If you like watching films that are rich in imagery and escapist in the moment, but don’t care much about analyzing their symbolism or intentions afterwards, then this is your week at the movies. But it’s also your week at the movies if you’re fascinated by pop culture and its ability to offend multiple groups in multiple ways, as this week there’s no shortage of perceived offensiveness.
“Ready Player One,” adapted from Ernest Cline’s initially well received 2011 novel, is brought to the big screen by Steven Spielberg. It’s a story about the future, set in 2045, in which people spend as much of their waking lives as possible inside The Oasis, an artificial virtual reality environment developed years earlier by James Halliday. If you can picture a merger between World of Warcraft, Halo, Facebook, and Bitcoin, you’re at least heading in the right direction. And in that sense, it’s not a scenario that’s terribly far fetched – with 2045 perhaps unnecessarily distant.
Before his death, Halliday (Mark Rylance) placed various keys within the game, as rewards for finding hidden “easter egg” secrets, such that the first player, or “gunter” (from easter egg hunter), to find all three would inherit his shares in the company behind The Oasis. Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) is one of those gunters, searching for the keys and attempting to keep a step ahead of IOI, a massive corporation intent on gaining control of Halliday’s shares, headed by the villainous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
What follows is a fast romp through online world’s featuring Halliday’s favorite 1980’s pop culture references, in a primarily white male eye candy nerdgasm of clues, chases, races, and violence. Which accounts for many of the problems that others have written about the film and/or the book – with the content largely skipping over more female-centric and minority pop culture of the same era and being squarely focused on the white male characters. It’s one thing to say that it’s based on Halliday’s taste, and in doing so apparently blame the character, but we’re also told The Oasis is limited only by one’s imagination. So there’s no seemingly good reason, at least as described in the film, for the lack of other influences and eras – for example, if it’s 2045, wouldn’t some of the players introduce pop culture references or avatars from the 2020’s and 2030’s?
I haven’t read the book but it’s problematic when the few things I’ve heard or read about the book seem to do a better job of explaining certain aspects of the narrative than the film itself does. Not that the film is hard to follow but it does seem to open up some significant plot holes – such as the extent to which all of the gunters are immersed in film and television references that are decades older than them. And if Halliday was more focused on playing a game than winning it, wouldn’t it make at least as much sense to come up with a mechanism to transfer ownership to somebody who was least interested in finding the keys and winning the puzzle? At some point it’s like going to a lecture on how the journey is more important than the destination, on an express train with no windows.
The central cast is rounded out by Olivia Cooke as a gunter primarily interested in stopping IOI, who becomes Wade’s love interest, and Lena Waithe, as a black woman who uses an overtly male avatar and warns her friend Wade that people may not be like their online personas. They are joined in what becomes a team quest by two Asian actors/characters, Philip Zhao as the young Sho and Win Morisaki who plays Daito and rather stereotypically manifests online in samurai battle armor.
Which is a convenient segue to “Isle of Dogs,” a stop-motion animation by Wes Anderson set in Japan and loaded with a laundry list of iconic Japanese cultural touchstones, almost the same list as the recent Netflix film “The Outsider.” It’s like a visit to a Japanese showcase area at EPCOT.
“Isle of Dogs” imagines a Japanese city, Megasaki, in which the corrupt mayor has hatched a plan to rid the city of dogs by exiling them all to a massive “WALL-E” style trash dump on a coastal island. The first of the dogs to be sent away belongs to his 12 year-old nephew Atari, a resourceful boy who later attempts to find and free Spots, by piloting a small plane and crashing on the island. Meanwhile the dogs are living a “Lord of the Flies” existence, fighting over the scraps they find in the dumped trash.
What’s odd about the film is that while these Japanese dogs are all voiced by a who’s who of white actors (including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson), the Japanese human characters remain untranslated, except where necessary for plot exposition, in which moments (such as speeches by the Mayor and news programs) we are given an English translator (Frances McDormand). So, as has been pointed out by others, you end up with a visually almost fetishized version of Japanese culture while the native characters are rendered essentially mute, and even the dogs are about as un-Japanese as possible.
Added to that is a young white American exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) who is outraged by the atrocity of the situation and uncovers the corruption behind it in another example of a, perhaps inadvertent, white hero(ine) trope. Not only are the Japanese voters supposedly easily duped into a animal cruelty, but it takes an American to talk them out of the evils of mass internment and fake news (!).
All of which is a shame because it detracts from what is otherwise a beautiful film. But it could have been beautiful set anywhere. It could have been beautiful with Asian-American voice actors in the English speaking roles or with Japanese cultural content that seemed like more than just set decoration. Anderson has been accused of using other culture as a convenient backdrop before (with respect to “The Darjeeling Limited”) and at least a couple of the voice talent have had other run-ins with white-washing accusations (Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”). So it’s hard to imagine that nobody along the way thought this might upset at least some people.
But if none of those things bother you, you’ll likely have a great time at both films. I wanted to like both but sat watching, thinking how out of place, or out of time, they seemed – as if they might both have been made ten years ago before these kinds of concerns were so commonly expressed.