26 August 2014

So I Finally Saw "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

I never made it to see this in theaters, but instead chose blockbusters with higher ratings from critics. It's too bad. While I was repeatedly disappointed by those movies, this one actually exceeded my expectations. I guess that goes to show I should stop paying attention to the critics.

I agree it has its problems, but I still had a hard time finding things not to like about this movie. A second viewing might reveal more, but for now I can number them with the fingers on one hand - mainly just a few silly plot points. Narrative and tone took a lot of hits from critics, but I found the movie very well balanced. Sure, there are several plot threads to follow, but haven't we come to expect that from this genre? Isn't it one thing we like about this genre? What's more, they develop alongside each other, so that no character arc or subplot feels too sudden or convenient. We know where it's going and just get to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Or dread it, knowing the tragic fate beforehand.

20 August 2014

"Ready Player One" Review

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A revival of '80s geek culture has been going on for a while now, especially as evidenced by (maybe caused by?) the dominance of superhero movies and the rebooting of sci-fi franchises. What's more, these often make more '80s references in the form of "easter eggs" and in-jokes. Some are subtle and surprising (Tony Stark catches a SHIELD officer playing Galaga) while others are the sum total of the appeal (practically every other line in Guardians of the Galaxy). Ready Player One author Ernest Cline tapped into this trend in a big way, admittedly slightly earlier than either of those examples (2011).

The thing is, the '80s "wink winks" are starting to wear on me. I don't know if it's because I only really remember half of the '80s, having been born at the first part of that decade, or because the references are becoming a lazy shortcut to humor and audience appreciation.

Ready Player One is a book full of those forced references. The difference is that these aren't usually played for humor. They're at the heart of the plot and setting because both were created by someone even more obsessed with '80s culture than Star-Lord. Sometimes this works really well. Other times it's like reading Wikipedia. For chapters on end. Especially in the beginning.

Despite how it sounds, I enjoyed this book and felt completely engrossed in the plot - especially once it actually got going. It worked on me the way The Big Bang Theory does (and coincidentally, both feature Wil Wheaton as himself). Unfortunately, said sitcom tends to divide audiences, offending some for its perpetuation of geek and other stereotypes. This book has some of that going on, too. Occasionally Cline tries to balance the pure escapism by challenging some of those stereotypes (and pure escapism itself), but these moments feel a little clumsy and disingenuous. See the SPOILERS section below for examples.

That said, this book is really more safe than offensive or controversial, focused more on nostalgia than originality. The cover blurb calls it a cross between Willy Wonka and The Matrix, and it's startling how accurate that is. All its really fun elements are not just borrowed from other games and movies; they are those games and movies, so you can only enjoy it as much as you enjoy watching someone else play Pac Man or watch WarGames. I spent much of the book distracted by the knowledge that this is being made into a movie, wondering how they will possibly get the rights to all those properties or recreate them in a way that doesn't just look like a supercut of unrelated characters and settings. I predict the movie will fall short in its inevitable comparison to Wreck-it Ralph, especially if it keeps the content that prevents it from being appropriate for kids. It will probably be more at home alongside lesser known but successful teen action/comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

The thing is, Ready Player One knows what it is, which is every gamer's dream: a conflict that can only be overcome by being good at games and knowing otherwise useless trivia! For as long as such a premise can possibly work, this one does.