It’s possible that reading bad reviews of this book and this movie prejudiced me ahead of time. But I’m not sure it would have mattered. This is a bad movie. And it’s somewhat shocking that a director as skilled at making popcorn entertainment as Spielberg couldn’t turn it into a passable film.
As people have pointed out, this film seems to exist so a certain type of pop culture nerd can get his rocks off. The idea that an in-depth knowledge of the ’80s would be essential in 2045 – and, moreover, that a kid born in 2027 would have this kind of knowledge of the ’80s is preposterous. Everybody knows that writing “jokes” by making pop culture references is lazy but writing a novel based entirely on other people’s works strikes me as just as lazy. I guess I understand the compulsion to use CGI to jump into movies, as there does seem like there could be something fun there with people running through old movies but this is not the plot.
But that’s just the half of it: the guy who wrote this – and the people who turned it into a movie – don’t appear to get how online video games actually work. Very early on the plot you understand that the evil company would easily win this just by writing a program. (This company is literally using manual labour to work in a virtual space. How does this make any sense?) And this whole concept seems to have been written in ignorance of how the internet works.
But the problems with the source material are just part of the problem. From the moment the film starts – with its endless exposition – something is definitely off. An episode of Black Mirror – any episode – does a way better job establishing its world and the rules than this movie. And a movie like Wreck It Ralph does a better job of establishing a virtual world. There’s no sense of place because The Oasis is everywhere. And, as the cliche goes, it is everywhere so it is nowhere. So little of the movie is set in Columbus – a Columbus that is only somewhat recognizable for the real place because it is set in some stupid version of the future.
And speaking of which, everything is virtual so there are no stakes. The movie tries to give us real world stakes but it doesn’t spend enough time establishing the real lives of anyone but the protagonist. This virtual world is really no substitute for the real one. For example, when King Kong is chasing them, there is only the sound of King Kong and the car, there is no ambient noise. And that’s true of so much of the movie.
The jokes rarely land, because most of them are just “hey I recognize that!” pop culture references. There are a couple moments where we laughed at actual humour that weren’t pop culture references, but these moments were few and far between.
Remember that Family Guy “joke” where Stewie is doing William Shatner’s performance of “Rocket Man”? The “joke” probably works for those who don’t know Shatner really did it, because someone doing “Rocket Man” as Shatner is pretty funny. But it was funny when Shatner did it, right? For those of us who know about it – or find out about it later – Stewie isn’t adding anything to the original gag. And so Family Guy isn’t adding anything. What is this movie adding to The Iron Giant or The Shining or Holy Grail? What is this hackneyed “The One” plot adding to any other young male savior movie?
Huge expense seems to have been put into this movie. And the idea of having 21st century actors/characters run around in 20th century movies is a neat concept that deserves further exploration. But this movie sucks, on every level other than production values. Spielberg’s usual deft handling of a movie like this seems almost virtually absent, the underlying plot so cliche, and the reliance on pop culture cues such an obvious clutch, it’s hard not to absolutely hate it.
And I mean that, I hated this movie. To a degree to which I don’t usually hate movies I rate this low. (Usually I just laugh at them. But this one made me angry.)