Every movie doesn’t need to be a movement. These are wise words spoken by one of cinema’s most prolific and revered voices: myself. Such deep wisdom was uttered sometime around the turn of the century when everyone was freaking out about the tragedy of “Star Wars: A Phantom Menace” and praising “The Matrix” as the future of cinema. Film fans are a hyperbolic lot. They’re constantly looking at movies to be something more than two hours of entertainment and weigh the film’s significance in the pop-culture landscape. We’ve seen it happen with “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther.” People want to gloss over a movie’s entertainment value and speak about what the success of what it means to society.
I’m often amused by people who try to call out a movie as a significant social marker. “Wonder Woman” can’t just be an entertaining movie; it has to be a monolith to inclusivity. This would be fine except for the people with unrealistic expectations. There were grown, adult people who were upset “Wonder Woman” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Take a moment; let that sink in. There was actual indignation and outrage because a by-the-numbers superhero blockbuster movie wasn’t considered a crowning achievement in filmmaking. I expect the same thing to happen with “Black Panther,” which was a fine movie but in no way deserving of major-award consideration. For some people, the fact it was good and made a boatload of money won’t prevent disappointment when Chadwick Boseman isn’t nominated for best actor.
99 percent of the movies we see are simply two hours of entertainment engineered as a bit of escapism. Our culture has devolved into a sad cult of fandom—a place where the movies we love are seen as part of our identity. It felt apt as I watched Steven Spielberg’s terrible “Ready Player One,” a film about a dystopian future. Here, reality is sidestepped for the pleasures of an online world called the “Oasis.”
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a kid living in “the stacks” of Columbus, Ohio—because it is a world where Columbus is now the fastest growing city. Anyone who has ever been to Columbus will understand what a frightening scenario this is. Wade’s life sucks: His parents are dead. His aunt’s abusive lovers smack him around. He escapes into the Oasis where, and I quote, “You can be anything you imagine”— which is kind of true—so long as the limits of imagination are restricted to things that existed in the 1980s and 1990s.
The film is a hodge-podge of movie, television and video-game references, most tied to the 1980s: The era where the creator of the Oasis, Halliday (Mark Rylance) found all his inspiration. So in the Oasis, all teenage kids obsess over the same stuff Halliday did: Atari, “Back to the Future,” “The Shining,” and other kitschy bits of pop culture that happened in the tackiest decade. Halliday has passed away and left a series of clues for players to solve to win an Easter egg which gives them control of the Oasis and the future of mankind.
For the film’s first 20 minutes or so, I felt confident I was going to watch something passable or at least marginally entertaining. We get to meet the characters, hear them squawk exposition at one another, and meet the villain (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to take over the Oasis for his own nefarious reason: corporate greed. What a bastard. I felt relieved I was watching a predictable piece of pop-culture piffle, but then as the movie went on, my feeling of content painfully washed away, like removing salt from my eyes with a bucket of lemon juice and tea tree oil. Oh, did it sting.
As the movie went on, I found myself mildly irked at the amount of middle-aged male geek references but majorly frustrated with how bad the movie was. “Ready Player One” contains some of the most cringe-inducing cinematic moments I can remember—terribly written lines read passionately by mediocre actors and directed without an ounce of imagination. I was shocked how terrible it was.
I realize a lot of people give Spielberg a pass for his earlier contributions to the art form, but I’ve got to be honest: The guy is way off his game—and anyone who says otherwise can only be labeled an apologist.
I went full Zoidberg in the theater; as the credits rolled, I shouted, “This movie is bad, and you should feel bad.”
“Ready Player One” makes “Hook” look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
It would be easy for me to try and make the movie into a movement—talk about how it represents the kind of lazy, uncreative, unoriginal endeavor killing theatrical experiences. I suppose there could be an argument to make there, but it’s not why I hated “Ready Player One.” I hated the movie because it was poorly put together. I hated the terrible, one-dimensional acting. I hated the paper-thin, super-derivative pop-culture-referential script. And I hated the direction, which went back and forth between baffling and incomprehensible.”
I was stunned how a movie about a world where anything can happen felt so limited and grounded. The Oasis didn’t look like someplace fun. It looked like the weird, constricted dream of someone who spent too much time watching movies and not enough time living life. Strangely, the movie tries to make that point in an act of irony so blunt it could be used to club the concept to death.