It’s only one scene, but to me it don’t matter… ‘Death of Stalin’, ‘Pacific Rim 2’, ‘Ready Player One’

I haven’t written about movies in ages.

The Death of Stalin

There is a joy to watching Michael Palin perform.  He was never the funniest of the Pythons, but he and Terry Jones were the ones who aged the best.  Was it because they were the nicest?  Was it because their style of humour was more playful than it was scathing?  Regardless, seeing Palin in this film as the ageing Soviet politician, Vyacheslav Molotov, recaptures that joy.  He’s so harmless and befuddled, you can’t help but think he did something innocently stupid to end up on one of Stalin’s death lists.

But that’s all The Death of Stalin manages to achieve: outstanding — genuinely outstanding — performances by its cast and little set pieces that reenchant your love for the actors.  But it never adds up to anything satisfying.

The film depicts the interregnum period immediately after the death of Stalin.  There’s the expected political jostling while the potential successors try to establish their power.  But instead of interrogating these people as brutal, horrible people who were surviving in an environment where only the most brutal people survived, they’re depicted as inept office workers.  There’s no punishment for wickedness, and there’s almost a complete lack of censure for atrocious behaviour.  Even Stalin comes across as a comedic figure rather than a brutal murderer.

It’s certainly not insightful satire, and it’s not clear what the point of the film is.  There are plenty of belly laughs; perhaps Armando Iannucci just wanted to be amusing?  And isn’t that enough?  In our current political climate, do we really need more edgy political comedy by insufferable know-it-alls?  Perhaps what we really want is an hour and a half of lightly amusing, after-dinner-mint ‘satire’?

Don’t get me wrong.  Enjoyable for what it was, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.  More a couch-and-pizza affair than a cinematic must-see.

Pacific Rim 2: Rim Harder

The original Pacific Rim was mostly shit:

The film works best as a parody.  Every so often, it manages to ascend into the heavens of being extremely funny.  It’s these moments that you can see what sort of film Pacific Rim might have been: clever but silly, insightful but utterly insane.  Instead we get a film which is peppered with these moments which seem almost out of place.  Oh, the kaiju has grown wings at the end of the battle?  Oh, the robot have a hitherto unmentioned weapon which would have been useful ten minutes ago?  I wonder if all the robots will combine to make a massive mega robot?

Pacific Rim 2 struggles a lot to engage in the aftermath of Pacific Rim.  The original had, for all its faults, created a world that felt real and organic.  The human race had adopted the existential threat of the kaiju monsters as objects of ironic culture.  There were arguments about resources.  And there was plenty of male ego to splash around.

The sequel, on the other hand, can’t work out what to show us or why.  It has been ten years since the events of Pacific Rim, but the world isn’t noticeably different.  People live in the wreckage of old cities, and some kind of government department continues to make the battle robots… but to regulate other humans?  It’s all a bit weird and inexplicable.

Without solid grounding in the world, everything that happens in this movie feels random and weird.  Not random and weird in the ‘Oh, this is a fun and absurdist’ way, but in the ‘I feel like I need to read the novelisation of the movie to understand what’s going on’ way.

Although the monster threat has been over for a decade, the government (?) has maintained its anti-monster robot programme.  This includes investing in new technology to make the robots better and training the next generation of robot-pilots.  In this world, we find the roguish son of a hero from the last film who is failing to live up to his father’s glory, and a teenage mechanic who loots old robots to build robots of her own.  But why are there so many robots to loot?  In the previous film, robots were scarce due to poor government investment.  How could there be so much old mecha loot to plunder?  Why didn’t the government clean this up?

Perhaps most realistically, the robots are now being used to regulate the use and control of unauthorised robots.  The government has the best toys and tries to put down rival toys.  Okay, whatever.

But things all get a bit racist when a tech firm based in China has worked out how to build a better generation of these robots.  Instead of requiring trained pilots who are compatible with each other, these robots work using a single remote pilot.  This stirs the first antagonism: ‘How could you replace trained pilots who are willing to sacrifice their own lives with desk-based workers with no “real” experience?’  Less than an hour later, we discover the robot programme is so starved of pilots that they hand over their tiny number of robots to a group of teenage interns.  But we’re already familiar with the concept of drones in the real world — and nobody seriously argues that the problem with drones is that they don’t include the risk that a NATO pilot will get killed as well as the Pakistani famers.

But the second antagonism is more awkward and gets a longer play: we can’t trust the Chinese.  As expected, we can’t trust their equipment and everything escalates to interdimensional levels.

Where the first Pacific Rim managed to inspire actual thrills during the robot v kaiju battles, everything about Pacific Rim 2 is flat and dull.  It takes way too long to get the plot rolling and it is not worth the wait.

Ready Player One

I hate nerds.  This film is a non-stop eyesore that taps into your latent hatred of nerds and fuels it.  Somebody involved in the production of this train wreck thinks that they are creating a philosophical masterpiece, but it reeks of nothing but the most entitled indulgences of the nerd community.  It is a tone deaf film which absolutely fails to present an argument worth hearing.

It’s the future.  Economic inequality is so hideous in the world that trailer parks are now small districts of caravans welded on top of each other.  To ‘escape’ this reality, people spend all their time in a virtual reality game where they can ‘be anyone, do anything’.  Inevitably, this means recreating the worst of late capitalism.  It’s ‘Late Capitalism: the Game’.

Our hero, a nerdy white guy, can ‘be anyone, do anything’, so he’s a handsome white guy (with a bit of blue tinge for a taste of the exotic).  He hangs out with a bunch of other guys, trading in homophobic slurs (‘Don’t fall in love online because the pretty girl might actually be a 300-pound dude living in his mother’s basement’).  One day, a female character takes notice of him and interacts with him, so he takes this as a cue to be sexually awkward towards her — despite her clear request that he not do so.  By the end of the movie, she will relent.  Online, ‘no’ is just an unpersuaded ‘yes’.

The drama of the film is that the head of the company that created Late Capitalism: the Game has died and will hand over the company (along with the associated billions of dollars) to whoever wins three minigames.

The deceased head of the company is portrayed as this idealistic utopian who wants to liberate himself from the rules and norms of society.  He’s presented as a kindly, whimsical old man, but all I could see was a sex pest.  One of the ‘minigames’ is to dance with a virtual recreation of his best friend’s deceased wife.  Who does that?  Who except somebody who has utterly no understanding of women as rational beings in their own right, but sees them only as awards for winning quests?

This problem is repeated a few times throughout the movie.  An African American woman is incentivised to play the game as a beefy dude.  Why?  Because Late Capitalism: the Game does not support people to free themselves from the rough music which regulates people’s decisions.  If you want to be treated with respect, choose to play as a guy.

Later, the key female character in the movie is killed by the protagonist who says only, ‘You’ll thank me later’.  The movie consistently strips women of both identity and agency.

Liberated from rules and norms, the escapist fantasy recreates the power dynamics of sex-starved adolescents.  This fantasy stops people from questioning serious flaws in their society: why is a Silicon valley nerd in possession of most of the Earth’s wealth?  How can people in the service industries be living in rickety skyscrapers made of caravans, while people who run a gaming company live decadent lifestyles behind layers and layers of security?  Despite the protagonist declaring that the only thing that matters in Late Capitalism: the Game is skill, why are there so many arguments about possession of the best hardware in this movie?  A company plays unfairly in order to accumulate more wealth in this game, how is that a measure of skill?  Why can a person lose their life savings just because somebody nicked their high performance gloves?

There’s nothing fun about this movie.  I thought that what I really wanted to see was the Iron Giant and Gundam fighting Mecha-Godzilla.  Having seen it, I’m disappointed.  Perhaps this is the best metaphor for online environments: when we are free to create anything we want, we just recreate exhausted relics from our past.

But the heartwarming message of the movie is weirdly off as well.  People log in to Late Capitalism: the Game in order to escape from their horrible worlds.  It is repeated, over and over again, that reality is more important than fantasy.

Our world is increasingly blended, blurring the line between the virtual and the actual.  Many of the objects in my home keep me in a constant state of being online, and new consumer devices are on the horizon that will stream interactive information as I move around the world beyond my home.  Even now, virtual overlays allow me to play with the meanings of my world in new ways.  Think about something as basic as the selfie and how software allows us to play with how we present ourselves to others.  On the one hand, it reinforces particular preferences with regard to beauty (big eyes, clear skin, &c), but it also gives control to a person to express their (authentic or otherwise) individuality.  The spontaneity of that individuality, sure, is up for question (and represented in Ready Player One by having people (horrible, horrible people) recreate themselves as the Joker and Harley Quinn from the Batman franchise.  The movie presents the online space as an escape, when our lived experience is that the online space is leaking into the ‘real’ world.

The problem of the film is presenting a dichotomy between the ‘real’ and the ‘online’ with one being ‘purer’ than the other.  In the ‘real’ world of the movie, the evil gaming company blows up part of the shanty town and suffers no consequence.  How is this different from the online world where the same gaming company blows up a virtual night club in order to beat a rival player?  In both worlds, the strong appear to be at liberty to dominate the weak and the same power dynamics leak between both worlds.

The thread though all of this is that the online fantasy discourages us from looking at the power dynamics of our real world.  Why are the top players in this game all within driving distance of each other?  Why can a gaming company bankrupt some poor schmuck?  Why do people express sexual fantasy and preference in the way that they do?  It doesn’t matter if you’re online or off; what matters is being able to critique the structures of the world.

Ready Player One does not offer a critique of the world it presents, and recreates the worst parts of nerd culture.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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