29 March 2018

Ready Player None

Here are are at the end of March, and one has to think that in a bygone age this might have been a big Summer Spielberg masterpiece. In a bygone age.

I'm not totally on the Spielberg-hating bandwagon, to do so certainly ignores both a lifetime of making some of the greatest blockbusters of all time, hell some of which could even be considered the flat-out greatest films of all time. This is in addition to when he stretches his hand at making an incredible slew of dramas, mostly in the 80s and 90s.

There's no way this wouldn't only ever be used for porn
Where the haters come about, though, is that it actually gets kind of hard to find a true recent Spielberg classic. He has lately toddered between films that on the outside seem like stuffy Awards-bait flicks (The Post [2017], Bridge of Spies [2015], War Horse [2011]) or misguided, misfiring, CGI-heavy blockbusters that are all based on previous material that no one actually wanted to see (Ready Player One [2018], The BFG [2016], The Adventures of Tintin [2011], Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [2008]). And yeah, I've already included Ready Player One in there, because this preview will obviously shit all over it. But I'll try to be constructive?

You may notice two things here. One, at age 71, Spielberg has actually cranked out a flick a year for the past four years and eight out of the past ten. That's like Ridley Scott / Martin Scorsese levels. To be fair, they've both also made eight films in the past decade, but four of Scorsese's were documentaries. Doesn't it feel like they've made more than Spielberg? That's because for all of these New Wave geezers Scott and Scorsese are at the top of their game, and Stevie's just...not.

And two, I left out Lincoln (2012) because that's the exception. It should probably fall into that stuffy Awards-baity category, but that's also because it was pretty damn solid. As I was preparing to write this I had my Spielberg defense in my head as, "He made Lincoln!" that now I'm realizing falls apart because a) that was six years ago and b) that's the only damn certifiably great movie he's made in the past decade.

The backlash began a little bit before Indy 4, though. Parts of War of the Worlds (2005) were so damn good and with a few tweaks in writing that movie could have been great. It's bogged down by poor character decisions and a muffed ending. Robbie (and the City of Boston) really should have died. Still, it's iconic and memorable. I've tried to watch Munich (2005) but for some reason it can never hold my attention. It seems like it should be great. I probably just suck. Before that we have a pretty damn holy trifecta of The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Minority Report (2002), which represent everything Spielberg can do. Light dramedy, Awards-caliber bait, and pretty legit sci-fi.

Now, we can't go back through all of Spielberg's filmography because it speaks for itself, but I wanted to figure out when his last great blockbuster was. The big sci-fi action that he's always been known for. I don't think it can be War of the Worlds because that's not outright considered great, and dammit, it isn't. It's good, not spectacular. Then it's Minority Report. Even that script is kind of muddled and overly convoluted for its own good, but it's still fun, intense, original, and memorable all at the same time. That's a significant achievement he hasn't really achieved since. 16 fucking years ago.

All this affects our anticipation and perception of what the man can do. In his favor is the fact that he has an endless supply of iconic movies to draw from. He could make ten more years of blockbuster flops and JAWS (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Last Crusade (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) will still be enough to get people excited. I mean, look at that list. This is why I still can't get on the Spielberg-hating train. What if he DOES have another Raiders in him? Actually as I look at this, I'm kind of awestruck about how much better he does period adventure and monsters over sci-fi and aliens. I mean, sure, E.T. and Close Encounters, but those were hardly traditional invasion narratives. Or even much science in science fiction.

At the same time, though, it does feel like he's out of touch. From comments made by world wizard, Shia LaBeouf to his recent statements that Netflix shouldn't qualify for Oscars, you wonder if the guy has any idea what's actually trending or has become too comfortable being the director who made JAWS for the past forty years. Suddenly it comes together - this guy who once knew how to tap into the beliefs and feelings of so many people doesn't understand us anymore. To be fair, he's 71, that's pretty damn old. Except that Ridley Scott is somehow hip and Martin Scorsese made Wolf of Wall Street (2013) at....guess what? Age fucking 71. They're cool, confident filmmakers. Spielberg in the past ten years reaches, man.

Let's start actually discussing Ready Player One. Man I hate this shit. I really hate this nerd shit. And I will reiterate this. Or the fact that my two longest posts of all time were for The Last Jedi (2017) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). But that fact actually explains my views in itself. I'm a nerd who wants new things to be nerdy about. Ready Player One trades on an obsessive kind of nostalgia, where every line in the book rabidly features an onslaught of references. This article at the Outline finely outlines why that's simply narcissistic writing and reading. It's as if we nerds suddenly realized that a lifetime spent obsessing over pop culture has left us with no skills besides being able to recognize references. So now, we have a book (and movie) where that's what the hero does. We're useful after all!

That's such a lonely, desperate thought. It invalidates creation in favor of regurgitation. It's proper that this film is finally dropping in 2018. It's the saturation point, the threshold of our current culture that can't come up with its own iconography. The bleak limits, if you will. This is where things crash with Spielberg and his own twilight career. For all of even my optimism, perhaps he is done making new, great movies, moments, and characters. The only thing left is for him to re-use everything he made thirty years ago. He found a way to do that through Ready Player One, which trades on his career more than anything. It's a perfect 2018 meta-moment, the director whose previous works inspired the book author (Ernest Cline), gets to direct regurgitation of his own works. It's a hollow, endlessly repeating shell of pop culture, disguised with pretty flashing lights and CGI-clashing Orcs and Iron Giants.

To be fair, none of that is in itself a bad thing. 22 Jump Street (2014) and Deadpool (2016) did great things with meta-culture. Both films ended up falling into what they were trying to parody, and it's kind of depressing that the gravity of studio-mandated story beats is too great for them, but they provided entertaining experiences. It's clear that true nostalgic deconstruction like Last Action Hero (1993), The Cable Guy (1998), or uh...Freddy Got Fingered (2001) really don't work from a money-making perspective. Spielberg also isn't one who is going to raise a truly critical eye against material that so honors his own work. That's his bread and butter you're fucking with there.

No, as of now, Ready Player One's marketing material feels extremely earnest. Ernest is earnest. It's saying, yes, we too believe that you nerds and your references are special, that this is high art, what you've dedicated your lives to is not something we can make fun of. This is all pretty rough. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I at least KNOW I've wasted a lot of my life re-reading the Silmarillion in like, the Year 2017. I've been prepping the past few weeks for a long bitchy Rogue One (2016) post. I run this whole damn website! Pop culture is everything to me, but I'm honest about it. There is pop culture that people identify with, that creates national trends and social commentary that makes you reconsider life. Then there is pop culture that totally passes people by, and I've always been interested in what causes that. Everyone has a justification for guilty pleasures, and I suppose that's mine, but that's hopefully a little bit deeper than racing DeLoreans around just because they're DeLoreans.

I can't help but be drawn to something like last year's The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), which mashed up a dream team of pop culture references in addition to its deep as hell library of Batman villains. It seems like such a fun idea on paper but it just comes across as unoriginal and forced. Like Tobias' foray into the Fantastic Four. Like, what the hell was that about. I get the irony of mashing up a ton of pop culture references into this post. But clearly me referencing Arrested Development Season 4 isn't my attempt at pandering to a wide audience.

Maybe there will be some kind of commentary there, or nuance, or purposeful meaning behind every reference, or even Ready Player One's existence beyond being recognizable in order to to turn a profit. Maybe Spielberg does still have it and can knock this out of the park. It's at least been a notable release built up for a while and every other film right now is doing really shitty as Black Panther (2018) finally sorta fades.

I don't care when you are, this is and will forever be the
Columbus, OH of past, present, and future.
And to be real honest, all of this could have been fine, but that fucking trailer lost me at "I live here in Columbus, Ohio. In 2045 it's still the fastest growing city on earth." Nothing in that sentence makes any sense. Like, have they been to Ohio? Why would this happen? Did China take a few decades off? Columbus is actually 14th in the US and a toasty 228 worldwide. That took me two minutes to Google. When a trailer just loses you on the first line it's a horrible impression. It's a line so bad it takes you out of the entire experience. It's as if, "Well, they didn't care about getting this right, did they care bout anything else?" And that shitty uncanny valley of the OASIS. This film's getting away with it because it's supposed to be inside a video game, but ugh, just go Matrix with it and have real people be there. It's cartoony and weightless. The actual story looks super simple, and that's not a bad thing at all. You totally get hooked in that hunt. It apparently turns into some kind of revolution movie or something, I don't know, probably just an excuse to have Shrek fight Batman or something. Who would ever do that.

This was a long post, but it's a hard distinction for me personally. How can I have this entire website while hating the underlying concept behind Ready Player One. Can I truly pretend that my interests here are "academic"? I think it ultimately goes back to purpose. Like any proper evaluation, what is this film trying to achieve? The conduit for its message is pop culture references - do they truly support its message? Or do they become the actual message? As in, are we all just references? There we go with the critical commentary again. Are we all just empty shells filled with decades of shark and robot knowledge? I struggle to believe this film points in that direction, though. The references are there to be emblematic of an audience who can no longer see past them. Pandering, not challenging. And for all my endless pop culture references at Norwegian Morning Wood I hope you are challenged. Let's go meta and use this post for an example - is this pop cultural meta-distinction challenging? Or am I full of shit?

Ready Player One drops today.

No comments:

Post a comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails