By Aaron Tan (19A01B)
It was at South by Southwest 2017, one of the largest annual conglomerates of film, interactive media, and music conferences in the world, that cinematic legend Steven Spielberg stepped onstage to debut his latest feature: Ready Player One.
The sci-fi CG bonanza, based on the titular New York Times bestseller by Ernest Cline, was one of the most anticipated movies of the year, not least by pop-culture aficionados all around the globe. It promised to be a rollicking adventure through virtual reality, with one single, central goal — to entertain.
“This is not a film that we’ve made,” Spielberg quipped to the sold-out audience of the Paramount Theatre. “This is — I promise you — a movie.”
And the crowd went wild.
Ready Player One is a topical tale of virtual reality – of the place where reality and fantasy intersects: the OASIS. It is a digital world born from the imagination of awkward VR entrepreneur James Halliday, one which has supplanted a drab and desolate reality; Populations are glued to their headsets, strapped to their haptic rigs. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind “Anorak’s Quest”, an OASIS-wide hunt for three keys hidden behind three fiendish challenges. The first to complete the quest will be granted full ownership of the OASIS.
And so we follow the 18-year-old orphan Perzival (real name Wade Watts) and his friends as they race through the OASIS against the nefarious capitalist Nolan Sorrento, CEO of the sinister IOI corporation, to complete the quest and gain ownership of the virtual world.
It was around 11.20am when I sat down to watch Ready Player One, popcorn in hand, ready to be blown away by the spectacle. Spectacle which, for the most part, it delivered. Amidst the hackneyed cliches, questionable plotting, a sometimes frustrating naivete (that, I must admit, was most likely an intentional choice); Amidst “clues” that required more reaching than a Nintendo Ultra Hand could help with to crack, was a competently directed action romp which excels in its visual flair and kinetic energy.
If you want an example of a great action setpiece, look no further than the frenzied first-act Formula-1, a perilous race for the first key. Our hero Wade “Parzival” Watts revs up his DeLorean, while partner-in-crime-slash-obligatory-romantic- interest Art3mis’ readies her replica of the iconic red bike from Akira, as they join dozens of others through a breathtaking vehicular thrillride involving mass destruction, King Kong, and the T-rex from Jurassic Park. Sweeping camerawork and masterful blocking combine to form a sequence with the tremendous visual momentum, weight, and flow you would expect from the man behind Duel and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The climax, a slew of relentless action sequences masterfully strung together, like dominoes falling one after the other, was also incredibly satisfying to behold.
All in all, skillful editing and brilliant visual effects make for a thoroughly entertaining joyride, a foremost exemplar of big-budget entertainment. Of course, a three-way giant robot battle between the Iron Giant, Gundam and Mechagodzilla didn’t hurt, either.
Yet, I would be Ern-Clined to say (ha ha), there is something missing: a convincing thematic and emotional core. Sure, Spielberg has wisely elected to include a side story of lost love and things left behind (complete with a childhood throwback scenario and appropriately sentimental score. Oh, and my secret favourite scene in the movie, the zombie ballroom dance, set to Midnight, the Stars and You from The Shining. Yes, I have a weakness for old-timey easy listening. And what a fantastic marriage of audiovisual dissonance and assonance. But I digress.) There is a thematic core of reality versus fantasy, and knowing where to get off.
But the emotional beats feel contrived and not earned, the romance laughably forgettable, the themes shallow and poorly-explored.
And yet, for all its flaws, Ready Player One was a major hit. It was generally well-received by critics, with, according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 73% of critics giving it a positive review. Audiences, too loved it. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “A–” on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it an 82% overall positive score and a 65% “definite recommend”.
This raises an interesting question, one that the world of cinema is grappling with more than ever before – is it enough to be entertained?
Steven Allan Spielberg was born on December 18, 1946, in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Born to a restaurateur and concert pianist (his mother) and an electrical engineer (his father), Spielberg moved early in his life to New Jersey, then Arizona, where young Spielberg spent most of his days an anxious child, uneasy with his Orthodox Jewish heritage, dealing with domestic volatility (his parents eventually split in his last year of high school), ear pressed against the television set where he heard voices calling to him amidst the static. Cheery on the outside and nerve-wracked on the inside, according to biographer Molly Haskell. The nervous, nail-biting child observing the adults around him yet inwardly keeping his distance.
It was not long after he moved to Arizona that he inherited his father’s 8mm movie camera, and was tasked with filming the family’s vacations. In 1958 when the 12-year-old Spielberg became a Boy Scout, he directed his first film to earn a photography badge – a 9 minute western he named The Last Gunfight. “I made it and got my merit badge,” recalled Spielberg warmly, years later. “That was how it all started.”
Is it enough to be entertained? It is a question that, beloved as he is, has plagued Spielberg ever since he ushered in the age of the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster with his 1975 thriller Jaws. William S. Pechter of Commentary, for example, described Jaws as “a mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons” and “filmmaking of this essentially manipulative sort”; Haskell herself similarly characterized it as a “scare machine that works with computer-like precision… You feel like a rat, being given shock therapy”.
Contrived. Commercialised. Populist. Many of Spielberg’s films have been criticised for all these and more. They are characterised as sentimentalist, hollow – more of a feast for the senses than the soul. “If you ever glance at the cinema listings and wonder why there’s nothing the even vaguely mature might want to see, blame Spielberg,” wrote author Christopher Bray in a particularly scathing essay.
It is an issue modern cinema, which Spielberg helped kickstart, is struggling with. As movies get bigger, more spectacular and more expensive to make, so too do studios need to get more tickets sold – and to get more tickets sold, they attempt to craft movies that will appeal to the largest crowd – the largest market – an art Spielberg himself has perfected. One could argue, as Bray did, that Spielberg had in fact unleashed upon the world of cinema an age where sterile, populist filmmaking dominates. For many, it is a cause for lament.
If he were alive today, one suspects that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would be among those who share these sentiments. A towering figure in Western philosophy, Hegel is perhaps best known for the development of his “Absolute Idealism”, as well as being the principal originator of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad (now you know who to thank). Of course, he too had plenty to say about art and entertainment.
“Art”, to Hegel, was “As simply a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing utterance to the Divine, the deepest interests of humanity and the most comprehensive truths of the mind”. In other words, Hegel believed art’s true function was to give expression to a divine and human freedom, paradoxically through the servitude to God, Truth and the Ideal. Art, according to Hegel, not only elevates us but grounds us in understanding and expressing the fundamental truth and nature of humanity.
It is not surprising, then, that he would scoff at what we would be familiar with as entertainment – which he called “A fleeting game in the service of pleasure”, of “life-related pleasantness” – an inferior realm that bows to base, biological, external needs. Entertainment, to Hegel, is identified with what is unworthy of the name of “art”.
A realm that values pleasure over truth and beauty. Just as the OASIS was a pleasurable escape from reality in the world of Ready Player One, a realm in which you could do anything, a realm in which, despite (and perhaps thanks to) the freedom Halliday bestowed upon its inhabitants, was enraptured and enslaved by worldly pleasure. Hegel, as does (rather ironically) Ready Player One, urged us to remove our headsets and to engage ourselves in a greater truth.
Helen Arendt, German-born American philosopher, expands on the idea of true art as transcending basic means and functions, as transcending mortal life. Just like sleeping and eating, Arendt viewed entertainment as just another part of the ‘biological’ life process”, which is a “metabolism” of consumption.
On the other hand, true art stood outside the realm and needs of “biological life”, its beauty and value beyond all function, inhabiting an immortal realm of freedom. To Arendt, entertainment was a mere “means” that only served to sustain and improve human life, whereas artworks were pure ends, things of “intrinsic, independent worth”, that will outlast the lifespan of mortals. Things that are grander and more important than the momentary, temporal pleasure of entertainment.
To her, the entertainment industry was a threat. One that corrupts the permanent, immortal, transcendent beauty of true art, turning it into mere commodities of human consumption, into simply temporal and worldly pleasure.
To modern cinephiles, this philosophy is damning. Gone are the days when mainstream filmmakers dared to push the boundaries, to deeply examine themselves, to search for and express truths of the human world and the medium itself. Gone are the days before it became all about profit, and ticket-sales and box-office charts, before it became populist, sterile, diluted. Made by committee. On an assembly line. By stooges on a studio’s leash.
Before it became all about “entertainment”.
Spielberg has always had a strong sense of purpose and direction. After The Last Gunfight, the young Spielberg moved on to bigger and more ambitious projects. His next movie, which he wrote and directed at 13 years of age, was the 40-minute-long war film Escape to Nowhere, the cast comprised of his friends from high school. His projects only continued to grow in size and scope, and by the age of 20 he already had a good idea of just what kind of a filmmaker he wanted to be.
“I don’t want to make films like Antonioni or Fellini. I don’t want just the elite,” he told a student journalist. “I want everybody to enjoy my films.”
It is a sentiment he has carried with him through his career, and one that has divided as much as it has delighted. But to say that his movies, movies that have moved millions of hearts and inspired many more (Spielberg’s, for one, is the most cited name in Academy Award thank-you speeches), are not enough, sounds… not quite right.
Spielberg likes to make up stories for his grandchildren. “They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus Rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard,” he explained excitedly to a reporter from The Guardian.
“It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”
Perhaps the reason one finds it difficult to criticise Spielberg’s work is the way it speaks to our inner child, the way it speaks to his own, the way it speaks to that precocious 12-year-old in Arizona, ear pressed against the television set, holding his father’s camera.
Perhaps, in a way, we are all Spielberg’s grandchildren.
What then is the role of human pleasure in art? Is it, as Hegel and Arendt might posit, a lower form? A corrupting influence that reduces art to mere life-related inconsequentiality, temporal amusement devoid of the eternal and essential truth and beauty that all true art should strive toward?
Not to Richard Shusterman.
Shusterman, an American aestheticist, has a slightly different take on entertainment. In opposition to Arendt’s dismissal of entertainment as a mortal slave to human life, he writes in his essay Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics: “Human life is always more than biological, it intrinsically involves meaning, making and conduct. And what would the world of culture be without human life and the experience of mortal people to animate it? A collection of things that are lifeless rather than immortal.”
And indeed, why should human pleasure be demeaned, relegated to the ash-heap of aesthetics? For all art is personal; It comes from the heart of the human individual. And yet, would we so willingly disregard the value of human emotion? Of love, of excitement, of the gleam in one’s eye as adrenaline courses through one’s veins? Laughter and joy. Pain and pleasure. That we should abandon the beauty of the human experience with all of its fleeting feelings in search of an unfeeling “truth” (as if it even existed!), eternal as the heavens yet just as cold?
For what it means to live is to feel, and to experience all the joys and pleasures of life, temporal as they may be. Indeed, to quote Shusterman, “By refusing to equate reality with permanence, it recognises that short-lived loveliness or brief spasms of delight are no less real or moving or cherished because they are momentary. Indeed, most pleasures of beauty, art and entertainment are not only valuable without being everlasting, but are more valuable because they are not.”
Just as a flower, come and gone within days is but for that moment in time – just that one moment, beautiful. And if we could prolong that beauty for just a second more, what human being would not try?
The credits rolled and the lights flickered on. I tossed my empty box of popcorn into the waste bin as I left the cinema, on my way to get one of those “decent meals” Halliday spoke of. And as I walked, gathering my thoughts, I wondered what I would write for this “review” (if you could even call it one anymore). Trite and tired three-act plot structure, maybe? Cardboard characters. Images that, while vibrant, were not striking. An artificiality and contrivance that betrayed its most human moments. A facile approach to a potentially interesting premise, naive and saccharine.
It was the way this potentially rich (and topical) thematic core was squandered with surface-level storytelling that irked me the most. With Ready Player One, Spielberg chose to tiptoe around the big questions, laying down no more than a few easy, playful jabs in a movie that really said nothing much of value at all. Fittingly, it was a movie obfuscated by fantasy, drowned in candy coloured, computer-generated spectacle.
To be sure, it is nowhere near one of Spielberg’s finest works. And yet, there was something quintessentially Spielbergian about what I had just witnessed. I was swept away in the flow of the action. The giddy rush of adrenaline was a near-constant, from the race to the climactic clash between the citizens of the world and the sinister IOI corporation. While the movie came up empty-handed in many aspects, I can’t deny that I enjoyed it.
J.G. Ballard, whose memoir-novel Empire of the Sun was adapted by Spielberg back in 1987, once wrote: “The qualities that the cineastes see as weaknesses, I see as Spielberg’s strengths, and as the reason why he is one of today’s most important filmmakers… In many ways Spielberg is the Puccini of cinema, one of the highest compliments I can pay. He may be a little too sweet for some tastes, but what melodies, what orchestrations, what cathedrals of emotion.”
False dichotomy aside (we don’t have world enough and time for that today, though I’d love to talk about it), not every movie has to be an Amblin Production. Not every movie should be an Amblin Production. We need films that are incisive and provocative, films that dare to push the envelope. We need films that probe the human essence, we need films that are of the eternal beauty of truth. We need all those and more, because they inform us what it means to be human, because it instills within us empathy for the wandering souls drifting past, because they help us navigate the complexities and contradictions of life in this world. We need those movies because they tell us about ourselves.
And yet, we need movies like Spielberg’s more than ever. Even our hero Perzival recognised the value of escapism and entertainment, leaving the OASIS open on every day but two. Here are movies with the power to unite masses, to inspire, to excite, to ignite, to dare us to dream. Movies that thrill and move hearts. Movies that may not last, but bring us joy all the same.
“Films”, and “movies” too. We need them both.
And who knows? There, somewhere in the audience, might be a 12 year old child, father’s camera in hand, desperately wanting to know that they, too, can do anything. That nothing is impossible.