Ready Player One (2018)

As a pasty pro wrestling fan with a film blog, I’m comfortable with being identified as a nerd, but I’ve never quite felt like the right kind of nerd. Superhero comics, video games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anime – the staples of Nerd Culture have never been the pop media I personally obsess about. It’s not that my own nerdy obsessions are especially esoteric; I’ve just always felt like somewhat of an outsider when observing what typical nerds cosplay as or geek out over. When the pasty nerd hero of Ready Player One sneers at the business dick villain pretending to share his interests, “A fanboy knows a hater,” I had to think to myself that I likely qualify as neither. I also suspect director Steven Spielberg is an objective outsider to that distinction as well. Looking at the scruffy, near-sighted goon, it’s not too difficult to imagine that he’s seen the wrong end of a swirly or a locker-shove in his past, especially considering his life-long interest in science fiction. However, it is difficult to imagine him caring about the particular Nerd Shit on display in Ready Player One. Although there is plenty evidence to the contrary, I just can’t picture Spielberg wasting days behind the controller of a marathon session of Halo or repeatedly rewatching Akira in his Cheetos-stained pajamas. Roughly 75% of the Nerd Shit references that weren’t verbally acknowledged Ready Player One’s dialogue when over my head and I suspect a millionaire over twice my age wouldn’t have fared much better (many of the background details were reportedly included by special effects teams without his explicit request). As an outsider, I must admit I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.

Gatekeeping is perhaps the ultimate qualifier of true nerdom. Nerds tend to declare what pop culture is objectively Good or Bad as if their opinion is law and no interests outside their own have value. Like how 10 Cloverfield Lane exposes the creepiness of Doomsday preppers by depicting the dystopian world they secretly desire, Ready Player One envisions the logical, terrifying result of what this pop culture gatekeeping would look like if it were taken as seriously as every self-aggrandizing nerd wants it to be. A lonely trillionaire nerd (Mark Rylance) builds a virtual reality video game universe where his own pop culture obsessions (mostly white boy nerd shit from the 1980s) are canon as the greatest works of art of all time. Because of the universal popularity of his immersive gaming system, this über-Steve Jobs experiences the ultimate power fantasy all nerds crave: he’s celebrated for his superior tastes in esoteric pop culture. If he was into it, it’s fantastic & worthy of scholarly study. If he wasn’t, it essentially never existed. By the year 2045, long after his death, this celebration of one man’s pop culture tastes has driven the world into a digital Hell. Most people live impoverished in overpopulated slums (picture a game of Jenga where the building blocks are mobile homes). They escape their grim surroundings by immersing themselves in a dead trillionaire’s nerdy pop culture utopia through increasingly realistic virtual reality technology. No new art or creativity is necessary, since their preferred world’s creator isn’t around to approve it. This dystopian vision feels like a less classist version of Idiocracy in that way, where the world is driven to its lowest point by mindless 80s nostalgia instead of “bad breeding.” If a single, gatekeeping Nerd won the ultimate prize of being taken seriously as a tastemaker and had their own obsessions guide the establishment of a universal monoculture, this is exactly the world we would eventually live in. It’s a goddamn nightmare.

The catch about Ready Player One (and the internal tension that makes it interesting) is that it was written by one of those gatekeepers. Writer/stand-up comedian Ernest Cline penned both the film’s screenplay (along with several co-writers) and its source material novel. Cline takes gleeful pleasure in the material’s endless pop culture references, but that doesn’t feel at all reinforced on Spielberg’s end. Spielberg’s adventurism works in tandem with Cline’s geeked-out tone in an occasional chase sequence or flash of goofball humor, but as a whole their work feels more like a philosophical debate than a blissful collaboration. Cline constructs a story about a young nerd (Tye Sheridan) wooing another young nerd (Olivia Cooke) and saving the world by playing video games with incredible skill & displaying esoteric 80s pop trivia. It should be a joyous power fantasy for the like-minded video game obsessives in the world, but it instead looks & feels like a continuation of the grim, grimy futurism of Minority Report & A.I.: Artificial intelligence (two of the best films of Spielberg’s career, but also two of the most acidic). By all accounts, Cline’s writing style tends to dwell in long lists of nerdy pop culture ephemera, taking time to build its own gatekeeping canon of exactly what nerdy shit is worth preserving. By contrast, Spielberg’s film feels unconcerned with dwelling on its references at all, as plentiful as they are. Instead of relishing the joy of seeing disparate characters form across all of nerdom share the screen, Ready Player One essentially glosses over them in favor of fleshing out its grim dystopian future. There are plenty of extratextual characters referenced in the film, but they mostly appear so briefly in the background in moments of chaos that you hardly have time to notice them. It’s like Ernie Bushmiller’s “three rocks” principle: there are exactly just as many nostalgic references included as necessary to create the illusion that the film is overrun with them. In the few times when the film does dwell on them, their distant memory distorts the original intent of the artwork that’s supposedly being celebrated, like a copy of a copy. The Shining is now a jump-scare fest; the Iron Giant is now a ruthless killing machine; Chucky is all maniacal laughter instead of smart-ass quips; etc. Spielberg doesn’t take the same joy in referencing past works that Cline does; he practically mocks the way that thoughtless, performative celebration changes their fundamental nature. Spielberg’s not quite the same level of satirist as Paul Verhoeven, to put it lightly, but I haven’t seen a film this at odds with its own source material since Starship Troopers.

Maybe I’m giving Spielberg too much benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he does spend his lonely nerd nights creaming his Zelda pajamas while dreaming about how cool it would be if Gundam fought Mechagodzilla. Either way, Ready Player One plays much closer to the grim future-tech prophecies of his own early 2000s sci-fi than the pure-fun video game crossover indulgences of a Super Smash Bros or a Marvel vs. Capcom. Like the surveillance state speculation of Minority Report or the cruelty of artificial intelligence creation in A.I., Ready Player One taps into the potential, foreseeable darkness of a world that’s already nostalgia-obsessed, with escapist pleasures to be found in the anonymity of Internet avatars & in watching strangers make money playing video games on YouTube. If nerds win the culture war, this is a plausible vision of where we’re headed. If you look to Ready Player One as mindless popcorn fun, your enthusiasm for that vision might be determined by where you fall on the fanboy/hater divide. To me, the film is much more rewarding if you consider the ways it makes its own Nostalgia Bait fun appear grotesque & terrifying, regardless of what Spielberg’s intent may have been. Maybe the film works as a fanboy/hater Rorschach test in that way. Audiences who see a love letter to nerdy pop culture where Gremlins, Goro, and Batman can finally share the same universe can maintain their fanboy status. Others who see a deeply depressing glimpse into a near-future Hell, like I did, might just be haters after all (at least in Ernest Cline’s nomenclature). However, haters can take solace in the likelihood that Spielberg’s secretly a hater was well, considering how similar this grim vision is to his past dystopian world-building. Paradoxically, you’d have to be generous to classify Spielberg or myself as anything but nerds, even if we are the wrong kind of nerds. Let’s hope we’re aren’t found out as imposters in the virtual reality Hell that apparently awaits us.

-Brandon Ledet

Dunkirk (2017)

I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.

Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.

Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.

The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.

-Brandon Ledet