‘Ready Player One’ Revels More in the Virtual World Than in Reality

Ready Pkayer One movie poster

Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.

The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.

One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.

“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.

The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.

When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?

Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.

On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.

Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.

But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.

“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.

* * * out of * * * *

 

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‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Caps Off a Perfect Batman Trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises poster

With “The Dark Knight Rises,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan has completed one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. It is a thrilling spectacle with tremendous emotional power, and I came out of it not just fulfilled, but quite shaken. Regardless of whatever plot holes this movie may have, or if it has one too many characters to deal with, it is still as brilliant as its predecessors.

Now I’ll give you more or less a brief outline of “The Dark Knight Rises” without giving away major plot points. I know you all have been seriously pissed about reviewers ruining this movie for you like Homer Simpson ruined “The Empire Strikes Back” for a crowd waiting to see it outside a Springfield movie theater on “The Simpsons,” and I wouldn’t dare to do the same thing here.

Eight years have passed since Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death in order to hide the murders he committed and let him remain a hero in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. Since then, Gotham has entered a time of peace and prosperity, all of which is based on a lie. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a brutal and methodical terrorist who plans to reduce Gotham to ashes slowly but surely. This brings Batman out of hiding, but he also has to deal with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who catches him off guard, a beautiful corporate executive named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and the idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose “hot head” ways make him much smarter than his fellow officers. So that’s it for the movie’s story.

Actually, to go into full detail over the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises” would take forever as it goes in various directions to where seeing it once is not enough to take everything in. Nolan has said part of his inspiration for this film was Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which is known for this famous quote:

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Now while this quote is never spoken in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it never needs to be. Nolan is fascinated with how the lie over Dent’s death has helped Gotham while at the same time turned it into a prison state where freedoms are eroded. It also parallels current events in the real world by taking into account the continuing gap between the rich and the poor and how people will go out of their way to manipulate the collective anger regarding it. This movie is a huge action spectacle, but it has a lot of things to say about the world we live in today which makes it all the more powerful.

Many have been calling this the “darkest” Batman movie of them all, as if the two which came before it were a sunny paradise in the realm of “Batman & Robin” (they most certainly were not). But while “The Dark Knight Rises” is indeed a dark vision of a city under siege, it also has a strong ray of hope emanating from it. Bruce Wayne has always wanted to hold Batman up as a symbol to inspire people, and you revel in seeing the impact he has on the characters around him.

People have also been saying Nolan has put far too many characters into this movie. Newsflash, Nolan has done this with each of his “Batman” movies, but what truly amazes me is how he has gotten away with doing so each time. Every single character in “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Matthew Modine’s bone-headed Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley to Ben Mendelsohn’s greedy businessman John Daggett, informs the movie’s main characters and overall themes throughout. Not a single one of them feels extraneous to the plot as each illustrates examples of justice and personal responsibility, and of how easily misconstrued they can end up being.

Christian Bale completes his tour of duty as Batman with a deeply felt performance. In many ways, “The Dark Knight Rises” is more about the rise of Bruce Wayne than anything else as he is forced to deal with who he is than what his alter ego can do. While Spider-Man and Superman are endowed with super powers, this movie renders him all the more vulnerably human as he starts off walking with a cane and dealing with injuries not easily healed. It’s those human flaws, however, which make Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne all the more powerful and enthralling.

With Bane, Nolan has fashioned a villain far different from Heath Ledger’s Joker which was a smart move. While the Joker was far more desirous of watching the world burn, Bane simply wants it to suffer right down to its dying breath. With Tom Hardy, Nolan has found the perfect actor to portray Bane as he brings to life the character’s twisted code of ethics and his utter brutality which allows him to batter his helpless opponents with sheer efficiency. Thanks to Hardy, Bane proves to be Batman’s most formidable foe yet.

As for Anne Hathaway, she is excellent as the character known as Catwoman but who is never actually called Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Her portrayal of Selina Kyle never invites easy comparison with the actresses who played her in the past as her version exists in the world of realism created by Nolan. Hathaway succeeds in giving this movie the feeling of exuberance and fun it needs from time to time, and she more than holds her own against Bale and Hardy. But then again, this should be no surprise to those who remember her Oscar nominated performance in “Rachel Getting Married.”

And, of course, you have the usual cast of supporting characters played by Sir Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. All of them are fantastic as always, and they give this movie the emotional heft it calls for throughout. We also get a great bunch of franchise newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is sensational as the intelligent John Blake, and Marion Cotillard who radiates both beauty and mystery as Miranda Tate.

Technically, “The Dark Knight Rises” looks flawless with cinematographer Wally Pfister capturing the dark corruption consuming the citizens of Gotham which they are forced and inspired to rise out of. And with Hans Zimmer, minus James Newton Howard this time around, we get another rousing and thrilling music score which keeps our adrenaline pumping along with movie’s thrilling action set pieces.

Yes, the movie has some plot holes which I’m sure you will discover for yourself. None of them, however, were enough to derail my enjoyment of this awesome spectacle Nolan and company have put together. I’m not sure where I would rate this in the series, but while it doesn’t best “The Dark Knight,” it still comes very close to doing so and continues Nolan’s reign one of the best movie directors working today. I don’t think I am overreacting in the least when I declare “The Dark Knight Rises” to be a brilliant motion picture.

Oh yes, some will say that the movie’s final scenes seem to spell out a potential new direction for this franchise to take as if it were a set up for a sequel. I’d like to think it speaks to the influence Batman hoped to have on the citizens of Gotham, to inspire them to do good. Thanks to Nolan, Batman is a hero we can appreciate and applaud.

* * * * out of * * * * 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I went into “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with the hope it would be a true spinoff and not just a “Star Wars” sequel in disguise. This is the first in a series of “Star Wars” anthology movies which are meant to exist outside the main saga we have all grown up on. While “The Force Awakens” was heavy with nostalgia, this can’t be the case with “Rogue One.” Otherwise, what would be the point of making this one other than to make a gazillion dollars and sell a lot of toys?

Well, “Rogue One” proves to be an excellent “Star Wars” movie as it breaks new ground in the infinitely popular franchise. Set before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it follows a band of rebels as they attempt to steal the design plans for the just-completed Death Star, something which might be mistaken for a moon but is actually a space station capable of destroying planets. While we go into this movie knowing they will succeed in getting these plans to the Rebel Alliance, we have yet to see how they will pull this off and how bad the odds are, something our heroes never want to be told about.

The main character of “Rogue One” is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we meet her as a child when she is separated from her mother and father. Her father, research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the main designers of the Death Star, and as we catch up with Jyn years later when this deadly space station has finally reached its final stage of completion. Along with a ragged platoon which includes intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior and die hard believer in the Force Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), warrior and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose sarcasm knows no bounds.

One thing which really struck me about this “Star Wars” spin-off is how many Jedis it has in its character roster, which is just one. Darth Vader shows up for a spell, but he is too enamored with the dark side to help our heroes in any way, shape or form. Essentially, this group of rebels are on their own. The force is strong with them, but they are not as desirable to the Rebel Alliance as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. For the Rebels, they are basically a means to an end.

I liked how “Rogue One” focused on the power struggles which take place within the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Both factions deal with inner turmoil as they do what is necessary to gain the upper hand in a galactic war bound to have many casualties. Even the Rebels come across as dubious as they are willing to sacrifice their own to achieve victory. With the Empire, the power struggle is all the more intense as Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) looks to claim all the credit for the Death Star even as Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, brought back to life through some incredible CGI) is not about to let that happen.

The movie also deals strongly with the themes of sacrifice and courage as our main characters fight for a cause so much bigger than themselves. Seeing them do what is necessary to achieve peace in the galaxy actually hit me harder on an emotional level than I expected, and it made “Rogue One” all the more exciting and invigorating to sit through. Granted, seeing what happens to these characters might make it seem like an emotional endurance test for the youngest audience members, but many “Star Wars” fans will be quick to appreciate what Jyn Erso and company are willing to do for the sake of so many others.

Directing “Rogue One” is Gareth Edwards who previously gave us “Godzilla,” the good one, a few years back. His direction of this spin-off feels very confident as he gives fans a good dose of what they expect from a “Star Wars” movie, but he also gives it a gritty feel none of the other episodes had. There are many sweeping shots of grandeur throughout “Rogue One,” thanks to Director of Photography Greig Fraser, as we go from one planet to the next, but this feels a lot more down and dirty as these characters do not live in a world of glamour and never will.

It’s also refreshing to see a “Star Wars” movie with a female lead as comic book movies have yet to offer the same thing. Felicity Jones, so good in “The Theory of Everything,” turns in a strong performance as Jyn Erso, and she makes the character a formidable warrior even as she sneaks around dozens of stormtroopers who would be quick to take her down if they ever discover her true identity. There are also some nice supporting turns by Diego Luna whose Cassian Andor finds his conscience getting in the way of his orders, Mads Mikkelsen who plays a scientist caught between duty and family, Ben Mendelsohn whose villainous character is ever so ruthless and eager to climb up the Empire food chain of power, and Donnie Yen is especially good as a blind warrior whose faith in the force is never misplaced.

It’s also great to see Forest Whitaker on board here as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran who raised Jyn from a girl into a fighter. I do have to say, however, that watching him breathe through his oxygen mask quickly reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s character from “Blue Velvet.” I don’t know if it was the intention of the director or screenwriters to draw inspiration from Frank Booth, but it definitely crossed my mind every time I saw Whitaker onscreen.

“Rogue One” also contains some eerily effective CGI which allowed the filmmakers to bring actors like Peter Cushing back to life in a way which feels all too real. Cushing has been dead for two decades, but here he looks like he just rose from the grave. On top of Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” which also contained a number of photorealistic characters, it makes me worry how soon actors could be replaced with CGI creations. Here’s hoping it’s not for a very, very, very long time.

“Rogue One” is by no means perfect as the movie rushes us from one planet to the next to where we have a hard time keeping up with all the places we have been to, but I admired what the filmmakers were able to accomplish. They have succeeded in giving us a fresh take on a franchise which has lived on from one decade to the next, and it bodes well for future installments like “Episode VIII” and the Han Solo movie as well. I very much enjoyed it, and I have no doubt the fans will as well as there are many easter eggs to discover. Plus, with us all living in such a volatile political climate which begs for a rebellion of some sort, this movie could not have come out at a better time. Timing is everything, and the time to rebel against our oppressors is at hand.

“Rogue One” definitely ensures that the “Star Wars” franchise will live long and prosper. Yes, that’s a saying from “Star Trek,” but it feels very appropriate to use here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Black Sea

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When it comes to submarine movies, I feel the genre peaked early on with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” which proved to be as claustrophobic as movies get. Others have come close to equaling its visceral power, but there’s no topping it. I went into “Black Sea” knowing this would be the case, and that helped a lot because this movie proved to be a lot more intense and nail-biting than I expected it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a gritty thriller which doesn’t let up.

Jude Law stars as submarine Captain Robinson who, as the movie starts, has been laid off from his salvage job which leaves him with few prospects for future employment. It turns out he’s not the only one as his friends and colleagues have been kicked out of their jobs as well, and it serves as an annoying reminder of how companies spend more time firing employees than they do hiring them.

But Robinson soon gets offered a job by a shadowy backer who tells him about a World War II submarine that has sunk to the bottom of the sea and which contains an enormous wealth of gold. Seeing how it offers him and his colleagues more than enough to quit any day job they can hope to get, he commandeers an old and fairly decrepit submarine from the Cold War days to get at the gold hidden miles below the surface. But in addition to avoiding detection from the Soviets as he travels below their radar, he has to contend with the fragile relations between the crew members as they come from different places and don’t have enough trust in each other to make this mission run smoothly.

What makes “Black Sea” an especially effective thriller is that the depths of the ocean prove to be every bit as threatening as the twisted psychology of the submarine’s passengers. Everyone on board has their own selfish motives, and those motives have to contend with the dangers they have to endure on a ship way past its prime. It doesn’t take long before you start to wonder what’s going to kill these men first; the crushing depths or their own paranoia.

“Black Sea” was directed by Kevin Macdonald, a filmmaker who has gone from making documentaries like “Touching the Void” and “Marley” to unforgettable dramas like “The Last King of Scotland” and 2013’s underrated “How I Live Now.” He doesn’t have much to work with in terms of originality, but he makes effective use of the claustrophobic setting to where our nerves are effectively fried throughout. Macdonald also gives equal attention to the human element as the characters drive the action more than you might think. Even though some of the characters’ decisions become rather silly towards the end, he makes you empathize with them to a certain extent. These days, who can’t relate to being laid off or jumping at the opportunity to make a fortune? People will do anything to survive these days.

It’s interesting to see Jude Law in a role like this where he portrays a hard scrabble worker who looks like he needs a good long shower on a regular basis. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him as this handsome man onscreen to where it threatened to make me forget what a great actor he is. While his Scottish brogue gets a little too thick at times, he fully inhabits his role of a man who is more in love with the sea than he is with his own family. Law is also surrounded by a terrific cast which includes Ben Mendelsohn (terrific in the criminally overlooked “Starred Up”), Scoot McNairy, David Threlfall and Konstantin Khabensky who each imbue their roles with a lot of grit and desperation. It helps to have actors this good in a movie which on the surface might seem run of the mill.

At this point, I don’t think it’s even possible to reinvent the submarine movie genre. Where else can you go with it after movies like “Das Boot,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Beneath” to name a few? All you can hope for is that it can be done well and keep you on the edge of your seat, and “Black Sea” manages to do that more than you might expect. Sometimes that’s all you need a movie to do.

* * * out of * * * *