a warning echoed by Aech, as they exist for the most part in a world that allows them to distort or even abandon their real-life identities: “You only see what I want you to see,” Art3mis tells Parzifal. As they’re forced to attempt to save each-other and beat IOI, the digital heroes are obliged to try and meet up in real life and fend off physical threats. Aech proves to actually be Helen (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, Sho is an 11-year-old, and Art3mis is a young punkette belonging to an alt-culture clique dedicated to resisting IOI, trying to hide a birthmark on her face behind a lick of red hair.

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The game of spot-the-reference is certainly fun, and sometimes pays off in some blissfully silly conjunctions, as in the great climactic battle when Nolan as Mechagodzilla battles Saito in the form of the first real “mecha” hero Gundam, the evil, possessed doll Chucky from the Child’s Play horror series goes on the rampage, and Ted Hughes-via-Brad Bird’s Iron Giant recreates the salutary thumbs-up of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The telling aspect to all this lies in the recognition that all these avatars plucked from pop culture are masks of various principles and ideas and projections of our interior selves and collective sensibility that long precede these various figurations, and also their role as tropes connecting to various roles. Even if you’re not a fan of these various properties, what they mean to others is made instantly apparent, and play their role in the story rather than being the story. Most cinema people react to video game associations like they’ve taken an acid burn, but Spielberg seems entirely Zen about it, although he might be better positioned to given his influence on that realm too. What is the Tomb Raider franchise but a distaff, simplified version of his Indiana Jones films?

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Most computer games are built around figurations taken from the essentialised studies of mythology of Jung and Joseph Campbell, systems of progression through to an innermost cave of achievement, ideas Lucas and Spielberg did much to popularise. A major motif in the story zeroes in on the legacy of Warren Robinett, whose game Adventure involved locating his own hidden name in a secret bole, the first ever Easter Egg that entwined the act of discovery and curiosity for its own sake with the pride of creating. Spielberg has never been a meta filmmaker, preferring instead to comment via sideways inferences and likenesses. Ready Player One is nonetheless perhaps the most overt work of self-analysis Spielberg’s made since Jurassic Park (1993) provided a vehicle to explore his pride and unease as a creator of wildly popular entertainments that sometimes provoked unwanted responses and challenges. The tepid response to Lucas’ later Star Wars films as well as his and Spielberg’s return to the Indiana Jones series, and works of retro tribute like The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and The BFG, revealed a looming generation gap, one that’s been nimbly exploited by the likes of J.J. Abrams, for whom pop culture dates back no further than the first Star Wars.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was vital and fascinating, but also restlessly received, in very large part because it was a generational statement from Spielberg and Lucas, attempting to introduce Jones, the mythical avatar of their parents’ generation, into the world of their own youth, a world where Howdy Doody, I Like Ike, the Atomic Café, hot rods, Elvis and scares over lead-lined fridges and Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi were mixed in with ancient idols and primeval myth, all artefacts in a madcap cultural centrifuge. Ready Player One is an attempt to offer an equivalent for a generation that followed, the one Spielberg helped foster, but also one that reflects the change in experience, casting Wade/Parzifal as the geek-culture inheritor of Jones. There’s an interesting gap between Spielberg’s ode to the ‘80s and his own style: back in the ‘80s, of course, he made movies that moved majestically on the strains of John Williams’ scores rather than pop hits like Van Halen’s “Jump” and Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” as pop up on the soundtrack here (scoring duties are taken by Alan Silvestri, who drops in hints of his Back to the Future theme at appropriate moments). But, of course, the point here is curated culture. I liked the fact that not all the geekery is too popular, either: the film spares space for cult anime and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) as well as more imposing landmarks like King Kong (1933) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

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The major irony here is that for the most part Spielberg has erased his own work from the matrix, except in the form of Jurassic Park’s tyrannosaur. But, of course, he’s everywhere in it; he’s creating the amphitheatre for all of this, just as Jaws (1975) is often cited, with a certain degree of accuracy, as the birth of the modern blockbuster style. All through the film I couldn’t shake the feeling it was a response in part not simply to Spielberg’s current assessment of his place in the pop culture hierarchy, but also to the great crisis facing that world, its abandonment of new ideas – a problem the film seems on the face of it to be perpetuating. But it’s also a prod, not simply to sometimes look past the comforting womb of favourite things to look at the way things are actually run and served up to us, but also to recognise that those things are all the product of a creator, who is in turn inspired by another creator. One of the later images in the film sees Wade confronted by the image of the young Halliday, a kid playing video games, destined to fashion great things but in turn just another fan. Spielberg might even be commenting on Lucas abandoning his intellectual property to Disney. To watch the Disney-shepherded Star Wars films is to no longer see an artist, however commercial and populist, responding to their own shifting identity and sensibility over the years but to see carefully screened, hired talents presenting what are at their best glorified fan fiction and at worst corporate franchise protection.

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Ready Player One is certainly a hymn to popular iconography, and rather self-evidently a commentary by Spielberg on his own career as an artist who’s managed to win a rare place for himself inside a system and an industry but who never quite feels comfortable in that system. It’s also an attempt to sensitise the audience into greater awareness that iconography can persist beyond its creators but the creators are still vital not just to the process of genesis but for the audience’s understanding and sense of affinity with the work – the notion that artist and audience are connecting on levels both overt and subliminal, the concerns and emotions they share. The in-built irony here of course is that to put across its theme Ready Player One engages in this practice at an extreme – the rights clearances alone surely needed an army of lawyers as thick as the avatar horde Parzifal unleashes upon IOI. Spielberg has Cline and Penn swap out one of the books reference points for one of Spielberg’s own favourite films. The heroes venture into an unnervingly fetishistic recreation of the environs of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), where the elevator filled with blood and the taunting call of the twin girls unsettle and terorise, and the naked ghost lady tantalises Aech before trying to kill her. Nolan meets I-R0k on Planet Doom under the wreck of a Martian machine from The War of the Worlds (1953), another lightning rod for the director.

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The recourse to Halliday’s records and attempt to parse the mysteries of his life recalls another founding text of modern cinema in general, Citizen Kane (1941), complete with a twist on the idea of Rosebud as raw material for communal dreaming: the absence of Halliday from his own life, his emotional failures, like his inability to kiss his great love and failure to take her dancing, incorporated into the stuff of his art and his message. Halliday had fallen for Kira (Perdita Weeks), but their one date was a flop, and she eventually ended up marrying his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), an event that left Halliday perpetually lovelorn and also seemed to push him to force Ogden out of his company, and to reach the secret of the second key Parzifal, Art3mis, and their pals must understand Halliday himself, his regrets and mistakes. Parzifal is gifted with a token from the archive’s snooty custodian as the first person to ever grasp the significance of Kira’s name in part because of its general absence from the database, a subject of such special pain that it could only be retained is a singular totem and clue. Parzifal/Wade’s insight comes from his identification with Halliday as he’s faced with his own moment of romantic truth with Art3mis/Samantha.

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The flaw of the creator is the flaw of the creation, the dead points and blind spots in a conjured world reflecting the problems of growth found in turn in its architect – one reason why no single act of creation can embrace and speak for everyone. Spielberg’s collaboration with Rylance reaches its third instalment here, and it sees the hints given by his earlier roles for the director that Spielberg’s been using Rylance as a stand-in become more definite. In Bridge of Spies, he played a man caught between political blocs nominally in service to one who’d rather be painting, and the bullied, ageing hermit in The BFG whose truest connection is still to children. Here he’s glimpsed as Halliday, a droning savant both proud of his works but also diffident about their meaning in the face of looming mortality and handover. Of course, Nolan could also be read as another face of self-assessment, the mogul who’s clawed his way to the heart of a large industry, relied upon to keep small armies of passionate people pointed in one direction and expected to deliver profits as well as art with gruelling consistency. But Ready Player One is a great movie experience because a lot of the referential and theoretical stuff is rich and fun, but also supernal to the basic thrust of the plot, which is something both more essential and entirely apt, as the young heroes try to stick it to The Man and claim a legacy for themselves, as well as fighting for, well, net neutrality, open-source culture, and creative rights.

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Spielberg’s vision of a not-too-distant dystopia is effective in its own right in a way that sharply contrasts the delirious colour and spectacle of the Oasis because it feels recognisable. His vision of the Stacks as a high-rise mating of favela and trailer park, the general air of rundown infrastructure and shortage in life made up for by the fantastical plenty in the Oasis, the omnipresent drone surveillance, cunningly tweaks the familiar and pushes it to an extreme. The early surveys of the Stacks see Spielberg’s roving camera peering through windows at the absurdity of people in their various situations, enacting their online fantasies in the physical world, the kind of extended, diorama-like shot Spielberg used a lot in Minority Report and purveys in a similar fashion here with a puckish sense of humans in their various spaces, viewed as slightly absurd phenomena in their little boxes and tailored experiences in a future where nobody can quite escape reality but can’t face it either.

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A scene reminiscent of Wayne’s World (1992) sees Nolan carefully coached by earpiece on his small army of advisors as he tries to win over Wade by posing as a true-blue geek. But IOI’s meanness is not simply virtual: the basis of the company’s business method is buying up people’s virtual debts and forcing them into “loyalty centers,” essentially a form of virtual indenture. Samantha hates IOI for shoving her father into one of these, and follows in his footsteps when she allows herself to be captured by IOI goons to give Wade a chance to get away. She’s chained in a cabinet with a virtual reality helmet locked on her head, forced to toil in the Oasis for the company, in a scene that’s actually rather more effectively nightmarish than many a more overt act of cruelty on screen. Natch, her pals soon get down to trying to rescue her. A great little joke early in the film, the sight of Nolan’s Oasis password written on a post-it note in his fancy VR pod to aid a dodgy memory, proves to be a plot key, as Wade’s sharpness for remembering such detail lets him and his cadre hack Nolan’s feed and fool him long enough to think he’s at their mercy, obliging him to help free Samantha.

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Samantha in turn infiltrates the Sixers’ ranks and starts harming the IOI operation from within. Meanwhile Nolan is trying to ensure none of the Gunters can beat him to solving the last problem to get at the Easter Egg by sealing off the citadel Halliday built on the Oasis realm called Planet Doom with a magical device, set in motion, amusingly and inevitably, with an Elvish phrase out of The Lord of the Rings, and Samantha sets about trying to find the key to lifting the shield whilst Wade-as-Parzifal lays siege to the citadel with an army called forth from the eternal realms of nerddom, leading to the hilarious spectacle of 3 or 4 generations’ worth of beloved trash icons doing battle out in Mordor. Such is the film’s affection for the loves of its characters that even the Sixers and IOI’s small army of geeks are given their own heroic lustre as they dedicate themselves to thrashing out the conundrums and solving the unsolvable gameplay, and watching their joy in seeing Parzifal, just another one of them on the truest level, winning out.

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Perhaps the most charming aspect of Ready Player One is that it taps a vein of romanticism that Spielberg too often keeps under wraps, particularly in the sequence of Parzifal and Art3mis begin to fall in love in a zero-gravity disco where couples spin in weightless joy and the Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance floor can be summoned with a click of the fingers. The lively musical sensibility Spielberg was able to animated in 1941 (1979) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) manages to free itself again, if briefly, here. Sheridan, who first caught eyes as a kid in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and who’s all grown up now, and Cooke, who’s quickly proving herself one of the most engaging talents around after transcending weak vehicles like The Quiet Ones (2014) and The Limehouse Golem (2017), pull off the film’s quietest but most emotionally vital bit as Wade draws aside the hair Samantha uses to hide her birthmark, and pronounces it unimportant. It’s a lovely little moment keen to the ebb and flow of strength in people, as Samantha, who specialises in seeming like a chitinous being chiselled out of raw confidence online submits to her ultimate fear, and Wade, who’s been longing to prove himself as a real person, doesn’t fail her. It charges the rest of the film with freewheeling humanist energy.

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Amongst contemporary filmmakers, few have the gift to make a movie where you go in to see Voltron battling Mothra or something, and have you come out thinking about the first girl you kissed. But Spielberg still has it, and that’s what turns Ready Player One from a potentially tiresome, gimmick or throwaway bit of nonsense into one of the most surprisingly galvanising and entertaining movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Ready Player One builds to a scene where anointed inheritor encounters the digital ghost of his hero, and recognises part of his own responsibility is to evolve past Halliday, to face the real world and the consequences of living in it as well as celebrating the joy of creation, and obliges to make everyone get some sort of a life and start dealing with the problems before them, as well as the pleasures. Here Ready Player One reminded me of another Movie Brat’s more thoroughly anarchic, if less well-orchestrated, poison pen letter to his art, industry, and audience, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1997), where Snake Plissken plunged the world into pre-modern darkness to cleanse its soul and mind. Spielberg is more reasonable. How about two days a week, just for a trial?

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Dunkirk (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.
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Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.
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By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).
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The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’
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Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.
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I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.
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A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.
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Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.
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In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.
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Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.
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Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.
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The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.
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It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.
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Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.

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