Movie Review: “Ready Player One” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2018)

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One appeared in 2011. It was an ’80s nostalgia trip dressed up in post-apocalyptic futurism and virtual reality hysteria. It was a book written for fans of ’80s culture and video games–the kind of people who prefer Space Invaders to Call of Duty and Amazing Stories to Stranger Things. When the film went into works with Steven Spielberg, the defining eye of ’80s cinema, in charge, it seemed like a near-perfect match. (Robert Zemeckis really seems like the perfect match since he has always been so good at using special effects and understanding their limitations while Spielberg has used them as a crutch. But he also never had the singularity of vision that Spielberg had.) Especially with Stranger Things having taken the public by storm with its Spielberg-by-the-numbers approach, everything seemed primed for at least something really fun even though it would likely have little to say.

Spielberg has also remained a respectable filmmaker even as his star has faded. He’s far less successful than in 1993 when a studio was willing to let him make a depressing black-and-white holocaust movie that it thought had zero chance of making its money back just to get him on the payroll for another film, but he’s remained the same decent-but-not-great filmmaker he always was. Jaws (USA 1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977) set a bar too high for any director to maintain, but he’s had surprisingly strong films like Munich (France/Canada/USA 2005) late in his career and even his missteps like Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany/India 2015) haven’t been outright embarrassments. Plus, nostalgia has clouded his early record–yes he had those two great films back-to-back and several other memorable features, but he also directed bad and forgettable projects like 1941 (USA 1979) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 39 years?), Always (USA 1989) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 29 years?), Hook (USA 1991) (Robin Williams couldn’t save it.), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (USA 1997) (I still don’t know why anyone thought there should be more than one Jurassic Park film.) mixed in with the major successes. It’s not a bad record–most directors don’t have the kind of consistent excellence that Rian Johnson, Akira Kurosawa, or Masaki Kobayashi have had–but it’s not the kind of nonstop success that nostalgia has made people think it was.

However, Ready Player One isn’t any kind of return to form. It’s a failure on some basic levels, and it isn’t even any fun. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back” (Irvin Kershner, USA 1980)

Introduction

Just as a fun project, I’m going to watch all previous Star Wars films except for Episode I and write reviews. I’ve seen the original trilogy before but I’ve never seen Episodes II and III. However, even the original trilogy I have not watched for a very long time, so this is definitely my first look at them with adult eyes.

I do not own the films, so I will not be watching the despecialized editions, though I would certainly prefer to do so. I really hope that Disney doesn’t continue Lucas’s refusal to release the original theatrical versions, because the corny digital additions really stand out as awful. I hated them in the mid ’90s and I’m not feeling any better about them 20 years later. Since they really stand out, I’m essentially going to ignore them in the reviews and just say here that they’re terrible, cartoonish, and unnecessary. And yes, I feel safe saying that even before I’ve finished re-watching them all. The prequels obviously do not have this issue–Lucas got to fill them with digital ugliness on first release. Continue reading

Movie Review: “The Martian” (Ridley Scott, USA 2015)

Ask most people to name their favorite science fiction films, and many of the answers you’ll get aren’t really science fiction. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK 1982) is film noir set in the future. Alien (Ridley Scott, USA/UK 1979) is a horror film set in space. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013) is a chase film set in space. Even Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977) is really a traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy film set in space. Science fiction is one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of film. Science fiction has to be about real or imagined technology, and the problems and results of that technology have to be central to the film.

The Martian, on the other hand, is a real science fiction film. What is it about? The difficulties of getting a man back home after he is left on mars following a manned mission that is cut short. It doesn’t have a deeper point to make (to its detriment) and it doesn’t use Mars as a backdrop to make a film that has little to do with its setting. It really is two and a half hours of watching to see how he survives long enough for NASA to get him back to earth. Continue reading