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Scrambled Easter Eggs: A Review of Ready Player One

Scrambled Easter Eggs: A Review of Ready Player One

Why would the youth of 2045 be obsessed with the pop culture of the late 1900s? This was my thought as I sat in the theater and watched the movie Ready Player OneAs the cultural references kept piling on, my partner commented, “this movie is made for us.” We are both Gen-Xers, born in the 1960s, and the movie’s plot was an endless series of shoutouts to the iconic movies, TV shows and video games of our youth.

My partner’s son, who was born in the early 2000s, was watching with us, and ironically, he knew more of the references than we did. He would call them “Easter eggs,” coming from the term for messages or images that are often hidden in video games. In fact, Easter eggs in this sense are a major plot point in the movie, which is mostly set in a massive multiplayer virtual reality game. As the characters hunt online for the Easter eggs that are the MacGuffins of the story, we the audience enjoy recognizing the pop culture references that parade by in the form of avatars and items and scenery.

The people of 2045 apparently live online to escape the hellish dystopia the world has become, following some droughts and riots. Civilization has weathered events like these many times before, but we’ll have to assume they were really bad this time. We don’t get to see much of what this bleak future looks like outside of the VR, except for one vertically sprawling slum in Columbus, Ohio, where the residents live in stacked shipping containers supported by bare metal scaffolding. The visual design of this set is striking, which just underscores that fact that we are consuming visual art, and that the “real world” setting depicted is just as contrived as the “virtual world.”

The people in “the stacks” are mostly obsessed with putting on their VR gear and hanging out online, trying to rack up experience and in-game resources. Despite presumably being poor, they can all afford the gear, much as people of all classes today own smartphones. It’s not clear what is happening in the outside world, in the boring realm of politics, economics, and international relations. All that matters to anyone living in the stacks is this game world, as if humanity has abandoned all thought of civic renewal to focus on entertainment. Which actually fits the zeitgeist of the early 21st century quite well.

Really, this movie is an homage to the era of entertainment culture that has been presided over by its director, the hugely influential Steven Spielberg. His generation has dominated the cultural space, and let the political space go to ruin. The people of 2045 worship his generation’s cultural legacy because, in the Spielbergian vision, that legacy is the culminating achievement of our time. The movie audiences of 2018 may well agree.

In the Spielbergian weltanschauung, civic virtue amounts to willingness to join the scrappy underdogs in a fight against the uniformed forces of oppression, represented in Ready Player One by a greedy corporate conglomerate. “Welcome to the rebellion” is actually a line in this movie. It’s like Star Wars all over again. Again.

I write this review without any knowledge of the book on which the film is based, so apologies to the book’s author for missing his original intent, which may have been much different. He may have written a profoundly original and thought-provoking story. You’ll never know from watching this film. Watching this film, you will get an amusing mélange of your favorite pop culture nostalgia, packaged in a plot that has become a routine of PG-rated action adventure movies. And, of course, you will have fun.

Today’s Workout Album – Bright: The Album

Today’s Workout Album – Bright: The Album

I find that the soundtrack to the Netflix original film Bright makes an excellent workout album, with its driving beats and heavy hip-hop influence. I also makes me feel firmly planted in the zeitgeist, since it is not even a year old, and is replete with Millennial themes of building community and repairing the broken.

The film itself didn’t impress critics, instead sort of representing everything that Netflix, or streaming in general, is doing to ruin the film industry. Maybe it is just too weird to mash up the fantasy and buddy cop genres – A Game of Thrones meets End of Watch. It is undoubtedly a formulaic action movie, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was certainly better than The Cloverfield Paradox.

Here is one song from the album (Millennial whoop at 1:36).

My Book and DVD Reviews

My Book and DVD Reviews

I have been creating hobby web pages since a long time ago, and keep at it even though the web itself has moved on. I’m still stuck in Web 1.0, and we have since moved on to Web 2.5 or something like that, and apps are going to kill the World Wide Web any day now anyway, but I still maintain my sites because I enjoy it. So one page I have kept maintaining has reviews of books and movies/TV shows; here it is for you to check out if you’d like:

Steve's Book and DVD Reviews

http://sbarrera.home.mindspring.com/bs/cult/reviews/BSBDRmain.html

 

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

I recently watched H.G. WellsThings to Come (available on Amazon prime video) and discovered that it tells the tale of a saeculum from Crisis through to the next Awakening, but with a stretched out timeline. It also has early examples of a lot of film tropes.

By saeculum, I mean the social cycle as defined in Strauss and Howe generational theory, which you can learn more about here.

[MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The movie was made in 1936, and its story starts in that year, as the Crisis Era looms. There are rumors of war, making it contemporaneously relevant. There is a bit of a friendly discussion between two characters of the likelihood of war and the nature of progress.

The U.S. uses “peace gas” to end the most recent Crisis Era war.

Then the war comes, and rages for three decades and more. Civilization is ruined, the war is unresolved yet in 1970, and the film has now introduced the post-apocalyptic genre, complete with a plague that turns people into zombie-like creatures. The plague is eradicated, and peace comes at last when a benevolent scientifically advanced alliance deploys a super-weapon – sleeping gas, which they call “the gas of peace.”

Next an expansionist High Era begins, and we get a montage of civilizational development, taking us to a sci-fi world that fits the conventional mid-twentieth century vision of the future. Everything is shiny and sterile, and people dress in styles reminiscent of classical Greece and Rome.

It’s now 2036, and the hubristic future civilization is preparing to send the first humans into lunar orbit, using the method commonly envisaged before the rocket age – a space gun. But the Awakening Era has begun, which is a time of spiritual upheaval and of questioning the current regime. A firebrand preacher arises, denounces the lunar project and stirs up the masses against it. The launch happens anyway and the movie ends with more philosophical ruminations on progress.

So the movie covers a half-saeculum, spread out over a century. It’s as though H.G. Wells understood the saeculum, if not its generation-length timing. It’s impressive that he got two predictions correct – the use of a super weapon to end the Big War, and the fact that the next Awakening begins at the same time as the first manned missions to the moon.

It’s a good film, well worth the hour and a half viewing time. The version on Amazon is colorized and restored, which I think helps to make it more watchable.

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

I watched The Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night, and thought it was interesting the way the federal government, in the form of the Department of Agriculture, is portrayed as benevolent heroes. In their government-run camp, they uphold the rights of the migrant workers from Oklahoma against the depredations of the local California law enforcement. This contrasts with what we have today, 80 years later, where the local governments of California protect migrant workers (sanctuary cities) from the depredations of the federal government (Trump-empowered ICE).

Or, alternately, today’s feds are protecting the rights of natives against the crime of migrants who have immigrated illegally. The federal government has the responsibility of protecting the rights of citizens of the United States when state governments fail to do so, and with cruel logic natives could claim to have a right to have no illegal immigrants among them. That is what Trumpistas claim, and so we have a swing from the left to the right across these 80 years, with an added racist tone. In The Grapes of Wrath, the opposing sides are both white, though you could consider them to be different ethnicities using the “11-nation” model: the Okies are Greater Appalachians and the Californians are Left Coasters.

So maybe we are seeing an evolution from fractured groups of whites (the immigrant upheavals of the early 1900s) to unified whites against the browns. The Trump white nationalist model.

Just some thoughts for this fine morning at the end of 2017.

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Science fiction often portrays a vision of a not-too-distant future, but a vision colored by the familiar elements and trends in thought of its own time. My favorite observation about the future as shown on the sci-fi screen is that hairstyles are going to be the same as whatever they were at the time the movie or TV show was made.  When watching an older movie about the near future it’s always fun to see where they got it wrong when that future finally rolls around.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in 2019. Not the real 2019, of course, but an alternate one where the technology looks like it did in the 1970s and the atmosphere is like a 1940s noir film. It’s a wonderful movie, dark and moody, well written and well acted, and featuring a gorgeous Vangelis soundtrack.

I understand that the point of it is the story and the imaginative vision and that it’s silly to compare it to our time period. Nonetheless, I will. Here are some out of date elements in the scenery, compared to the real 2019:

  • Big honking CRT monitors
  • Neon signs
  • Everyone is smoking in public

Of course, how could the people of 1982 predict that by 2019 smoking would be banished from public spaces (at least where I live; maybe it’s different in L.A.)? And that there would be LEDs, and flat screens, and the one thing that absolutely no pre-2007 sci-fi ever anticipates – smartphones?

To be fair, Blade Runner does get a couple of future technologies right:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Video calls

And then there are the predicted technologies that it might have been natural to assume would be coming in our future, but that our pathetic civilization has yet to achieve:

  • Flying cars
  • Off-world colonies
  • And – oh yeah – Replicants!

It always strikes me how optimistic mid-twentieth century conceptions of the future of space travel are. Back then, it hadn’t been that long since the first orbital launches, and the U.S. space program was still prestigious. But what, no moon colony by 1999? No manned mission to Jupiter in 2001? Well, at least it’s not too late to get that warp drive invented, even if we do have to wait for some time traveler assistance.

As for the artificially created humans, well, they are the crux of the story of Blade Runner, and a sci-fi obsession going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But their presence in the story is not a realistic extrapolation of technological progress.  The closest thing we have to replicants today is artificial hamburgers. Our real world robots are dumb machines, and our real world ‘AI’ is the power of  the Internet to collect and process vast amounts of data.

So I went to see Blade Runner 2049, and first I will report that it is just as good as the original. It has the same feeling of ominous wonder created through beautiful visual effects and an atmospheric soundtrack. It manages to take advantage of the 30+ years of advancement in film special effects (in the real world timeline, I mean) without detracting from suspenseful and meaningful storytelling. If you like science fiction movies in general and Blade Runner specifically then you will love this film.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is set in the same timeline as Blade Runner 2019, so there absolutely is no point in waiting until real 2049 to verify its predictions. In the movie’s version of 2049, there are still replicants, and off-world colonies, which is where you’d rather live, because Earth is still a mess, although the color palette of its dreary desolation has been updated a bit.

The 1970s look and feel of much of the technology is still there, which is neat, but here are some additions that reflect modern awareness:

  • Drones
  • Self-piloting flying cars
  • Touchscreens!
  • What if instead of growing a replicant, you programmed a virtual person into a computer, you could call it something else…

I will finish with some thoughts on the subject of artificial intelligence, which is huge in sci-fi film these days, in tandem with news feeds about the growth of the AI industry (which in the real world is building advanced information processing algorithms, not sentient beings).

In the original Frankenstein story, the monster confronts his maker, seeking acceptance, and the scientist creator laments that he has unleashed a destructive force. Both themes are prevalent in subsequent science fiction retellings, reflecting humanity’s yearning to understand its purpose in the universe, and fear that its technological progress has unmoored it from its origins. With Blade Runner (either one) you get all this, along with modern forebodings about overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, and unbridled corporate power, artfully crafted to satisfy your need for continued myth-making.

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

I had an impromptu movie night some days ago and watched two movies which exemplify perfectly the transition from Generation X to Millennial in attitudes about risk and individuality.

The first one was 2008’s Wanted, starring Gen-Xer James McAvoy as a bored office drone who gets recruited into a super secret league of assassins.  As in earlier Gen-X movies that start the story the same way (Fight Club, The Matrix), the protagonist ultimately finds his destiny by breaking out of conventional society and embracing a singular role. It also has a lot of graphic, bloody violence.

Wanted is a cusper movie, and by the end of it the main character has crafted a career for himself which is not unlike being in a real world first person shooter. McAvoy is a late wave Xer, but I imagined he was living the dream of the video game addicted Millennial beta male – perhaps the target audience.

I followed that by watching 2016’s Nerve, in which Millennial Emma Roberts is a shy high school student who decides to court notoriety by joining an underground Internet game of truth or dare – really just the dare part with obligatory smartphone recorded proof. It’s an action movie like the previous one but not murderously violent, rated PG-13 instead of R.

In Nerve the lure of a high-risk, action-packed life isn’t a call to destiny but a trap, and the characters must ultimately test rivalry against loyalty in their quest to find a way out. I also thought it was the better of the two films, with more likable characters and a more sure-footed plot. It belongs in the ranks of films based on juvenile literature in which Millennials band together against a hostile externally imposed system (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner), but with the notable twist that the system isn’t some sci-fi dystopia but rather a plausible creature of our own social media-driven times.

In summary, they’re both flashy action flicks, but in attitude and message represent the difference between the brassy, individualistic Gen-Xer and the group-oriented, approval-seeking Millennial.

 

 

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

I wanted to share my thoughts about a remarkable film: the latest Godzilla flick from Toho, called Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. It is a disaster movie, inspired to a great degree by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (fourth most powerful on record) and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster, which ravaged north-eastern Japan. The movie has turned out to be immensely popular, winning many awards and grossing more than any other Toho Godzilla film.

The original 1954 Godzilla was a reaction to Japan’s World War II experience, particularly the annihilation of her cities by the U.S.’s nuclear-bombing missions. Godzilla was an incarnation of U.S. military power, and Japan was reliving the trauma of her defeat by America in the movie and its sequels. With this new version, the giant monster has become an incarnation of the fury of nature herself, and the film highlights the fragility of civilization and the complications faced by modern governments dealing with disaster in an age of massive urbanization and instant communication.

As such it is a tale of humanity entering the 21st century, leaving behind an earlier age and its wars and legacies, and facing new dangers and difficulties. Natural disasters loom large in an era of climate change and rapid population growth, with coastal megacities – where the bulk of humanity resides – being especially vulnerable. The destruction wrought by the latest form of Godzilla on the screen could be the destruction caused by Japan’s great earthquake, or that caused by the hurricanes which have wrecked the Gulf Coast of America in recent years.

This astonishing and heart-rending video much more compellingly makes the same point:

The key concept for survival in the 21st century threat environment is resilience, and in Godzilla Resurgence the bureaucratically hidebound government lacks this quality. This leads to shake ups in the power structure and a shift in focus from the aged officials to a team of creative young scientists and a savvy young diplomat who makes a deal with the U.S. government. With the risk of saying too much, I’ll just add that this final plot element brings back the specter of nuclear attack.

A final note about the film is to credit its brilliant score, by composer Shirō Sagisu. The music is haunting and powerful, and though difficult to make out under the orchestral instrumentation, on many of the tracks there are stirring vocals. One can easily imagine these lyrics over any of the scenes of horror and destruction that fill contemporary news feeds.

In the United States this movie was not widely distributed in theaters. I was lucky to have the chance to see it twice on the big screen. But you can get it on disc through your usual outlets and I highly recommend it if you like monster movies, or disaster movies, or movies that are relevant to our times.

Saw the Live Action Ghost in the Shell…

Saw the Live Action Ghost in the Shell…

I enjoyed the live action Ghost in the Shell, with the caveat that I am easy to please when it comes to science fiction movies, and also movies starring Scarlett Johansson.

Overall the movie felt flat, with a plodding script, and little suspense, though it did get more interesting in the second half. Visually it was cluttered – practically littered with CGI – and with a conventional action movie score, it simply failed to capture the moody atmosphere of the original anime.

Really, none of Ghost in the Shell reboots, neither the subsequent animated films and series, nor this live version, compare to the original. With its stark, clean visual design, its savvy exposition, and its brilliant score, it stands out as one of the best thrillers ever produced. I don’t even like the “version 2.0” remaster with updated animation as much as the 1995 release.

But taken for what it is, this latest reboot is a passable sci-fi action flick. It does recreate some of the iconic scenes from the anime, which is fun to see. Its story modifies, but parallels, that of the original film, which is fine – the earlier reboots already played with the characters and plots. Like the original, it explores themes of identity, and the classic sci-fi trope of defining humanity in a machine age. In case you didn’t know, “Ghost” = soul and “Shell” = body.

Since I always look for the generational angle, I’d say there is a meaningful difference in what the major (that’s the main character – she’s a law enforcement officer) finds in her quest for identity. The 1995 Generation X major discovers freedom and possibility, whereas the 2017 Millennial major discovers belonging and purpose. The final scenes in the two films tell it all.

Finally, I will add that I dread a future of giant advertising holograms on every other street corner.