Ready Player One

Move over Stranger Things. With its mind-boggling explosion of pop-culture eye-candy – an early sequence sees a DeLorean, the A-Team van, Akira’s futuristic motorcycle and about a hundred other icons of Geek surging through a New York City street race – Ready Player One is a relentlessly paced nostalgia rush like no other. And who better to orchestrate this 80s-tinged chaos than Steven Spielberg? Having made his name with precisely the type of blockbuster movie referenced in Ernest Cline’s best-seller, the director proves he’s lost none of his visual chutzpah, crafting an involving cinematic thrill ride that stands alongside the magic of his early movies.


In 2045 the world has become the oft-predicted grim dystopia, with over-population and violent in-fighting driving many people to seek a means of escape. Most find it by plugging into the Oasis, a virtual reality universe where anything is possible. When the game’s timorous creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, his avatar launches a competition to find an easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world – the winner inheriting Halliday’s fortune and gaining sole control of the Oasis. Our Charlie Bucket in this digitised Chocolate Factory is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a poor teenager living in the Stacks – a perilous tower of rusty campervans – who dreams of playing his way to a better life. He’s not alone in his desire, though. If he wants to claim the prize, he’ll have to outsmart a vast squad of players, controlled by Ben Mendelsohn nefarious software CEO Nolan Sorrento.


Visually, the Oasis is a stunning creation. Despite relying heavily on computer generated imagery, it deftly avoids feeling like an over-elaborate cut scene from a video game and its vibrant, jiggering landscape neatly contrasts the bleached surroundings of the real world. Lesser blockbusters might be overwhelmed by such a reliance on CGI (yes, we’re looking at you, Justice League), but by centring the action on a core group of characters, Spielberg manages to keep the set-pieces crisp and clean without sacrificing any of the gonzo gamer spirit that the source material inspires.


And while Ready Player One is steeped in pop-culture iconography (even the most dedicated of Redditors will struggled to spot every reference hidden here), Spielberg is careful not to let all the nods to video games, books and movies overshadow the story. Crucially for a movie where the bulk of the action is set in a fictional world, it never looses sight of the real world stakes. In their thirst for escapism, many payers plow their life savings into their virtual lives, so while they might not perish along with their avatars in the game, loosing can mean financial ruin and imprisonment in online labour camps known as Loyalty Centres. Wade experiences these real consequences first hand when his quest to find Halliday’s easter egg makes him the centre of a real world manhunt that draws his loved ones into the crossfire. The resultant tragedy is perhaps too easily forgotten to have any impact, but it counts as a rare misstep in a movie that is otherwise excellent at layering its fantastical action with real peril.


Crossing the finish line in a bum-numbing 140 minutes, it’s perhaps a shade too long and the third act noticeably drags in comparison to the ferocious velocity of the hours preceding it. For the most part, though, Ready Player One is an exhilarating watch. And even when you strip away the kinetic action, dazzling spectacle and waves of nostalgia, you’ll find a heart-warming story about the importance of taking the time to appreciate the things that make real life worth living. Simply put: it’s vintage Spielberg.

Runtime: 140 minutes (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn


Dunkirk – Film Review

Unfolding in a tight, heart-thumpingly tense 106 minutes, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his micro-budget debut Following in 1998. It’s also his most absorbing, arresting and visually astounding film yet. Stripping away much of the sci-fi frills and mind-bending trickery that has defined the writer-director’s career this far, Dunkirk zeroes in on an emotionally devastating story of ordinary men trapped in an extraordinary bid for survival that will pin you to your seat and leave you breathless and paralysed by the sheer weight of its clockwork calculated tension.

The restrained filming style is by no means an indication of dimmed ambitions on Nolan’s part. Filmed on the sands and seas surrounding the real-life Dunkirk, this film is another technical triumph for the filmmaker. Every single detail of every frame has been exhaustively researched, with period-correct Spitfires and British naval destroyers painstakingly assembled to add to the movie’s verisimilitude. Even the taut, dizzying set-pieces have been executed with a metronomic precision.


Seemingly taking inspiration from Winston Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech made in the aftermath of the disastrous Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk splits the action between three individual storylines set on land, air and sea.

There’s Finn Whitehead’s petrified young private who, along with many thousands of British soldiers, finds himself stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches, hemmed in on all sides by the advancing Nazi forces, as he desperately searches for a way to get home. Mark Rylance plays an ageing mariner who bravely sets sail across the Channel to rescue our boys after the Royal Navy commandeers private boats to aid their efforts. And then there’s Tom Hardy’s ice cool Spitfire pilot, racing through the skies to protect the approaching British flotillas from ruthless air raids by German bombers.


All three of these harrowing journeys unfold in their own timelines – Whitehead spends a week in Dunkirk waiting for rescue, Rylance’s voyage lasts a day, and Hardy’s flight takes place of the course of just one hour – with only fleeting intersections until they ultimately collide in an intensely incendiary finale.

The overall effect of this time-wimey trickery is strikingly immersive, deftly reflecting the frighteningly bewildering environment British troops found themselves trapped in 1940. Like them, we have hardly any idea of what’s happening around us, how much time has passed or even what time of day it is – our only focus is on how these men will make it out alive.


What makes events feel so immediate and visceral is Nolan’s claustrophobic direction. With the action shot largely in unflinching close-ups, we’re dropped right into the heat of the battle as Luftwaffe planes scream down from the skies and enemy fire erupts from every direction. These sounds are raised to almost deafening levels, you can feel the rumble of missile strikes and the rattle of gunfire reverberate through your bones.

Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer’s ferociously evocative score, with it’s ticking pocket watch and endlessly ascending Shepherd’s tone, drags you to the edge of your seat unable to look away. It’s as close as you’d care to get to actually being on those beaches with the grey, restless ocean sloshing at your boots.


The bare bones filmmaking style extends to the main cast, too. With almost no dialogue for the entire duration, the characters are unburdened by intricate backstories or complex emotional arcs – they’re completely unnecessary. Rather, the story is told firmly in the present moment, with the character’s emotions – be it fear, desperation, selfishness or selflessness – relayed through their actions rather than their words.

This is perhaps Nolan’s biggest achievement with Dunkirk: eschewing the excessive sentimentality or chest-thumping heroics typical of war movies. Here it’s the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that carry the most weight, whether its a boy telling a white lie to a shell-shocked soldier or a tommy gratefully grasping a bottle of beer from a cheering local. When the visuals are as devastating, exhilarating and powerfully moving as these, stories really don’t need anything else.

Runtime: 106 mins (approx.)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh

The BFG – Film Review

At first glance, Steven Spielberg adapting The BFG seems like a perfect combination. With its fantastical trappings, focus on a lonely, imaginative child who befriends a misunderstood ‘monster’, Roald Dahl’s classic tale is an uncanny thematic mirror to ET. This dazzling adaptation even reunites the director with Melissa Mathison, who co-wrote that seminal slice of 80s sci-fi.

Alas, some pairings are better left to the imagination as the reality of a Spielberg-helmed BFG only disappoints. This two hander might boast some exceptional visual effects and charming performances from its two leads, but such delights cannot overcome an interminable bore of a story.

The start is spectacular, swooping down into an anachronistic London where 80s-styled drunkards pound Dickensian cobbles as lonely orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) narrates the perils of being out of bed past the Witching Hour. Of course, the mischievous sprog fails to heed her own warning and is swiftly spotted by a cloaked giant who snatches her from beneath the bedcovers and whisks her away to the mythical Giant Country.

The giants’ homeland is a truly wondrous creation, a vivid expanse of verdant, fairy-tale landscapes and wild, roaming dreams which zip across the screen like firecracker fairy lights. Here Sophie’s captor is revealed not to be the child-guzzling monster of folklore but a more kindly sort of giant who spends his days blowing dreams into children’s minds and cowering from his larger, more ferocious kin. Together with his new miniature pal, the BFG (Mark Rylance) hatches a plan to rid the land of these foul creatures once and for all.

It’s not just the magical landscapes that impress; the realisation of the BFG is absolutely exquisite. Big-eared, matted-haired, and gangly-limbed, the performance-capture technology superbly supersizes every tiny detail of Rylance’s expressive performance. In his second collaboration with Spielberg, the veteran stage actor gives yet more reason to be glad it won’t be his last. Rylance nails the movie’s titular hero, selling BFG’s tricky spoonerisms and malapropisms with a suitably daft West Country grumble without ever losing touch with the character’s humane warmth.

Barnhill, too, is a wonderful choice to play Sophie, possessing that virtuous, impudent spirit inherent in all of Dahl’s child heroes. The scenes where Sophie and the BFG bond over their shared sense of alienation and love of imagination are the movie’s most enchanting, which is in no small part down the Barnhill and Rylance’s affecting chemistry.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Once Sophie is fully ensconced in giant territory the plot stalls. Sophie and the BFG talk endlessly without really saying anything and scenes seem to drag on longer than a giant’s lifespan without even a hint of conflict. Though vile behemoths like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) are our notional baddies, Mathison’s decision to omit scenes of the giants actually munching on children reduces them to bumbling buffoons whose bullying of BFG is played comically. This might have been a well-intentioned bid to make the movie friendlier to the tiniest human beans in the audience, but it strips the story of all tension.

Never is this more apparent than in the underwhelming third act. After a typically overwrought sequence in which our heroes try to enlist the services of the Queen – which admittedly leads to an entertainingly slapstick Buckingham Palace breakfast – we return to Giant Country with the full might of Britain’s military in tow, ready to take on Fleshlumpeater’s clan.

While entirely faithful to Dahl’s novel – a fact that would no doubt please the notoriously fussy author – this old-fashioned display of Britain’s imperial might effectively sidelines our heroes and turns the final showdown into a rather weightless affair lacking any genuine stakes.

ET remains so beloved by audiences because it takes us on an emotional journey, inviting us to invest in endearing characters before forcing them through the wringer. The BFG might be made of similar stuff, but it’s far less engaging by comparison, dazzling and delighting in patches but never truly touching your heart.

Runtime: 117 mins; Genre: Fantasy; Released: 22 July 2016;

Director: Steven Spielberg; Writers: Melissa Mathison, Roald Dahl (novel);

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jermaine Clement, Bill Hader