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, Scifi

Jurassic World (2015)

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Director: Colin Trevorrow

By Roderick Heath

I was just a little too old when the original Jurassic Park came out. My youthful obsession with dinosaurs had faded, and if it had been made a few years earlier when my fragile young mind was cramming itself with The Land That Time Forgot (1974) or Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) then I surely would have watched it until it became coded in my DNA. My just-teenaged, would-be sophisticate self watched it and felt that Steven Spielberg’s school of cinematic wonderment was running on fumes: his shift back to serious historical dramas seemed nascent in a film whose staging and shooting is often half-hearted from the man who made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It did have a handful of admittedly classic Spielbergian moments, like the first glimpse of the revived dinosaurs, and the terrific set-piece that is the Tyrannosaur’s first break-out. My opinion was rather irrelevant in the face of those kids who were precisely the right age for it, and the parents who went along with the ride, making it the biggest-grossing film ever for a time, and unlike too many of the FX-driven blockbusters that followed it, most of them have retained a deep affection for it. I preferred Spielberg’s follow-up, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), an extended doodle from the great filmmaker that embraced the horror movie-like possibilities of the material to a surprisingly impish degree, whilst also invoking its own absurdity. Nonetheless I’ve come to like the series overall a lot more in recent years, and even Joe Johnston’s undercooked third instalment from 2000 has moments of pleasure. Spielberg’s commentary on his own unease as a successful showman, for one thing, emerges much more strongly in the original today. And of course, there was so much Jeff Goldblum: his two turns as wiseacre mathematician Ian Malcolm embodied that rarest of creatures, the intellectual action hero, a walking insta-commentary on the drama unfolding about him, and something like the arrival of geek culture in mainstream cinema.
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Moreover, the essence of Jurassic Park as an idea spoke readily and clearly to anyone who’s ever dreamed of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh and indeed to anyone who’s ever pined for reality to be even stranger than it is. Whilst I think it’s still far from Spielberg’s best variation on the theme, Michael Crichton’s novel provided him with perhaps the purest metaphor for such yearning he was ever likely to find. Crichton’s novel was actually something of a rehash for that successful literary entrepreneur, having used basically the same idea in his semi-classic 1974 film Westworld, where, as with his later, even more successful brainchild, he combined the theme of fantasies unleashed by hubris with an old-fashioned but newly relevant cautionary paradigm about the dangers of playing about with the building blocks of life. Jurassic World bears a heavy weight of expectation in reviving this peculiar, beloved fantastic zone and the fascinatingly diverse reactions to it have struck me as so erratic and vehement that it makes me wonder whether or not this seemingly uncomplicated material has a deeper relationship with what we bring to it than I suspected. Part of the power of the material lies in the way it found a way to manifest something wonderful and dreadfully primal in an otherwise very ordinary contemporary world. There are no superheroes, no complex world-building, and the material’s rules must hew reasonably close to those of the everyday. The genre patterns evoke classic safari flicks like Hatari! (1963) more than Godzilla (1954). This is also a franchise built, like it or not, around the threat of people being eaten by vicious animals, and occasionally the fulfilment of that threat.
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Director Colin Trevorrow made the minor but witty and enjoyable indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and found himself chosen for his blend of droll humanism with a sense of ardent fantasticality, to step into Spielberg’s shoes. That must have been a daunting moment. He’s not even the first. Johnston, who had once been a crew member on Raiders, made a career as the second-string Spielberg, but his entry was tellingly basic by comparison in constructing suspense sequences and glib, thin storyline and characters, thrusting this material back to its ‘50s B-movie roots. And big Hollywood cinema is currently crowded with directors nominating themselves as Spielberg’s natural heir apparent, including recent stabs by Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and more. What does this little upstart have they haven’t? Jurassic World doesn’t exactly retcon the second two films out of existence – they took place on the “B site” island of Isla Sorna anyway, rather the original park location Isla Nublar – but it does ignore them, and only fleetingly references events in the original. Those events are essentially regarded as teething difficulties in getting John Hammond’s dream up and running, even part of its special mythos (the Tyrannosaur exhibit even references it as part of the show) rebranded as, yes Jurassic World. There have been upgrades aplenty, such as they are: where Richard Kiley narrated exhibits before, now it’s Jimmy Fallon. Live animal feedings to the Tyrannosaurus have become the subject of frenzied iPhone filmings. Bored, spotty youths listlessly man the park rides. Hammond’s death in the interim has seen ownership of the park pass on to another dreamer-entrepreneur, Simon Misrani (Irrfan Khan), an Indian Richard Branson-esque billionaire.
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Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the park day-to-day and digs up sponsors for the park’s new exhibits, which have to be unveiled every few years because of an unexpected problem with the park’s basic purview: dinosaurs have gone from staggering must-see to a still-privileged but familiar attraction, so they need to up the wow factor at regular intervals. The joke here isn’t belaboured, but still clear enough. The original Jurassic Park, amongst other things, was the starting gun for the CGI age, and the necessity of outdoing the last spectacle is a commonplace expectation of current tent-pole films. The park’s solution to this problem has been to get the wizards in the lab, led by Dr Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member of the original), to concoct a new dinosaur species. The resulting cross-breed is a big, mean, dextrous creature glimpsed hiding in the leafy foliage of its concrete bunker, given the focus group-friendly name Indominus Rex. Claire’s business-focused life faces a speed bump, as her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) are visiting the park, with Claire charged to watch over them for a few days, by her sister Karen (Judy Greer) and her husband Scott (Andy Buckley). Gray is young and dinosaur-happy, whilst Zach is older and too preoccupied with girls to care much about anything else. Claire is too busy to spend time with the lads anyway, and gets her assistant, the glam but hapless Zara (former Merlin Morgana Katie McGrath), to shepherd them about the park instead. The boys quickly give her the slip and explore the park on their own. Meanwhile, in the pens of the Velociraptors, former Navy SEAL turned animal trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his team including Barry (Omar Sy) have been carefully raising and educating these ingenious, ruthless killers to see if they can be tamed at all.
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Both this operation and the creation of the Indominus Rex prove however to have been okayed by Hammond’s genetic engineering firm InGen, which only leases the products of its labours to Masrani’s operation: InGen operative Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), another former soldier, sniffs around Owen’s operation with interest, quickly making it clear he’s hoping to used tamed raptors for military purposes. Soon it emerges too that Indominus Rex, in spite of Wu’s insistence that it was created purely to satisfy Masrani’s showmanship needs, might also have been concocted with the same purpose in mind. But the animals have their own ideas. Called over to assess the Indominus Rex’s pen, Owen finds the creature has vanished, claw marks on the walls suggesting it might well have climbed out when no-one was looking. When Owen and other keepers venture into the pen, they realise something even worse is happening: the creature is hiding, having created a strategy to escape and lured them in. With a quick, terrifying charge, the monster squeezes through the closing gate, devours a couple of keepers, and Owen only avoids the same fate by dousing himself in petrol, hiding from the creature’s sense of smell. With Indominus out stalking the byways of the park, Claire and Misrani are forced to call in the crowds and send out the park security team to hunt the beast down. Soon however they find they’re up against a creature that’s more than a toothy critter, but an unholy chimera capable of far more than just stomping on folks, blessed with ruthless intelligence and chameleonic abilities. Meanwhile Zach, in a moment of teen bravado, decides to take himself and Gray in their bubble-like safari vehicle out through a hole mysteriously punched in a perimeter fence…
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Jurassic World extends a ‘90s franchise, and repeatedly evokes the originals although it sidesteps much of their legacy. But it represents more of a mash-up of classic ‘80s Hollywood sci-fi and action flicks of which Jurassic Park was really a late entry, in a way that many of the creators of those films, including Spielberg himself, John Carpenter, James Cameron et al, would readily recognise. Much of their genre filmmaking was just as referential of favoured models as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever made, but opposing the post-modernist reflexes where the quotations are demarcated, but are instead carefully contoured in narratives. InGen has become a Weyland-Yutani-esque company, and some of the action scenes directly evoke Aliens (1986). Owen’s characterisation, as a scruff who may well prefer animals to people after being left more than a little alienated by his combat service, evokes many a cool rough-trade loner from the time (down to living in a trailer and working on his motorcycle), and even recalled to my mind John Heard’s character in Paul Schrader’s oddball remake of Cat People (1982). There’s even a dash of Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) in there, as the apparently random eruption of monstrosity proves to be engineered, with some of that film’s giddy, antisocial pulp energy, if not its outrageous gore. Trevorrow tips his hat jokily to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), as a dead Great White is fed to the monstrous marine Mosasaurus that is one of the park’s main attractions. But perhaps Jurassic World owes most to Jaws 3-D (1983), the amusingly trashy sequel that was itself heavily reminiscent of authentic ‘50s B-movie Revenge of the Creature (1955) in exploiting the notion of captive monsters unleashed in fun parks. Jaws 3-D, which was directed by Joe Alves, production manager on the first two Jaws films, took the idea of carnival barking as a base aesthetic for the film. Trevorrow does a similar thing in the early scenes of Jurassic World, entering and beholding the park with the same breathless sense of discovery as Gray and Zach, surveying its expanses in swooping, shiny helicopter shots, filming kids and adults enjoying the attractions in a manner that does a far better job than Bird’s Tomorrowland managed at recreating the tony vibe of a great ad selling childhood fantasy in one grand package.
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Jurassic World also highlights the original story’s recycling of Westworld by going the whole hog and giving us the fully working theme park that never got off the ground in the original. This demands some tweaks to the timeline, including that Hammond had decided by the end of the first film not to try any longer. Perhaps the almighty dollar demanded a change of mind. Masrani, like Hammond himself, is portrayed as a generally decent guy with blind spots, rather than a blunt corporate villain. He is prone to the over-confidence of success: he’s introduced learning to fly his own helicopter, a detail that’s both an important plot point and a commentary on his character, with his inability to completely master both the complex systems of genomes and flight, jobs that can’t be multitasked or mastered with people skills, ultimately conspiring to destroy him. Claire combines a couple of well-worn character traits from some of Spielberg’s films: like Peter in Hook (1991) she’s a workaholic, and like Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park, she’s a dedicated professional awkward around kids, who bring the threat not of domesticity but of instability. For Spielberg those themes were rather more personal than they seemed at first, conveying his concern that his own love for filmmaking, not just directing but managing a whole, important infrastructure of production, might cause him to neglect his burgeoning family. For Trevorrow these are mere pop tropes to evoke. This is most awkward when Gray’s anxiety of their parents’ impending divorce is suddenly brought up, as he alerts Zach about what’s going on, only to then drop the theme: the theme of familial anxiety, so central to Spielberg and one of the rawest nerves he always touched in his heyday, is raised but only half-heartedly pursued. Trevorrow does work in one good touch: when informed that his folks might be divorcing, Zach pouts and worries for a moment, and then says most of his friend’s parents are split too, and you can see by his look the battle between nascent adult bravado and childish fear.
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Mid-film the boys discover the ruins, lost in the jungle and half-buried, of the original Jurassic Park’s central post, littered with lost memorabilia and technology, down to the famous “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner that set the seal on the original experience, quickly repurposed as fuel for a burning torch. Trevorrow here literalises the sensation so many reboot franchise episodes have of being built on the ruins of previous successes, replete with references left lying about like so much refuse, and give a metaphor for his own film that doubles as neat character business, as the two boys hurriedly patch together a working jeep and use it dash away to safety. Trevorrow’s scant filmography might well render moot what his own interests here are other than honouring old movies he loves, but there is a clear recurring motif from Safety Not Guaranteed, manifest in the screwball-flavoured romance of uptight office female and slightly asocial male, a jokey variation on the call-of-the-wild theme that the rest of the film purveys rather more urgently: Safety Not Guaranteed was far more free-wheeling riff on romantic comedies as it was on sci-fi, and whilst no-one would pretend Jurassic World is sophisticated as a character comedy, this reflex of the director is more than readily apparent throughout. Owen is as wobbly at human socialisation as he is accomplished at it with raptors, but then so is Claire, who wears her business suit like armour plate; so of course both are thrown in together in trying to extract Zach and Gray from the park, heading into a version of The African Queen (1951) with giant lizards. Claire, although sharing traits with Grant from the original, is closer in spirit to a gender-swap version of Gennaro, the lawyer who was unceremoniously eaten in Spielberg’s film but in Crichton’s book went through an enjoyable mouse-to-lion growth from corporate dweeb to dinosaur hunter. Probably the film’s funniest vignette comes when Claire, in silent retort to Owen’s scepticism over her being able to follow him on a jungle hunt in high heels, quickly gives herself an action chick makeover in the manner of dozens of plucky heroines only to be met by Owen’s bewildered stare.
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Howard hasn’t thus far had the career she might have, considering both her pedigree and her talent: after catching eyes as the chief salvation of The Village (2004), her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen but marvellous As You Like It (2006) was a coup of the kind I don’t easily forget. She’s been hovering on the edge of stardom since, and she gives a mischievous performance as a square character: Howard’s Claire, slightly ridiculous, largely delicious, is very much the heart of the film, a not-quite-normal person forced to operate far beyond her experience and finds herself adept. Backwards and in heels, too. Pratt’s outright play for the kind of Harrison Ford–esque status many feel he could obtain after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) comes very close to succeeding, although Owen lacks the kind of truly defining gesture to separate him from the pack, unless it’s his unexpected empathy for animals – or the douchey air-humping gesture he makes to Claire’s eye-rolling disdain, a moment that again recalls Trevorrow’s debut, showing there’s a bit of a naughty little boy in Owen. Which is perhaps why Zach and Gray, also naughty little boys, gravitate to him so quickly. Pratt’s large, emotionally communicative eyes undercut the potential macho pomposity in the role. When the first Jurassic Park came out much of this business about genetic science was just gaining credibility: now when D’Onofrio’s Hoskins speaks of the dinosaurs as specific property of InGen it’s clear the filmmakers are thinking about the efforts of corporations to patent their discoveries in genetics, with the implied riposte that no living system obeys legalese. Malcolm’s chaos theorising in the original made a similar point, but here it’s Owen who voices the same ideas in a more flesh-and-blood manner as he contemplates such questions in terms of animal behaviour patterns, warning that Indominus might lack socialisation to a point that will make it intolerantly violent (it ate the sibling the genetic engineers provided with, a dark rhyme to the alternate theme of the Mitchell brothers’ mutual reliance). The film’s emotional crux follows hard upon as the duo come upon a brachiosaur mauled by Indominus, a moment that echoes the scene with the Triceratops in the original except this time with the immediacy of an animal’s pain and death making it clear that the dinosaurs are indeed animals and not mere exhibits, in the gentlest variation on the elsewhere more urgently portrayed alternations of understanding and inimical attitude between life-forms.
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The ins and outs of this plot, as Hopkins asserts authority over situation to further his own ends, including spiriting Wu away, are occasionally clunky (and obviously intended to set up further franchise expansion, in a not-so-salutary way), but then that’s true of most of the films Jurassic World sets out to honour. Hopkins’ crew of bullying heavies moves in to take over the park’s control room to ply their solution to the problem, but when it fails they pack up and depart again with equally efficient save-ass speed, leaving Claire’s chief tech nerds Lowery (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus) to pick up the pieces. The story hinges on the question as to whether Owen can maintain the kind of control over the raptors Hopkins expects he can, and emotionally blackmails him into trying his plan of setting the raptors on Indominus. Except that the big bad proves to have raptor in her make-up, and swiftly turns the creatures on their masters in the dark forest for a frenzied repast. To be frank, I enjoyed this infinitely more than the year’s far more critically lauded retro-rocker, Mad Max: Fury Road, which struck me as two hours of fan service in exactly the wrong way, a reductio ad absurdum of action cinema to just running and shooting, for all the technical swagger. Jurassic World doesn’t skimp on fan service either, but its set pieces and cheer-along touches, like Owen riding off to battle on motorcycle with his gang of raptors, and the finale’s all-in monster brawl, have clear narrative purpose and spin off from the story with the sort of rolling semi-logic that Spielberg always made the guiding principle of his films, rather than simply and cynically reducing story to pretext. In fact, I enjoyed this more than any summer blockbuster-season film since Pacific Rim (2013). Perhaps that exposes my still-guttering love for behemoths smashing things up, but both films share a crucial feeling, as if they are the products of filmmakers trying to articulate real affection for the material.
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Trevorrow has actually done what those other, more famous pretenders to the Amblin throne have failed to do, and recreate the tone, seemingly naïve and properly breathless, of the old-school blockbuster. His direction has pop energy that doesn’t strain to modish (little wobble-cam or incoherent editing). The film has characters, or at least caricatures who vibrate effectively in this setting. It has a structure, a set-up, complication, and a proper climax. It doesn’t trip over itself trying to be cleverer than the audience, try to paste over a lack of inspiration with glib humour like Pratt’s last hit vehicle Guardians of the Galaxy, or get bogged down with pseudo-intellectualisms (see the works of Nolan, Christopher). It is old-fashioned, generally in the best way. Trevorrow gives the film an edge that wasn’t uncommon in the kinds of ‘80s fare he’s honouring, as pterosaurs attack hapless funfair visitors in a sequence recalling The Birds (1963). Poor Zara finishes up becoming object of a tug-of-war between Pteranodon and Mosasaurus in a surprisingly intense moment of life-and-death struggle that ends grimly. This isn’t quite a horror moment in an otherwise juvenile-friendly epic – the only real bloodshed seen in the film comes when a more expected victim falls under the raptors – but it does signal a return of the edge this sort of fare used to have, to the sort of flourish Spielberg once served up easily in his early Indiana Jones films: the fantasy has a dark side, and the dark side has teeth. Although the mayhem here is more expansive than in Spielberg’s entries, moreover, Trevorrow is much fonder of his main characters and serves fewer of them up for lunch, even going so far as to actually, self-consciously avoid that most sadly common trope of this sort of thing, killing off the major black character.
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Trevorrow tweaks this all-hell-breaking-lose aspect until it starts to recall The Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchyland”, that show’s scabrous lampoon-cum-celebration of Crichton’s tales. Of course, this never really becomes satiric, but offers rather a light sheen of sarcasm that reflects a readiness nonetheless to contemplate the “rollercoaster” ideal that initially defined the modern blockbuster as an actual theme park attraction, plied smartly but not smart-assed. More vitally, too, Trevorrow and fellow screenwriters ply a concept of its monsters as nobly self-sufficient, even heroic in their utterly natural way, in a manner that does not necessarily respect humankind. Although Owen’s bond with the raptors does ultimately snap back into effect, it becomes clear that even those fleet killing machines can’t handle Indominus alone, forcing Claire to go fetch a bigger set of teeth for a finale that’s gleeful in satisfying the audience with a grand display of dinosaur tag-team wrestling, the lawless ferocity of these creatures turned to good use. Jurassic World is definitely not perfect. Although I appreciate that the film has a first act, that act is not always that elegant in unspooling, and Hopkins’ subplot is just never that well-handled, even his regulation icky end. But goddamn it, I liked this film, down to its last line, a capper that could indeed have come of the kinds of Hawksian comedy-adventures that lies deep in this film’s DNA strand. Jurassic World has been an instantaneous, enormous hit, and for once that’s fairly deserved in my mind.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Famous Firsts

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The 26-year-old wunderkind who had wowed with Duel (1971), a TV movie that received limited theatrical release in Europe, received his first shot at feature directing under the aegis of Richard F. Zanuck and David Brown. The Sugarland Express underperformed badly at the box office (the bad news came in on the first day of shooting Jaws, 1975), and Sugarland is still treated as a footnote in the director’s expansive oeuvre. But The Sugarland Express, loosely based on a real incident from 1969 and written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a story they wrote with Spielberg, demands more than a casual glance. From any other director it would be a notable film, which might explain why Zanuck and Brown let him helm their next tricky production, Jaws, the film that gave birth to Spielberg the phenomenon.

Whilst Jaws represents the new model Hollywood, Sugarland is a film from an era that was ending—an era of open-road movies with a cynical, anti-establishment bent, rooted in folksy Americana, as disparate and yet of a common generation as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Bad Company (1972), Badlands (1973), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). It’s this aspect that makes Sugarland most interesting in terms of the Famous Firsts program. What tendencies does it reveal that marks it, and the director’s later career, as so divergent, from, say, Terence Malick’s, despite the similar subject matter of their early works?

The differences are not hard to discern. Whilst it begins with a similar mood of a blasted, lonely, inhospitable land, Sugarland doesn’t develop the veneer of alienation and poeticism of Rafelson and Malick, or geared-up pulp fury. Sugarland is shot with clear, unaffected rigor, the artless artfulness of great American directors like Hawks, Ford, and Preston Sturges. The film tells a warmhearted tale that counteracts the mood of Easy Rider without actually contradicting its message. Spielberg is friendly towards his protagonists whilst admitting that it’s their own refusal to look facts in the face that leads to their downfall. Whilst the heroes of the other films are cursed by a desire, or by fate, to stand out and alone, Spielberg’s dopey heroes, Clovis (William Atherton) and Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), are asserting their right to be normal, to be a family. As is so often the case with Spielberg, a family spontaneously forms in response to adversity and includes their hapless hostage, state trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and even a stern patriarch, Police Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner’s efforts to prevent the situation from ending bloodily resemble a wise grandfather attempting to corral the high spirits of silly grandchildren.

The story kicks off with Lou Jean’s visit to Clovis, waiting out the last few months of his one-year sentence for shoplifting at a pre-release center in Texas. Lou Jean was sent down for the same offence, released earlier, and is now faced with the permanent loss of their son to the Loobys (Merrill Connally and Louise Latham), adoptive parents who live in Sugarland County, on the far side of the state. Lou Jean threatens to leave Clovis unless she agrees to bust out with her—it only requires her to change clothes and walk out the gate—and go to take back their baby. That’s the limit of her thinking. Lou Jean is entirely a creature of instinct. Her primeval desire to regain her son outweighs everything else. Clovis is her adoring, good-natured patsy. They catch a ride away from the center with the elderly, ornery parents of another inmate. A series of mishaps results in them taking Slide captive and fleeing in his patrol car, the object of a crisis that has every cop, patrolman, trooper, marshal, ranger, reservist, and dog catcher in Texas on their tail.

An aspect of Spielberg’s early work that comes into sharper focus—taking into account Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979)—is their vision of America not as a capricious, clapped-out country wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, but as a sassy, energetic, ebullient place, dogged by corruption and iniquity, but still full of raucous, everyday life. The American-life-as-carnival vision underlies the comedic moments of all those films, and it’s quite often more than a little dangerously anarchic, for example, the beach crowds and the gun-happy bumpkins of Jaws who treat a killer shark hunt as the world’s greatest kegger, or the civil defense volunteers in 1941 who shoot up downtown L.A. when they think the city is under attack.

Clovis and Lou Jean’s odyssey draws out crowds of gawkers and supporters who cheer them on with democratic aplomb. Twits who want to get in on the action make it a bigger sideshow, like the Louisiana cops who attempt to ram the hostage car and instead collect half the vehicles in the trailing fleet, thereby allowing Clovis, Lou Jean, and Slide to escape. They’re found hiding in a used car lot by a pair of retired reservists who proceed to shoot up the place, less a proper gunfight than a thigh-slapping good time for the good ole boys.

Spielberg employs an attuned eye and ear in The Sugarland Express to provide a texture that would give Jaws and Close Encounters much of their effectiveness—the rich sense of a languidly fecund, everyday world, full of ice-cream-cramming kids, cussing old folks, tinny transistor radios perpetually ringing out bubblegum pop, and people who’d drive a hundred miles for a cheap thrill. Spielberg’s early style is sleek and naturalistic. If, in the late ’80s, his style became excessively glossy and arthritic by leaving behind his essentially new wave roots, it was still a vital component of his style in the ’70s. Spielberg’s heroes, male and female, young and old, are usually in search of a grail of some variety, arming themselves with varying levels of self-delusion to protect against the cruelest facts of life. They take journeys that have no guaranteed end quite simply because they can’t afford to stay still.

The quest is vital, even if the ultimate goal often is a delirious enigma. The prototypical Spielberg everyman, Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel, is driving theoretically to reach a business meeting, but he’s really in search of his lost masculine sense of propulsion that will enable him to return to the family that has no use for him. Lou Jean and Clovis certainly fit this mould. Neither thinks much further than the next move, and whilst both prove canny—Clovis especially, as he dismantles every move the cops throw at him—they’re clueless when it comes to the world at large. Adult and child behavior rarely have a neat dividing line in Spielberg’s films, especially in the infantile nature of American pop culture.

The grind of gears when clashing perspectives meet is realized in the film’s strongest scene: as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon on a drive-in movie screen, Clovis registers the ridiculous violence that befalls Wile E. Coyote as prescient of their own approaching disaster. Another consistent Spielberg theme taking root is his version of the ghost in the machine, the process that, once begun, cannot be stopped, even by those who propagate it. Even the Indiana Jones films are, in their absurd way, illustrations of snowballing cause and effect. Be it a monstrous shark, dinosaur, Nazi tank, or alien killing machine, force always consumes itself through its own momentum. Usually this process aids his heroes, but in Sugarland (and this is probably why the film flopped), the Poplins set fate in motion themselves and leave it for others to try to stop. Tanner gives them every opportunity to escape this fate, but they continue to drive toward it, held together by their aim as much as society is held together by the laws that must stop them.

As in Catch Me If You Can (2003) and The Terminal (2004), where Spielberg returned to this sort of material, the clash between individualism and authoritarianism is essentially a friction of temperaments. It’s not, ultimately, an innocent joyride. Clovis and Lou Jean put lives in danger, and Clovis, despite knowing better, is more frightened of crushing Lou Jean’s hopes than of police bullets. They find something harsh beneath the surface of their nation. A group of FBI marksmen offer their services to Captain Tanner, which at first he spurns, but eventually accepts, placing them in the Loobys’ house. Mr. Looby hands over his own rifle, requesting that they “shoot the sonofabitch” with it. When Clovis and Lou Jean finally arrive at the house, Slide spots the trap and urgently pleads with Clovis to hand over the gun and end it now.

The last 20 minutes are a model of slow-burn tension sustained under a frosting of frivolity, until the frantic explosion of the characters—Slide’s appeals to Clovis; Lou Jean wailing first in betrayed rage at Clovis who hesitates, and then, realizing the danger at last, calling for his return. Clovis gets a bullet in the gut for his pains, but he manages to drive the car through the border checkpoint and crash in the mud of the Rio Grande before expiring. Lou Jean is left a shell-shocked wreck, and Slide and Tanner stand on the riverbank shaking their heads in sorry bewilderment.

Sugarland is a fine film, succeeding in balancing whimsy, drama, and sentiment, beguiling before reaching its forlorn ending. It certainly deserves a much larger reputation than it still has, often only vaguely recalled as a warm-up act for Spielberg’s blockbuster emergence, when it is in fact an artful sketch introducing his most obsessive themes. The final title card tells us that after her imprisonment, Lou Jean does recover her son, a sign that the desperate display that has underpinned these whimsical and tragic events has proven something. As he often would later in his films, Spielberg emphasizes a singular human ability to survive.

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