Ready Player One Is A Breathtaking Ode to Gaming & Geek Culture

Ready Player One Poster

The latest Steven Spielberg sci-fi epic is Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, and this is Spielberg’s best film in years.

It takes place in Columbus, Ohio in 2045 and follows the saga of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a downtrodden teenager who escapes his drab existence by living in a hyper VR called the OASIS. This online universe is a place where you can be anyone through avatars and live any kind of existence.

iron giant ready player one

Many visitors are active gamers like Wade who goes by a customized avatar called Parzival. Others have imaginative avatars as well, some unique, some are replicas of popular fictional characters. Some of these include the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, Batman, Lara Croft and others. They all sport assorted gear, drive various vehicles and mixed costumes from across popular games, films, TV shows, etc. A great example is the DeLorean vehicle from Back to the Future that Parzival drives or a Clark Kent disguise that is used at one point. Comparing Wade’s drab real world, which is literally crumbling apart, to the wondrous marvel of the OASIS, it is easy to see why most of the world’s populace chooses to spend most of their time in the OASIS.

In the film, the mysterious and super-rich creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) died a few years earlier. Before his death, Halliday set up an epic quest in the OASIS where gamers have to find three keys to gain control of the artificial realm and become insanely rich. Halliday had a deep love of pop culture, especially sci-fi, fantasy, anime, horror and comic books, and so sprinkled many Easter eggs throughout the OASIS as clues to finding the keys.

Wade lives in squalor and like most players sets out to find the keys to figuratively open the door to a better life. He also shares Halliday’s love of pop culture and thinks creatively, which gives him a distinct advantage in the quest. Joining him are a ragtag team of Gunters (Easter egg hunters), who include Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Standing in their way are not just billions of other online gamers and Gunters but the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). He commands a virtual army in the OASIS and desires to gain complete control of the online world. Needless to say, Sorrento will stop at nothing to win the ultimate prize, even if that means using the resources of IOI to endanger everyone, including Wade and his friends.

Ready Player One is a fresh, exciting and nostalgic ode to our ever-expanding pop culture, especially our favorite genres.  Nearly every moment in the film just stuns our eyes with all the references that are too many to list here or even see after a few viewings. There are millions of them and part of the fun watching the film is trying to spot as many of them as possible. For a lesser director it would be so easy to let them overwhelm the film, but since Spielberg is Spielberg, he keeps the focus on the story and the characters. Many of the references and eggs actually serve a purpose in Ready Player One, in fact one of them, a certain film, plays an important role during a sequence that leaves you marveling over how Spielberg and his team managed to pull it off.

As great as it is, Ready Player One may be too much for some, probably those that look down upon geek culture. Others who embrace the culture will love what this film offers. There are some drawbacks, however. A bit more time should have been spent in the real word just for comparison purposes. It is established that reality is undesirable, but it should have been shown more. We never learn why the world is decaying, is it solely because most people retreated to the OASIS? Wade’s real life was depressing but what about his friends’ lives? Aside from some screen time with Samantha, the others are ciphers. Also, a key message in the film about living your real life instead of retreating into fantasies is hit over our heads repeatedly to the point of overkill.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg’s mastery behind the camera and some genuinely good performances by Sheridan, Cooke, Waithe and Mendelsohn elevate the film above its faults. Of this group, Cooke and Mendelsohn stand out. Cooke’s character expresses a quiet sensitivity while exhibiting great strength and ingenuity. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn does a terrific job portraying the villainous corporate head of IOI.

say Anything ready player one

Nonetheless, the film is a pure joy and captures the fun and wonderment of Steven Spielberg’s earlier works. It reminds us why he is still the master storyteller in cinema. It lets us revel in our love of nerd culture while reminding us that the simple things are the best.  Ready Player One is a heartfelt and visual spectacle that celebrates our love of geekdom. Go see it now and a few dozen times before buying the download or home release.

José Soto

 

 

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Altered Carbon: TV’s Newest Hard-Edged Sci-Fi Tale

Altered Carbon is the latest example that we are living during the Golden Age of sci-fi television shows. It premiered last month on Netflix. but was mostly dismissed by mainstream critics who probably only sample one or two episodes before rendering their verdicts. However, Altered Carbon, much like its characters, is much more than it seems.

Both Kovacs Altered Carbon

Based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel, Altered Carbon takes place hundreds of years in the future where humanity has essentially become immortal. This was accomplished with the introduction of alien technology that allowed human consciousness to be downloaded into “stacks”, devices that are implanted on the base of one’s neck. Everytime a body is near death, the stack transfers the consciousness into another body, called sleeves, with its own stack. This has a profound effect on humanity as people live hundreds of years and casually transfer onto new bodies as swiftly as we change our clothing. But this has not created a paradise. Constantly switching to new sleeves has a profound affect on the mind, soul and even society itself. This process has created a class of super-rich hedonists called meths who consider themselves to be above humankind and its morals.

The show focuses on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnamen and Will Yun Lee), a revolutionary soldier who was captured and placed into a new sleeve hundreds of years later. This new sleeve was activated by Lauren Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the wealthiest men in the known universe, to solve his own murder. That is the recent murder of one of Bancroft’s previous sleeves. Kovacs was activated because of his reputation as an Envoy, a rebellious group that wanted to end the use of stacks. Envoys are renowned for their tough mental resilience and discipline. which is what Bancroft needs to solve his murder.

 Kovacs grudgingly accepts Bancroft’s offer of indentured servitude in exchange for his freedom. During his investigations, Kovacs travels the seedy underworld of Bay City and the decadent and hedonistic lifestyles of the mega rich, while meeting an interesting cast of characters. There is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a working-class police detective with an unusual interest in Kovacs, and Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), an AI manifested as a holographic hotel manager. The show also features extensive flashbacks of Takeshi Kovacs’ previous life with people important to him, such as his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).

Due to the nature of his job, Kovacs runs into a lot of trouble, from criminal elements out to settle scores to sadistic hitmen to unsavory VR experiences. Luckily his honed skills as an Envoy allows Takeshi Kovacs to endure his ordeals. As he tries to solve the murder, Kovacs also has to grapple with his lost, previous life and finding his way in the new life.

altered carbon cityscape

Altered Carbon is entrancing, exciting and quite gripping at times thanks to its stylistic and noirish, cyberpunk elements that are similar to Blade Runner and intensely violent scenes that are reminiscent of John Wick or The Raid. Each shot is captivating with rich cinematography, not to mention special effects and production design that completely sell the notion this story takes place in the distant future.

Unlike other current TV shows, while Altered Carbon can be binged watched but is not dependent on this. Most episodes seem more self-contained while servicing the main plot of the Lauren Bancroft murder case. It is something of a relief since it allows the episodes to be enjoyed individually. However, its plots can be quite dense, though in a good way, with its usage of unusual words, exposition, and plot twists that may confuse casual viewers and calls for more focused viewing.

A word of caution is warranted, Altered Carbon is extremely violent and has graphic nudity. If this was a film it would be a hard R, so it is not for the more squeamish viewer.

Getting past its grimy nature and lurid violence, it is clear that the intense scenes underline the show’s theme: that humanity is not ready for immortality. By using stacks, most of humanity takes life and their bodies for granted as seen with the way many are too quick to jump into new sleeves after injuries or to take on new identities.  In essence, they have become desensitized to violence and by being so cavalier about the sanctity of the physical body these people are losing their humanity.

Altered Carbon is a stylistic, hard-edged sci-fi yarn that engrosses you with eye-popping visuals, intense fight scenes, and captivating and tortured characters. But more than that, Altered Carbon does what a a true sci-fi tale sets out to do: to extrapolate where humanity may go.

José Soto

 

 

Star Wars Rebels Has A Fitting Farewell

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Star Wars Rebels has now finished its run and has seemingly tied up the loose ends fans were wondering about when these new characters were introduced during the series’ beginning. Specifically Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus, and his apprentice Ezra Bridger. In the case of Kanan, his story concluded in the episode “Jedi Night” where he sacrifices himself to save his friends and destroy an imperial installation. The antepenultimate episode “A World Between Worlds” truly embraced Star Wars’ mystical side with seemingly magical wolves on Lothal aiding our heroes. Plus, Ezra transported to a nexus in time and space by using a Jedi temple mural and rescued Ahsoka Tano from her supposed end while fighting Darth Vader in the season 2 finale “Twilight of the Apprentice”.

All of this sets up the final episode “Family Reunion and Farewell”, where the remaining heroes launch a final plan to free the planet Lothal from the clutches of the Galactic Empire. Ezra Bridger faces his fears and feelings for his lost parents and withstands a final temptation by Emperor Palpatine. Ezra is also able to help his friends free his homeworld, kidnap Grand Admiral Thrawn and disappear with him into parts unknown by using interstellar space whales that can travel in hyperspace. Yes, you read that right. The epilogue is very interesting in that it shows the other characters fans have come to know and love surviving the Galactic Civil War. General Hera Syndulla had Kanan’s child and took part in the Battle of Endor, as did Zeb Orellios, Rex and Sabine Wren. Sabine herself states in the episode’s final moments that Ezra is still alive and out there somewhere, and along with Ahsoka, they both set out to look for him.

Thus concludes Dave Filoni’s companion piece to his earlier show Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The fact that he was in charge of Star Wars Rebels helped to maintain a sense of continuity between the shows, with several characters from the first show appearing in  Star Wars Rebels, especially clone trooper Rex, the pirate Hondo,  and Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan Ashoka Tano. Similar to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the quality of Star Wars Rebels increased as the series went on.

The very beginning had Ezra Bridger with a slingshot, which seemed silly and stoked fears that Rebels was just going to be just a dumbed down kids show about Star Wars, but he matured as the show went on and the relationships between the crew of the Ghost developed quite nicely, as well as their trials and tribulations as a small band of partisans trying to do good in the galaxy. “Family Reunion and Farewell” showed quite well how our heroes’ struggle against the Empire finally ended with freedom for their homeworld. Also, the Rebellion finally took a stand against the Empire, and the fight for freedom truly starting to take shape.

The show added quite a lot to the lore of Star Wars by showing the origins of such varied things like the B-Wing fighter, Mon Mothma and Senator Bail Organa organizing the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance, Princess Leia and Lando Calrissian in early adventures with the show’s characters, bringing fan favorite Grand Admiral Thrawn out of the Heir To The Empire books, and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul having a final confrontation on Tatooine. It also gave something of a conclusion to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, (something the show was denied when it was canceled by Disney) by having Ahsoka’s fate revealed and with her confrontation with  her former master.

Star Wars rebels mural

 The two shows are linked in this way obviously due to the involvement of Filoni who oversaw both series and is now in charge of overseeing all of the Lucasfilm animation projects. This bodes well for the future of Star Wars shows, since he was able to maintain a high-quality storytelling throughout the run of both Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars and hopefully will be able to continue this when the next eventual animated show comes along. I have a feeling that this next series will take place between the original and sequel trilogies and bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. A clue indicating this is that Lucasfilm has trademarked the title Star Wars Resistance. I trust that Filoni will be able to bring new and interesting ideas to the new era of Star Wars; something that is needed. But regardless, the legacy of Star Wars Rebels has been set with its emphasis on a crew who became a family, struggling and fighting against seemingly impossible odds and finally overcoming everything and helping to defeat the imperial juggernaut. Not bad for a kids show on Disney XD.

C.S. Link

Star Trek: Discovery – A First Season Review

Ordinarily, when reviewing TV shows, I would watch 4 to 6 episodes to get a good feel for the program. With Star Trek: Discovery, I decided to wait until it concluded its first season before doing a review because I honestly could not decide how I felt about it. This latest Star Trek spinoff has been the most difficult to form an opinion about. It has many commendable features, yet there are so many aspects about it that misfires so badly, that we have to wonder if the creators behind this spinoff understand Star Trek at all. Major spoilers will follow.

Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250s, which makes it a prequel to the original Star Trek. Then again it does not feel like a prequel but more like a remake. Naturally, it does not recreate the mood and production of the original because it would have been laughed off and this is part of the reason why it is so controversial with fans. Overall, this show has to be accepted as a remake rather than a reboot because there are many attempts to stick to canon and some elements established in the original Prime timeline, such as numerous Easter eggs, references and sound effects. On the other hand, they’re not always consistent with sticking to canon, which can be irritating. But once you put aside these feelings about this latest Star Trek spinoff, it becomes easier to watch.

Star Trek: Discovery is updated to today’s standards in terms of special effects, set design and writing. The entire show is beautifully executed and each episode feels more like a feature-length film than a TV show. While this is welcome, at times the creators went too far in reimagining Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic universe. A case in point is the unnecessary re-do of the Klingons, the show’s main enemy race. The poor actors portraying the Klingons seem to be drowning under all the heavy makeup and wardrobe and we have to wonder why the showrunners thought this was an improvement over the perfected Klingon look seen in the other spinoffs and films. Be that as it may, the subtle updating of other alien races like the Andorians and the Tellarites are executed well.

The Star Trek spinoff follows the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a former first officer who mutinied against her captain and was jailed. Her actions helped spark a war between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets and most of the first season is devoted to this storyline and her redemption. Burnham is freed by the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), and enlists her to his crew for some ulterior motive. He assigns her to aid the ship’s science officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and find a way to utilize an experimental spore drive being tested on the Discovery to win the war against the Klingons. Eventually this results in Stamets using himself as a conduit for the spore drive, which allows the ship to instantaneously travel anywhere.Even though Burnham is the main protagonist, Lorca has emerged as the most fascinating character thanks in part to Isaacs’ exemplary acting and the way he is written. Lorca was introduced as a mysterious, and unusually brutal commander who was obsessed with winning the war. He was not above tossing aside ethics to get the job done, and pushing people beyond their limit, yet he was a capable commander. But in the second half of the season, the Discovery wound up in the Mirror Universe where humans are evil and it was revealed that Lorca himself came from this reality. This confirmed many suspicions that fans had but in the end, this development was a disservice to Lorca who became a moustache-twirling villain and unremarkable. Hopefully, some way can be found to return some version of Lorca in the second season.Therein lies the fault and strength of Star Trek: Discovery and this is typical of its conflicting nature. Some characters are compelling and well developed like First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), a lanky and fastidious alien, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a bubbly young cadet, and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet officer who is actually a Klingon that was surgically altered into a human in order to infiltrate Starfleet. While others are interesting background bridge crewmembers  that  the show largely ignores. I’m not even sure what their names are, I just know them as the cyborg lady, or the woman with the metal implant on her skull. They barely have any dialogue and are begging to be examined more closely.

The stories themselves are also just as uneven. Some episodes are genuine classics and belong up there with the great Star Trek episodes. These include “The Wolf Inside”, “Despite Yourself” (two fantastic Mirror Universe tales), “Lethe”, “Choose Your Pain”, and “Into the Forest I Go”. As great as those were, Star Trek: Discovery is also weighed down with some downright clunkers that are poorly plotted and clumsily executed. One example is the first episode that aired for free on CBS, “The Vulcan Hello”, which needed to be great to entice people to subscribe to the CBS All Access app that streamed the rest of the episodes. Unfortunately, the season also ended on a less-than-thrilling note with a two-episode storyline that ended the war too quickly and unsatisfactory. However, the final shot of the last episode “Will You Take My Hand?” brought a thrill when a sparkling and graceful Enterprise appeared on the screen.Despite these faults, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoy Star Trek: Discovery. As far as first season Star Trek shows go, this is the best one since the original Star Trek. Unlike some other Star Trek spinoffs that first started out, this show is rarely dull and takes some genuine risks, even if they do not pay off. Of course, the criticism is valid that unlike its predecessors there isn’t any exploring done. This is something that is a vital essence of Star Trek, but it does push the envelope, chiefly with its characters and focus. The captain is not the main hero but a broken and disgraced former officer. Many of the characters are out to prove themselves and most of them do, which is why they are so easy to watch and root for.Another thing to note is that putting aside all the action and eye-popping visuals (seeing the Discovery spin its saucer while it goes into spore drive never gets dull), certain elemental truths about Star Trek are still there. We just have to recognize them: accepting diversity, seeking diplomatic solutions, and bettering yourself. As Alexander Courage’s iconic theme played during the end credits of the season finale, I found myself eagerly waiting to see more from Star Trek: Discovery, and for that reason the show is a success.

José Soto

 

 

Runaways Emphasizes Characters At The Expense Of Superhero Antics

runaways poster

Marvel Studios’ first streaming TV show on Hulu, Runaways, has finished its first 10-episode season.  Now that the show has finished its run (don’t fret, Runaways has been renewed for a second season), it’s time to review the show. In a nutshell, Runaways is enjoyable if not especially outstanding.

Runaways is based on the recent Marvel Comics teenage “superhero” team created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona. Fans of the comic book characters know that the group of teenagers are not actually superheroes. They don’t use code names or wear goofy outfits and there are less fisticuffs in their adventures, which the show faithfully recreates. By the way, this adaptation is supposedly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) though you would not know it. It has almost no reference to the MCU, not even vague mentions of “The Incident” as in the Netflix Marvel shows. However, how people react to the demonstration of superpowers and wild situations is not consistent in the MCU that has aliens, public superheroes and other fantastic people. It might as well not be set in the MCU. Instead, the emphasis is more on the characters and their immediate world of L.A. The basic story is that several well-off teenagers with wildly different personalities  discover that their parents are actually supervillains. Horrified, the teenagers band together, rebel against their elders and go on the run.

The TV adaptation more or less follows this premise though no one runs away until the final episode that just streamed (“Hostile”). This made the entire first season feel like a set up for the really interesting stuff. For example, “Hostile” featured the best moments between Gertrude Yorkes (Ariela Barer) and her pet raptor and the dinosaur finally had some screen presence. The raptor seemed more like a character than a CG/puppet creation. But putting aside the lack of thrills, Runaways is a different animal than the comic books in that by not having the kids run away until the final episode, it focuses on their relationships with each other and their parents. If that sounds like mopey teenage drama then you are correct. Although, it’s well done and holds your attention.

What helps are the writing and most of the acting. While the kids are newcomers they are surprisingly good in their roles such as Barer, Rhenzy Feliz (as Alex Wilder), Gregg Sulkan (as Chase Stein) and Lyrica Okano (as Nico Minoru), the parents steal the spotlight many times. Instead of presenting the parents as mustache-twirling villains like in the comics, they’re more dimensional and grounded here. You understand that they live in a grey world where they’re forced to make questionable decisions. These were done, for the most part, to provide a good future for everyone, but the consequences of their choices have come to haunt them and alienate their children. There is a mystery of what their true motives are, but that gets a bit muddled. The parents’ machinations and how the Runaways react to them sometimes slows the show’s pace. Adding to the drawbacks is the mid-season introduction of Jonah (Julian McMahon), a mysterious and super-powered person running things for his own purposes. If anyone screams “bad guy” it’s this character. Unlike Jonah, the parents are more nuanced and well acted. Standouts include Annie Wersching, Ryan Sands, Kevin Weisman, Bridgid Brannagh and James Marsters.

Strangely, for a show about teenage superhumans (for the most part), the weakest moments are when they actually go into action. This happens exactly two times in the first season, which will surely disappoint anyone expecting another Daredevil, but it’s for the best. When the Runaways used their superpowers against an opponent, their actions were quite dull and unrealistic. Basically, they would stand around and use their powers one at a time. Blame it on the budget, but this became a drawback. The other episodes are spent with the Runaways dealing with their hormones, parent issues, and your typical teenage angst.

Make no mistake, Runaways is  pretty interesting and put together well, even if it’s not groundbreaking. As these season finales go, this one raised more questions than gave answers. All of it just to set up a second season, though it could leave you feeling frustrated because just as things pick up significantly, the episode ends. Hopefully the second season will be here before we know it and provide satisfying answers while ramping up the dilemmas of the Runaways…and their parents.

Waldermann Rivera