Simon Morris reviews Steven Spielberg’s retro thriller Ready Player One, the latest Aardman animation, Early Man, and a modern – and female - Jacques Tati in Lost in Paris.
Ready Player One directed by Steven Spielberg is set in an ‘80s-themed future.
Films that took comics, video games, TV and trashy genre movies seriously used to be looked down on.
But we’ve moved on. It’s no longer called rubbish - it’s called popular culture and treated very seriously indeed – at Comic Con conventions, on university courses and in films like Ready Player One.
The novel on which Ready Player One is based was written by American fanboy Ernest Cline, with the aim of including all his favourite things in the world in one obsessive narrative.
There are references to more video games than you can count, more ‘80s TV shows and movies than you can fit in to a weekend at Comic Con, and wall-to-wall clips from the glory days of early MTV.
It’s significant that the lion’s share of the references come from the ‘80s - that kitschy decade of Ferris Buehler, The Goonies, The Buggles and ‘Video killed the Radio Star’, and director Steven Spielberg’s event movies like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones.
Spielberg is clearly the ideal person to direct Ready Player One - a film that harks back to the certainties of his world, where parents might let you down, but you could always rely on your friends, and you’d all meet at the local cinema.
It’s set in the Oasis, a virtual reality pleasure-dome of the future. Oasis inventor James Halliday (Mark Rylance) bears a strong resemblance to Willy Wonka, with VR video-games replacing chocolate as the drug of choice.
The hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a lonely kid from The Stacks – they’re literally stacks of mobile homes dumped on top of each other – and his life is only made tolerable when he plugs in and goes to the Oasis as cool kid Parzeval.
The idea is that in 2045 the whole world is as obsessed with ‘80s popular culture as this film is.
Since future modern life is even more rubbish than today, all the more reason to go back to the glorious Elysium of the Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Speed Racer and Bill and Ted of Excellent Adventure fame.
But Spielberg is far too savvy a film-maker to rely on just unadulterated nostalgia.
Under the story of the late James Halliday’s treasure hunt are some pertinent questions about how healthy it is to dwell so enthusiastically in a mythical past. Especially when it’s not even your own past, but one you’ve inherited.
The Girl – who goes by the name of Atr3mis in the Oasis - is played by Olivia Cooke, formerly one-third of 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Spielberg favourite Simon Pegg has the role of Ogden Morrow.
The villains here are a multi-billion dollar company led by evil Nolan Sorrento ( Ben Mendelsohn), who can muster hundreds of tame computer nerds to find the mysterious Easter Egg and win control of the Oasis.
All our heroes can muster is themselves and their wits.
So, can Wade, Art3mis and the rest of the modern-day Goonies marshal their enthusiasm, their teamwork and of course their arcane knowledge of Popular Culture to defeat the powers of evil?
I think that goes without saying, don’t you?
But where the younger Steven Spielberg of the ‘80s might have marketed his film exclusively at kids, these days he’s foxy enough to go rather broader.
There’s something for everyone in Ready Player One, and the afternoon I went, pretty much everyone was there; the age range was about 12 to nearly 80.
The references range from King Kong and Monty Python, to Lara Croft and Back to the Future, but it’s not entirely a parade of popular culture empty calories.
Under it all, there’s enough humanity and a sting in the tail to lift it to, if not classic Spielberg, then several notches above the usual comic-book mashups.
Lost in Paris is an independent comedy from writer-directors Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel that recalls the classic comedies of Chaplin, Keaton and Jacques Tati.
Gordon, from Canada, and Frenchman Abel write, shoot and star in most of their odd little comedies, which not only keeps the costs down but also maintains a certain style.
The style is first, the old silent-movie comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but also the later revivals of the genre by the great French clown Jacques Tati of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday fame.
Like Tati the actor, the characters in Lost in Paris are mostly well-meaning if a bit accident-prone. And like Tati the director, the scenes are meticulously constructed and developed, even if they occasionally seem to have been shoe-horned in from another storyline.
The principal difference with the Old Masters is that the lead character is a woman.
Gordon is that rare thing these days, a female physical clown, and everything about her in this film is designed for maximum comedy effect – the red hair in a bun, the huge glasses, the endearingly angular figure in a green sweater.
The setup – it’s slightly flattering Lost in Paris to call it a story – opens in wintry Canada, where librarian Gordon gets a letter from her Aunt Martha.
Gordon arrives in Paris only to discover Martha has gone missing.
She asks around, and while she’s looking she stops for a photo on a bridge over the Seine, over-balances and topples into the river, losing all her belongings. They’re later found by a cheerful homeless man, played by Abel.
It’s been quite a while since a homeless man was considered a fit topic for comedy – back in the days of Charlie Chaplin’s The Little Tramp, probably.
But Abel is the subsidiary member of the duo, there to support Gordon’s awkward but persistent star character.
They meet – and for some reason they meet on the dance-floor of a restaurant called Maxim’s. Possibly not the Maxim’s.
I say for some reason, but the reason is the best one in a comedy - Gordon and Abel dancing the tango together is extremely funny.
Fiona in particular defies description, accidentally winding herself round her partner, as her feet and legs take on a life of their own.
Abel becomes obsessed by Gordon just as she is obsessed with hunting down her Aunt Martha, who in the third act, turns out to have her own obsessions that manifest themselves in peculiar ways. Or, as we say in Paris, “bizarre”.
Aunt Martha is played by distinguished French star Emmanuelle Riva, who clearly welcomes the chance to play comedy as broad as Lost in Paris for a change - whether it’s suddenly kissing her bewildered neighbour on the stairs, or foot-dancing on a park bench.
Lost in Paris has also been welcomed by upmarket critics – partly on its own merits, and partly because they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
A minority pleasure, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that the presence and comic skill of star Fiona Gordon is both novel and, certainly these days, unique.
From beloved animation studio Aardman comes Early Man, featuring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams.
Early Man is the first feature written and directed by Nick Park since Wallace and Grommit and The Curse of the Were Rabbit in 2005.
But the tone of Early Man is identical, even down to the presence of Dug the Caveman’s pet pig Hognob, filling in for Grommit.
Dug lives in a valley near the dreaded Badlands. His not too bright tribe of misfits is led by the elderly Chief – he’s nearly 32 – voiced by Timothy Spall.
The voice of Dug is Eddie Redmayne - all boundless optimism, even when their rabbit hunt is interrupted by sinister spear-throwers.
The clanging metal is a giveaway, as the primitive cave-dwellers are confronted by the Future, led by a villainous Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth.
Dug stows away and finds himself at the glittering Bronze Age city, where people don’t wear rabbit skins, and enjoy the fruits of the Age’s technical advances, including a shop called Beaker People, run by a lively young woman called Goona.
Dug is smitten by Goona, but he has no time to inform her of the fact before being chased by the guards into a crowded stadium.
It seems the Bronze Age didn’t only produce metal. They invented football too.
Determined to get his tribe’s valley back, Dug challenges the ace Bronze team to an all-or-nothing contest, the winner keeping the valley.
Its clear they might need a little help with the finer points of the game – or indeed any points.
Fortunately Goona wants to help. She’s sick of not being allowed to play football at home.
The charm of Early Man - like all Aardman films – is in the execution, the incredibly painstaking, frame-by-frame animation in service to the wit and warmth of the script.
The detail is astonishing as always. And the thoroughly English quality of the film is the stuff that feelgood films of the past ten years or so often aspire to but so rarely achieve.
I’m not sure how well Early Man will travel outside the English and Commonwealth markets. Aside from the very specific attitude to football in the film – essentially enthusiastic but a bit rubbish – every element of the film is as English as fish and chips with warm beer.
In America – in most of the world - popular culture essentially means American culture, but in Aardman-land, it’s mostly old-fashioned British school-days and television, around the ‘60s and ‘70s.
This is the source material that gave the world Monty Python, Harry Potter and of course Wallace and Grommit. Whether that charm can continue to sustain itself – and us – under siege from gigantic blockbusters and more strident, obvious comedy remains to be seen. I certainly hope so.