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Head in the Game

Spielberg's big, impressive, virtual bore




READY PLAYER ONE. I found myself mounting a preemptive defense for this movie some weeks ago. A friend (and frequent contributor to these pages, actually, but colleague sounds pretentious) told me he had tried and failed, angrily, to read the Ernest Cline novel upon which it is based. He picked it up, he informed me, looking forward to a fun vacation read. Not an unreasonable expectation, based on all its lavish praise and popularity. Some 60 pages later he found himself — no stranger to self-destructive hate-reads — knee-deep in an intractable quagmire. I didn't press him for a greater explanation, there was just something about Cline's creation that displeased him to the point of revulsion.

Knowing nothing about Ready Player One (beyond what I had seen in the theatrical trailer), there was no reason for to defend it; maybe it was just my contrarian nature, or some errant shot of optimism from the distant past, hoping the movie would be better than the book. Whatever the impulse, I countered that Steven Spielberg doesn't really make "bad" movies, so the adaptation should at least be watchable. I'll stand by that, probably to my detriment, but with an addendum: Spielberg may not make bad movies but he does occasionally make pointless, self-indulgent ones; sometimes they even kind of suck.

Now, this should probably be considered a forgivable offense in light of the guy's career win-loss ratio. Without even wading into Spielberg's almost shockingly extensive list of producer credits, focusing only on the slightly shorter one of movies he's directed, it's tough to pick out any losers. People usually call out 1941 (1979), and it is kind of ill-conceived, shambolic, not as funny as it's meant to be. Others loathe Hook (1991) for reasons I will probably never understand. I went through a protracted reactionary period in my youth, decrying the Spielberg canon as too easy, too pop to be of any merit. More recently, I didn't love what he did with The BFG (2016). But these are minor deviations from a career trajectory defined by success and approbation that's nearing the half-century mark. And even the "bad" Spielberg movies, Ready Player One among them, are still unrivalled in their technical accomplishment, infused with childlike wonder, joyful expressions of love for the medium of cinema. He continues to paint the walls of the playroom of collective imagination. And there are bound to be a few runs in the paint.

Part of the problem can be attributed to comparisons: 1941 came immediately after the world-changing releases of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), both fun and entertaining, but thematically serious, suffused with palpable danger. Hard to say what to make of a slapstick comedy based on the bombing of Pearl Harbor after that. And Spielberg followed up Hook with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, IN THE SAME YEAR (it was 1993), so it's hard not to see it as a trifle, a distraction. Similarly, Ready Player One, coming so soon after the astounding clarity of The Post, can't help but feel ungrounded, inconsequential. Which is all well and good, except that it's not that much fun, either.

Set in a now even more plausible future America, circa 2045, Ready Player One describes a world that has become a smoldering pile of shit where the underclass are further ghettoized in vertically stacked trailer parks and placated by living imaginarily inside a vast online world called the Oasis. The game's creator, a sad-sack Wonkanian nerd named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, brilliant as ever but a weird casting choice), has recently died, leaving as his legacy a sort of golden ticket of his own. Hidden within the Oasis are three magical keys, and to their holder will go the kingdom. That is, the ablest gamer of them all will, having collected said keys, take ownership of Halliday's creation and the multi-trillion-dollar empire founded upon it.

Enter Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18 year old from Columbus whose parents didn't survive the sudden societal shift into chaos and despair and who isn't particularly well suited to life outside the Oasis himself. Inside that created world, though, he's a 1-percenter, an elite level combatant who could very well win the whole shooting match, with the help of some like-minded rebels. Unless of course the monolithic corporate entity, represented by the dastardly, capped-toothed Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best with a one-dimensional character), has its way.

The whole thing is impressive, in its way — a showcase for immersive, ultimately distracting visual effects and world creation. It also represents an opportunity for Spielberg to examine and re-synthesize much of his own career, as the story is firmly founded in the late 20th century pop culture to which he made such indelible contributions. The self-referential stuff wears thin before too long, though, and the narrative it adorns doesn't offer much we haven't seen before. By the end, which comes about an hour later than it feels like it should, the cumulative effect of the kinetic camera and the eye-frying color palette and the Final Fantasy notions of future virtual worlds just grows tiresome. PG13. 140m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

—John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


BLOCKERS. Parents (John Cena, Leslie Mann) plot to foil their daughter's plan to have sex on prom night. Not creepy at all, right? R. 102m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK. Director John Curran's drama based on Ted Kennedy's 1969 car crash and the drowning death of Mary Joe Kopechne for everyone who's nostalgic for Democratic scandals. Starring Kate Mara and Jason Clarke. PG13. 101m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

HAPPY END. Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintgnant star in a drama about a rich, unhappy family under one swanky roof in Calais. R. 107m. MINOR.

THE LEISURE SEEKER. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland hop in an RV for a road trip from Boston to Key West just to see if we will watch literally anything she's in. R. 132m. MINOR.

LEANING INTO THE WIND: ANDY GOLDSWORTHY. Thomas Riedelsheimer's documentary about the filmmaker and artist. PG. 93m. MINIPLEX.

LOVELESS. Russian drama about a divorcing couple looking for their missing 12-year-old son. Enjoy date night, folks. Starring Maryana Spivak and Alaksey Rozin. R. 127m. MINOR.

A QUIET PLACE. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski star in a horror movie about a family that goes into silent mode, stalked by monsters who attack at the smallest sound, kind of like that one friend who will come at you for crinkling a candy wrapper in the theater. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). This John Travolta dance movie should cure you of any disco nostalgia, brimming as it is with economic hopelessness and sexual assault. PG. 93m. BROADWAY.


ACRIMONY. Taraji P. Henson stars as the wife of a cheating husband (Lyriq Bent) in a Tyler Perry movie without his name in the title. R. 120m. BROADWAY.

BLACK PANTHER. One of the more interesting characters in the Marvel movie-verse in a big, exhilarating movie from director Ryan Coogler with a fine villainous turn by Michael B. Jordan, though some of its fascinating, nuanced story is lost in requisite superhero noise. PG13. 134m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

GOD'S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS. This preaching-to-the-choir sequel once again pits churchgoers against villainous university types and resurrects TV stars of yore like John Corbett. PG. 106m. BROADWAY.

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE. This is based on the true backstory of a song about a young musician's (J. Michael Finley) troubled relationship with his father (Dennis Quaid) and now I don't know how people make movies anymore. Call your dad. PG. 110m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING. Co-writer/director Steven S. DeKnight's sequel is still fun, despite a flimsy premise and an overwrought plot. With John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny and Scott Eastwood in the battle bots. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST. Bible biopic starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner as the rehabbed persecutor known as "the cute one." PG13. 108m. BROADWAY.

SHERLOCK GNOMES. Three guesses what this animated follow-up to Gnomeo and Juliet is about. With Emily Blunt, James McEvoy and best unseen Johnny Depp. PG. 86m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

TOMB RAIDER. Amazing, an origin story/prequel to a middling action franchise based on a video game can still disappoint, but the interesting cast phones it in and much is lifted from Indiana Jones movies. Starring Alicial Vikander, Daniel Wu and Walton Goggins. PG13. 118m. BROADWAY.

A WRINKLE IN TIME. Ava DuVernay's adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy novel about a girl's (Storm Reid) search for her father (Chris Pine) with the help of a mystical trio (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) lacks the narrative coherency and consistency of character needed to appeal to those who aren't already devoted fans. PG. 92m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK. •

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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