20 March 2018 | ArchStanton1862
An Instant Classic
I honestly didn't think that Spielberg had another crowd-pleasing actioner left in him. For the last decade or so his focus has been on more realistic period dramas and character pieces. His attempts at grand action spectacle (the underrated Tintin aside) were underwhelming. But who knew he had this left in him?
This film is an absolute blast. It seamlessly combines reality and animation into one big, exciting adventure. I'm still not completely sure how it pulled it off. I was absolutely amazed at how seamlessly the film merged animation with reality (I'd say only perhaps 1/3 of the film takes place in the "real" world) and gave the obviously digital environments emotional and kinetic weight. That's a very hard balance to pull off and this movie doesn't even raise a sweat. In fact, some of the best scenes revolve around the absurd mix of online and real existence. Pretty much every scene in Sorrento's soulless corporate HQ is a riot because of the seriousness with which they take their involvement in this silly online world, made even more ridiculous by the motions they all make in their VR suits as they react to unseen perils like well-dressed mimes.
I have no doubt that this film will receive a lot of flak for its reliance on pop culture artifacts. And there's some truth to the criticism. The best scene in the movie is when one of the characters waits in an almost meditative trance during the fight scene until he cries out "form of a gundam" in Japanese and awesomeness ensues. Would this scene work as well if it hadn't been a recognizable brand? No question it wouldn't. And that goes for an infinite array of references, from the Iron Giant to the Delorean to an absolutely perfect Overlook Hotel to Chucky ("Oh God, it's f*%@ing Chucky" has got to be the second greatest line in the movie).
But to say that this is nothing but leaching off others' success is unfair. The references are there for a reason. This is a Geek movie, and for geeks this sort of referencing is how they approach the universe. It'd seem odd if there were no open pop culture references in a free-for-all online world. More to the point, the film has a lot to say about online culture and the isolating effect it has on people. The film isn't all pretty colors and film references, it deals with issues like how real the connections we form online actually are, the ever-decreasing distance between fantasy and reality, the importance of community involvement, and all sorts of identity issues that arise when we can hide behind avatars. Not that I'd call the film overly deep or anything, but it's certainly more than just a collection of pop culture references thrown together with minimal plot.
The characters are all good fun. Parzival and his mate Aech are just like a lot of friends I know online, although Parzival's shallowness gives him a good obstacle to overcome. Art3mis is a bit more driven and has goals that take her further than just being the best at a video game. Parzival has a major cyber-crush on her, which is something of a problem. Daito and Shoto are somewhat more distant online rivals. All of them have great moments, but most come after their true selves get revealed around 2/3 of the way through the film. Some of them are very surprising (don't look at the cast list) and they are all funny together. Krennic's director Sorrento is a great villain. He's so full of himself and contemptuous that his appearance in-game as a muscular brute in a business suit dealing with mystical things he cares nothing about is a blast. And when he's cornered he can be hilariously practical. His online minion i-R0k is also priceless, the sort of super badass dude living in his mom's basement that you can only find in video games. Mark Rylance steals every scene he's in as the vaguely Wozniakian creator of the game. He's a rather sad figure, one who could never handle reality with such aplomb as he does the world he designed. I was surprsed to see Simon Pegg as his co-founder, a somewhat wasted role but nicel different from his more usual fare.
And I really really didn't think Spielberg could pull this off. It's hard to
write a love letter to your favorite films when you're the creator rather than consumer. I'd have been more comfortable with some younger director who grew up on these films. I mean, his works aside I can't recall Spielberg ever displaying much interest in video games or Japanese pop culture (post-Kurosawa at least). Yet this film depends on its immense love of such elements. Perhaps a lot of it comes from the screenplay by the novel's author and Kal Penn, two people eminently qualified to pull this off. But it could never have succeeded without the passion of the maestro himself, and succeed it does. I went in with low expectations and had an absolute blast. But more importantly: I understood that reference.