Review of “Ready Player One”

In 2045 the world is such a sad and depressing place many people spend the majority of their free time in a virtual world called the Oasis where they can be and do anything. Oasis was the creation of James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). The two had a falling out and Halliday bought out Morrow. Halliday was a genius but also had difficulty dealing with people. He wanted the Oasis to be a place where people could break out of their shells and explore what they loved. One of those explorers is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). In the Oasis his avatar is called Parzival. When Halliday died he released a recorded announcement saying he’d hidden an Easter egg in the Oasis. Three keys are required to gain access to the Easter egg. Whoever finds it will become the owner of the Oasis. This sets off a frenzy of activity to find the keys. Those that hunt for the Easter egg are called gunters (egg hunters) and Wade is one of these along with his friend Aech, a combination troll and android-looking creature that is great at building and rebuilding vehicles. If your avatar is killed in the games of the Oasis you lose all your upgrades and your money and have to start from scratch. Using all their resources to find the keys is Innovative Online Industries, or IOI. They build much of the real world hardware that is used to access the Oasis. Leading IOI is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who worked with Halliday and Morrow when the Oasis was created. He plans to turn much of the Oasis into advertising space once IOI finds the Easter egg. During his search Wade as Parzival meets the avatar Art3mis. She is a famous gamer and Wade quickly falls in love with her. Of course they have never met in real life so Art3mis could be completely unlike her avatar and Wade would never know. Still, the two become close as they search for clues they believe are hidden in the archive of Halliday’s life. When Wade finds the first key he comes to the attention of Sorrento who puts his security chief F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) on the case to find and eliminate him in the real world. He also uses the avatar I-ROk (voiced by T.J. Miller) to try and kill his avatar in the Oasis.

“Ready Player One” is the kind of movie that can drive some people insane. Those people are completists. They must finish whatever they start and they must find all the little nooks and crannies where some information might be hidden. A completist will need to find every pop culture reference made in Steven Spielberg’s film that is stuffed to the brim with them. If you just have to know them all there are guides on the Internet and a Google search will find them. I find that kind of thing exhausting and am happy with the sudden flash of recognition when seeing a familiar video game or movie character. There was a great deal that made me happy in “Ready Player One” besides the familiar pop culture and music choices. It is a fun film.

While some of the real critics have complained “Ready Player One” is too concerned about cramming in as many pop culture references as possible and giving less attention to the story, I respectfully disagree. Script writers Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, Cline wrote the book the movie is based on, have put forth a very simple story: Unrelenting greed never leads to a happy future. It may not be the deepest or most complicated story for a movie but it does work especially considering the current political and economic climate. Nolan Sorrento is the embodiment of corporate greed. He sees the Oasis only as a cash cow to be exploited and not for the opportunities of expression and freedom it allows. Those that are aware of his cynical view of the Oasis are determined to stop him despite Sorrento having a huge corporation and dozens of people working to find the keys. It is a classic David and Goliath story and with Steven Spielberg at the controls it is a well-told story.

The CGI of “Ready Player One” is pretty spectacular. What I liked best about it was the hundreds of artists used to create the Oasis got the physics right. When a car crashes or an object breaks it looks real. There are many moments in the film that could have been visual deal breakers. Where the trajectory of a falling object or the apparent weight of a stone block from the wall of a castle could have looked wrong or conveniently too light but everything in the virtual world looked legit. It’s also a small miracle the artists were able to accurately render the dozens of toy, movie and video game characters and references. If you see a character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the Arkham video game or the motorcycle from “Akira” it will be done with a great deal of loving detail. The visuals of “Ready Player One” are the true stars of the movie.

I also enjoyed the performances in the real world scenes. Tye Sheridan does put upon teen very well. His Wade Watts is wide-eyed but also world-weary in a life that appears to be wearing him down. Escaping to his hideaway inside a discarded van buried deep in a junk yard, Wade has created an oasis of his own allowing him to escape into the virtual world. Orphaned young and living with an aunt that cares more about her abusive boyfriend than she does about him, Wade is essentially alone in a world that has gone mostly mad. He’s doing the best he can and the Oasis is a place he can freely express himself. While it might not win him an Oscar this performance will certainly get Tye Sheridan more work.

Olivia Cooke is the real world version of Art3mis. Cooke plays Samantha, a leader of the rebellion against IOI. While her avatar in the Oasis is brash and confident Samantha is anything but. She has a pale port wine stain birthmark over and on her right eye. She is very self-conscious of this blemish and it has clearly been a point of pain and suffering to her psyche. Samantha’s escape to the Oasis is clearly her attempt to soothe her pain and be the hero she can feel inside. It takes a desperate act to break her out of her self-imposed emotional exile and allow the bravery she has inside to escape. She takes chances and makes decisions that go against her own self-interest in an attempt to serve the greater good. It is a character young women can look to as a role-model.

The rest of the supporting cast is great but special kudos goes to Mark Rylance as Halliday. There is a childlike innocence to Halliday that tugs at the heartstrings. He’s clearly on the autism spectrum and struggling to make his vision clear to his partner Morrow played by Simon Pegg. Halliday wants everyone to see the Oasis the way he does: As a limitless playground to be enjoyed by all. There are moments when Halliday is speaking that I just wanted to hug him and tell him everything is going to be okay. Rylance is an amazing actor with incredible range and emotional depth. His Halliday is a child that can’t understand the complexities of business and why the world has to be so mean. He also thinks the Oasis should be used for fun and not for life. It’s a lesson that is saved for near the end of the film that even his love for his creation has its limits. It is a wonderfully subtle and emotional performance.

“Ready Player One” is rated PG-13 for language, bloody images, partial nudity, sci-fi action violence and some suggestive material. There are battles between video game characters and fights of various other types. The partial nudity is from a scene that takes place within the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” and involves a woman getting out of a bathtub. There is no actual nudity. The suggestive material also involves “The Shining” scene along with a mildly seductive dance between the two main characters. “The Shining” is also the source of the bloody images with tidal wave coming from the elevators. There are also a few real world injuries that show some minor bleeding. Foul language is scattered and mild.

My advice for seeing “Ready Player One” is to just let the pop culture references flow over you and don’t try to identify every character that’s been pulled from nearly every movie and video game from the last 50-plus years. Simply sit back and enjoy the magic and childlike wonder on display from the master of fantasy and adventure movie making. It is good to see Spielberg back to making a good old-fashioned crowd-pleasing bit of popcorn cinema. You’ll leave the theater far happier than you entered it.

“Ready Player One” gets five stars.

This week four new movies hope they have something to offer you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Blockers—

Chappaquiddick—

The Miracle Season—

A Quiet Place—

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Review of “Bridge of Spies”

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy operating out of his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. He is captured by federal agents and, after failing to get him to cooperate and become a double agent, plan on putting him on trial for espionage. If convicted, he would likely be executed. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer with a major New York firm. He is approached by the government to act as legal counsel for Abel. Despite not having practiced criminal law in decades, Donovan agrees. Meanwhile, the CIA is interviewing Air Force pilots to fly the U2 spy plane over Soviet territory and take pictures of various installations. One of those pilots is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers and several others are accepted into the program and trained on how to operate the aircraft and what to do should they be shot down: Set the self-destruct mechanism in the plane and, if they are near a friendly border, bail out. Otherwise, they are instructed to go down with the plane. If they do bail out and face capture, they are supposed to commit suicide using a poisoned needle. Abel goes on trial and despite Donovan’s best efforts is convicted. He is sentenced to 30 years in prison. Powers goes up on his first mission and despite assurances the plane flew higher than Soviet defenses could shoot, his plane is hit by missiles and the damage blows him out of the cockpit, preventing him from setting off the self-destruct. Powers is captured and put on trial where he is found guilty and sentenced to a long term in a Russian prison. A cryptic letter received by Donovan from someone claiming to be Abel’s wife sets in motion a series of events that leads him to becoming the unofficial negotiator of a prisoner swap between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: The spy Rudolf Abel for the spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers with the exchange to take place in the newly walled off East Berlin.

“Bridge of Spies” is not a film to watch if you are looking for action and adventure…at least the way it is depicted in the run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie. The excitement of “Bridge of Spies” comes from the knowledge that much of what is being shown on screen actually happened. A common man with no connection to the government was called upon to defend an accused Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War when doing so likely made him, in the eyes of the country, a traitor. He argued for the rights of a man that wasn’t a citizen but should be given every privilege the Constitution provides in regards to his criminal case. It was a brave stand to take at a time when just being connected to the American Communist Party could get you fired from your job.

There’s no better person to portray a man of singular courage and strongly held beliefs than Tom Hanks. Hanks makes Donovan an everyman with an uncommon sense of fairness. With the twinkle in his eye and the soft spoken delivery we’ve come to know, love and expect, Hanks portrays Donovan as a zealous advocate that can verbally beat you to death with logic and knowledge and make you feel the better for it. Even when he comes up against a judge that has already made up his mind and ignores all of his constitutionally based arguments about the evidence, Donovan maintains his cool despite his abhorrence at the miscarriage of justice being forced upon his client. Donovan doesn’t mind being less subtle when he’s pressured by a CIA agent to tell him what Abel has said in their meetings. Hanks can fix a stare at the target of his wrath that could peel paint off a wall; yet, when he schools the agent on the constitution, it is done with firmness but gentleness.

Hanks is a fantastic actor that seems like a fantastic person. I’ve heard him interviewed by Chris Hardwick a couple of times on Hardwick’s “Nerdist” podcast. Hanks appears as down to earth and average as any of his roles. Whether he’s playing a ship captain being held at gunpoint by Somali pirates or the lead astronaut on a trip to the moon that goes horribly wrong, Tom Hanks always seems to play his role with understated strength and calm that makes the moments when his character loses that calm all the more affecting. (Spoiler Alert) At the end of “Captain Phillips,” when he’s been rescued and is finally safe, Hanks does a slow meltdown that gives me chills to this day when I think about it. The veneer of control that slowly melts away into unbridled shaking and tears is one of the greatest and most emotional pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. It breaks your heart thinking about what could drive a man to such a break down and, even though we’ve seen all he’s been through and completely understand, it still hits you like a bolt from the blue. While the deeply emotional scene in “Bridge of Spies” isn’t as striking as “Captain Phillips” it resonates all the same because of how we see Donovan behave throughout the film. This may not have been as wrenching a performance as his AIDS suffering lawyer in “Philadelphia” or as sympathetic as “Forrest Gump,” Hanks is still likely to be in the running for a nomination when awards season rolls around.

While Hanks is the focus of the story, the other terrific performance in “Bridge of Spies” comes from Mark Rylance as the stoic Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The scenes he and Hanks share are usually brief but they are powerful. Rylance gives a quiet performance that makes Hanks almost look like Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” His Soviet spy is resigned to whatever fate is to befall him, sometimes at the chagrin of Donovan. More than once in the film Donovan asks Abel if he is worried. Each time the answer is “Would it help?” The unspoken answer is of course no. Rylance plays Abel as both a confused old man as well as a crafty operative. Once he’s caught, the cover of confusion is cast aside and he’s strictly business. The way Rylance plays Abel made me curious about the character. I’d like to see a movie about how he became a Soviet spy and the adventures he had. While the spy world isn’t nearly as glamourous and exciting as we see in “James Bond” movies, I’m certain in the hands of someone like “Bridge of Spies” director Steven Spielberg the story would be more than worth watching.

The movie could be seen as commentary on how easy it is to question ones patriotism in a time of crisis. Donovan’s allegiance to America is questioned a couple of times in the film because he fights for Abel’s rights as a defendant in the courts. Since the attacks of 9/11, the loyalty of Americans has been questioned that believe those being held on terrorism charges in Guantanamo Bay should be accorded the right to representation and trial by jury. Others don’t see the problem of collecting the phone calls, emails and internet history of average Americans without probable cause asking, “Why should I worry since I have nothing to hide?” Despite the “common sense” appeal of that sentiment, Ben Franklin is often quoted as saying “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Franklin’s quote, taken out of context from a letter to the Pennsylvania colonial governor, has very little to do with what we associate it with today; however, the conflict between Donovan and those that wish he wouldn’t try so hard to defend Abel and those that want terrorism suspects quickly tried and convicted and those that believe they should be given the same fair trial as an American citizen is painfully similar. Your opinion of the film might depend on your feelings about that argument.

“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some violence. Gun shots hit Donovan’s house in an attempt to intimidate him. We see Francis Gary Powers roughed up a little by Russian interrogators. We see some people trying to get over the Berlin Wall shot by guards. There are other brief bits of violence. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild but the film does get its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

Many may find “Bridge of Spies” to be dull as it mostly consists of people talking. I would argue anyone that finds this movie dull is not paying enough attention. The stakes faced by the characters, the time in history and the brilliant acting make the film a true gem in what is often a mound of coal lumps. If you care nothing for the past, the old Soviet Union and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation then you should avoid this film at all costs. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what America was like during the hottest part of the Cold War, then “Bridge of Spies” is a must see. I would also recommend it if you just like really well done movies.

“Bridge of Spies” gets five enthusiastic stars.

Four more movies hit theatres this week and I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Jem and the Holograms—

The Last Witch Hunter—

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension—

Rock the Kasbah—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.