‘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.

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‘Dunkirk’ is Yet Another Brilliant Masterpiece from Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk movie poster

Dunkirk” is the first Christopher Nolan film since “Insomnia” where you see the movie’s title on the screen at the beginning instead of at the end. This surprised me as Nolan always seems determined to suck you right into the movie instead of having you think about its title until the screen fades to black. When it comes to “Dunkirk,” however, I imagine he wanted audiences to have this title firmly implanted in their brains as this particular World War II story is one of character and bravery in the face of such agonizing defeat.

The title refers to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France where thousands of allied soldiers were trapped like sitting ducks as the German army closed in on them during the Battle of France. Now World War II has been a historical event which filmmakers have visited as often as they have the Vietnam War, but “Dunkirk” has a different angle than other films of its genre. There are no American troops to be found here, we never see Germans but feel them closing in on the allies throughout, and the allies are at a complete loss in terms of being able to fight back. What happened at Dunkirk was not at all about victory, but about survival, and sometimes surviving a war is all a solider needs to do.

Nolan, who also wrote “Dunkirk’s” screenplay, tells the movie from three different perspectives: the land, the sea, and the air. On land, we meet British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely escapes a German ambush and arrives at the beach of Dunkirk where he befriends Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier with whom he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk with on any boat that will take them. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails his boat out to Dunkirk in an effort to bring stranded soldiers back home, and he is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) who is curious to see the war up close. And in the air, Royal Air Force Pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and two other Spitfire pilots battle enemy fighters in the sky who are determined to destroy any boat going away from Dunkirk. Everyone is busy as can be as they fight to keep their fellow allies out of harm’s way, and this is even though the situation is growing increasingly dire.

What’s fascinating is how Nolan ends up using very little dialogue throughout a good portion of the film. These characters are too shell-shocked to speak in full sentences after all they have been through, and Tommy and Gibson end up connecting in a way not only wordless but also totally believable. As “Dunkirk” goes on, more dialogue is featured, but Nolan has already managed to set up the atmosphere to where no one needs to say much because their faces and eyes say so much more than words ever could.

Watching all the soldiers on the beach, waiting for a boat, any boat, to take them, I was reminded of Tom Sizemore’s dialogue from “Saving Private Ryan” when he said, “I want plenty of feet between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity. One man is a waste of ammo.” These soldiers are stuck together in bunches, desperate to escape Dunkirk at the earliest opportunity. I felt horrible for them as they all just sitting ducks for German bombers who can pick them off ever so easily. All these soldiers can do, other than shoot back, is to play dead in the sand, but even this may not be enough to save them.

Much of the movie is focused on the endless ordeals of Tommy, Gibson, and another young soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) as they get on different boats to escape from Dunkirk. However, their successes are often thwarted by attacks which sink the ships they are on, and they soon find themselves in even worse situations. Like Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” these characters are caught up in unthinkable circumstances and are just trying to survive by any means. Many will consider them cowards for trying to flee, but considering the dire situation they are trapped in, it’s hard to hold much of a grudge against them.

With Mr. Dawson and his two young companions sailing out to sea, we see the need these men have to help those in harm’s way. While Dawson is supposed to give his ship over to ship over to the Navy as they are commandeering private boats to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, he simply sails off as he feels it is his duty to rescue as many soldiers as he can since it was his generation who decided to send young men out into the battlefield. As for the two boys, both want to do something noteworthy in this war instead of just staying on the sidelines. In wartime, it doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or not because everyone is involved in one way or another.

For me, the moments in the air were among the most fascinating, and not just because of Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. Once those pilots and their planes came up on the screen, I figured it would all play into the clichés of war movies or be something like “Top Gun” with characters infinitely eager to be seen as heroes and taking giddy pleasure in shooting the enemy down. But this is not the case in “Dunkirk” as these pilots are simply men doing their job without any fanfare, and they are well aware of the risks and of what could happen if the enemy wins. Farrier, in particular, has even a bigger risk to consider as his fuel gauge is cracked to where he can’t tell how much fuel he has left. He should turn back, but with the allies having little to defend themselves with, his concern for their well-being overrules any thoughts he has for his own safety.

With these three divergent plot points, Nolan has the Dunkirk evacuation surrounded brilliantly. This is not a story about victory in the slightest, but instead one of character and of what people will do in a most precarious situation. Some stand around as others suffer helplessly because they can’t save them, others are desperate to escape by any means as the miracle they pray for doesn’t look to be delivered to them any time soon, and there are those who sail out to the most dangerous place not because they want to, but because they have to. Like I said, “Dunkirk” is a movie about the character of a person and how that character is tested in wartime.

Nolan also ratchets up the intensity throughout as the situation these characters are in becomes increasingly dire as the Germans close in on them. This is especially the case when Tommy, Alex and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers who have discovered an abandoned boat in the intertidal zone which they plan to use for their escape when the tide rises. The Germans, however, have already begin using it for target practice, and the holes they put in the boat soon have water coming through them. To stay on the sinking ship is suicide as they will certainly drown, but to go out into the open is no different as they will be shot once they are out in the open. But Nolan squeezes even more intensity out of this scene as it is suddenly revealed one of the soldiers on board might be a German spy, and it becomes a question of not who will survive, but who will die first.

There’s not a weak performance to be found here as every single actor in “Dunkirk” brings their A game to the table. Mark Rylance remains an impeccable actor, and he makes Mr. Dawson into a man determined to do his national duty not just out of necessity, but out of guilt as well. I’m not familiar with Fionn Whitehead, but his work here is exemplary as he doesn’t have much dialogue and instead has to spend most of his performance showing the turmoil Tommy endures through his eyes and actions. Cillian Murphy also gives a strong supporting turn as a soldier who has seen the worst war has to offer, and it becomes clear he will never again be the man he once was. Harry Styles, whom many thought would stand out like a sore thumb, fits perfectly into this ensemble of actors without ever overshadowing them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh shows up as Commander Bolton who oversees the evacuation of soldiers, and the moment where his eyes water up at the sight of those private boats sailing towards the soldiers is a moment of beauty as I wanted to cry with him. To quote the movie’s tagline, these soldiers couldn’t get home, so home came for them.

But one performance I want to point out in particular is Tom Hardy’s as Farrier. Watching the actor here reminded me of his work in “Locke” as, like the character in that movie, Farrier spends the majority of the time in a moving vehicle with only his fellow pilots and his own sense of duty to keep him company. Not once does Hardy try to portray Farrier as some hotshot pilot like Maverick in “Top Gun” or Captain Steve Hiller in “Independence Day,” but instead as a soldier like any other. Even with his face covered by an oxygen mask, Hardy deftly shows the stoicism and determination of his character as he continues to battle his foes in the sky even as his gasoline supply continues to dwindle, and he makes Farrier into the hero this movie very much deserves.

Another big character in “Dunkirk” is the music of Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The German film composer has given us some of the most thrilling music scores of the past couple of decades, and his music here helps to make an intense motion picture experience even more intense than it already is. It essentially acts as a ticking clock, reminding the audience of how time is running out for the allied soldiers as the German forces get closer and closer to their location. Even in its more hopeful moments, Zimmer provides ominous sounds reminding us how the danger is always around the corner, ready to strike without much warning. When Zimmer’s music breaks into a cue scoring the arrival of boats to take the soldiers home, I could help but let out a sigh of relief as he finally had a reason to slow things down a bit and revel in the heroics of those who came to rescue the stranded men.

Does “Dunkirk” stand as one of the greatest war movies, let alone World War II movies, ever made? You bet. Nolan continues to give us one brilliant cinematic masterpiece after another, and whether or not you think this film is his best, it is certainly the most important he has made to date. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one the British people were raised on, and the world needs to be reminded again of how important a story this is. On one hand it is a story about military defeat, but it is also about a nation’s character and of how citizens stood up in the face of disaster to help those trapped. All the characters featured here endure different fates, but what they endure says more about them than words ever can. And the movie also reminds us sometimes all you need to do in a war is survive. You may come out of a war not feeling like the hero everyone makes you out to be, but surviving really is more than enough. At the very least, it gives you a reason to carry the story on to the next generation so the sacrifices made by so many will never be lost in the backroom of history.

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