Review – Virtually A Game Changer (“Ready Player One”)

A loving homage to nearly every sci-fi, anime, fantasy, and gaming motion picture out there, this film will need repeated viewings because of all the many pop-culture references and visuals thrown in. Imagine a movie that has the Back to the Future DeLorean racing next to the Mach 5 race car from Speed Racer? How awesome is that!?
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Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, we start with your A-typical movie trope about the future: the dystopian landscape of 2044 America; over-population, pollution, poverty,  corruption, climate-change, etc. But people can find some semblance of joy by plugging in and escaping into the (VR) virtual reality world of the OASIS, a free on-line world of limitless entertainment for everyone. Five years ago, OASIS creator, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), hid three ‘keys’ somewhere within the OASIS world that, whoever finds them, becomes the new owner of the OASIS and unbelievable wealth.

BUT! Halliday’s greedy ex-partner, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendleson), who heads up the sinister Innovative Online Industries (IOI), wants the OASIS for himself so he charge the population what they’re getting for free right now. He even has his army of employees (called the Sixers) playing non-stop to try and get those keys. In all this chaos we meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) called Parzival in the VR world. Wade’s an orphan living the “stacks” (mobile homes stacked on top of each other) in Columbus, Ohio and a walking encyclopedia of Halliday knowledge.

Inside the OASIS he meets another ace gamer known only as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who rides the anime Akira motorcycle next to Parzival’s DeLorean from BTTF. Along with thousands of others (the Mach 5, the 60’s Batmobile, etc) and Parzival’s friend, Aech (Lena Waith), they all race, trying to avoid King Kong and Jurassic Park‘s T-Rex to get to the finish line–which nobody ever does–until Wade finds a clue at Halliday’s online life museum. Using the info there, he unexpectedly wins the first key and gets a clue to the next key. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Sorrento, who’ll stop at nothing to get the other keys, even it means killing the avatar Parzival (or the real person behind it).

Sorrento hires a loopy OASIS hitman (T.J. Miller) to find out more info about Parzival while, in the real world, Wade is being tracked & hunted by IOI goons. With help from his pals, they look around the creepy Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Art3mis & Parzival find the second key, but IOI also finds them. After being rescued by Art3mis/ Samantha, Wade’s introduced to a small band of resistance fighters that want to keep the OASIS free and help him find the final key. From here on out it’s complete mayhem with action happening both inside the OASIS and outside on the streets of the real world. Just try and keep up!

This movie welcomes back Steven Spielberg and his magic touch in directing this kind of fantasy film since his 2001 opus, A.I. Too long has it been since he did anything this epic in scope and grandeur, and with the most cutting-edge, jaw-dropping CGI I’ve ever seen! Inside the OASIS, nearly EVERY pop-culture icon is there which, in some ways, is both awesome and distracting. There are SO many (Chucky, Batman, MechaGodzilla, Freddy Kruger, etc) that you get sensory-overload just LOOKING at all your favorites, that is sometimes detracts from the story. I personally squealed when Parzival grabs ahold of the Zemeckis Cube and the Holy Hand Grenade! Easter eggs are everywhere!

Ernest Cline adapted his own book with Zack Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) and took the “free the system” Tron plot and, not only combined it with a VR scavenger hunt, but managed to throw in a love story as well! The dialogue is like an uncomplicated 1990’s film; uncluttered and simple without being hokey or dumbed-down. Think of Spielberg’s earlier films and you’ll have an idea. Tongue-in-cheek fun, kid friendly, wildly imaginative, and a throw-back to solid story telling that, if you’re as old as I am, has a rich cornucopia of movie icons racing past the screen every .002 seconds. I can’t wait to frame-by-frame the DVD to see what I missed!

Sheridan reminds me of Zach Galligan (from the Gremlins movies) with those soulful eyes and expressionistic features, but it’s Cooke that steals it with her exuberance, feisty attitude, and yet has a vulnerability that plays so well here. Rylance is also a winner, playing Halliday as a tragic savant that’ll break your heart, and a great performance by Mendleson who is so GOOD being a villain (he was nasty Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).             

The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
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Virtual Reality (VR) technology gets a bold workout here in this very strange and mind-blowing sci-fi movie that came and went in the theaters back in 1999. One part police drama, two parts CSI, this movie sucks you into the world of alternate realities within alternate realities; sorta like Inception, but with VR.

Dateline: Los Angeles, 1990 and filthy-rich inventor Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) owns a multibillion-dollar computer enterprise of a newly completed VR simulation of 1937 version of Los Angeles, filled with simulated humans that are unaware they are computer programs. After Fuller is murdered, his friend and protégé, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), who is also the heir to the company, naturally becomes the primary suspect. The weird part is, the evidence against him is so strong that even Hall begins to doubt his own innocence.

Between interrogations by Detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert), Hall meets Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), the estranged daughter of Hannon Fuller, who is busy with the shutdown of the VR system. And just when Hall starts to romances her, a local bartender is murdered after he claims to have witnessed Hall and Fuller on the night Fuller was murdered. What the… ? Hall is arrested, but is released when Jane gives him an alibi. The only way to find out what the hell is going on is go INTO the VR world of 1937 L.A. and find clues that Fuller left behind. He must BE part of that world, assume a character called Fergusen, and find answers.

Pretty soon, he gets involved in some wild 1937 antics and learns some startling truths about the reality he’s living in: it isn’t real. In fact, the 1990 world he just came from isn’t real as well! THAT’S a VR simulation running on top of the 1990 simulation running at the same time of the 1937 program! EGADS!! Messing with his head on many levels, Hall tries to figure out which is the reality and which is the VR as the body count increases around him. But are these people dying even REAL? What year is it anyway?

Based on the 1964 novel Simulacron-3, director Josef Rusnak (It’s Alive) and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez (his one and only screenplay) tackled the complex and confusing screenplay with aplomb. When dealing with a twisty ending, that comes out of left field like this one has, it gives the audience a nice build-up and a one-two surprise punch at the end, which is what you get here. The script is full of niceties like a 1937 Los Angeles era and the VR people that are forced into it, much like those awkward time-travelers you see on TV (Timeless). Bierko, who can shape-shift from comedy to drama, does a great performance here and the whole movie is worth a rental/streaming.

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