Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One”: Will it Save Movies From Virtual Reality? (Updated)

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Photo Credit: Georges Biard

(Author’s Note: Here’s a quick read from when I wrote for Examiner back in 2015. Some of the articles I wrote were about films announced several years in advance, allowing me to re-use them later. It pays to keep things like this in reserve when they become more relevant than ever…)

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It’s long overdue that the movies take on virtual reality in a context where human beings consume it as a complete escape from the real world. If The Matrixfranchise showed virtual reality as a construct against our will, most movies haven’t shown it in a universe where it’s used as a utopia. This doesn’t count Star Trek: The Next Generation” being 30 years ahead of everyone else showing the Holodeck as a form of VR and escapism from space travel tedium.

Now that real virtual reality technology is advancing quickly through Oculus, the timing of Steven Spielberg deciding to take on VR in a movie looks like the celebrated director of old. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Spielberg was far ahead of his peers in disparate genres many found impossible to imitate. Thirty years from now, you have to wonder how we’ll view the book and movie of “Ready Player One”, the title Spielberg decided to take on and just previewed at Comic-Con in San Diego.

As we see from the short stories of Philip K. Dick written 40 years ago, we’re still seeing movies being made from this author’s prescient stories. His tales fit in perfectly now with all of our current technologies and cultural situations. Ernest Cline’s vision in his “Ready Player One” is one easily fitting in more now than six years ago when the book released. It also fits into the idea that virtual reality may soon become a digital escape from the ills of the world.

The above even gives hints to the future of movies. With Oculus already making the first VR movie in history, the movie theater of the near future could look very different. You also have the possibility that theaters becoming empty shells if everyone can find entertainment in a VR headset in their own homes. A VR-equipped theater would maybe be only for interaction with willing strangers around you.

In that regard, you could look at Steven Spielberg’s take on Ready Player Oneas more of a warning tale than cinematic heaven for gamers. Even if gamers and overall tech nerds put Ernest Cline up on a pedestal, the chance for Spielberg to set a more personal statement about VR tech may have strong impact.

Does Spielberg have a covert concern that virtual reality may eventually supersede movies in a theater? Those familiar with the book of Ready Player One know the virtual reality worlds in the story aren’t entirely to anyone’s benefit. Protagonist Wade Watts, his friends, (and foes) mostly realize virtual reality isn’t a coveted utopia when it becomes a permanent part of escaping real life. You can say that, despite all the fun pop culture adds to the VR world as seen in the recent trailer.

Just like when Spielberg once brought more awareness about sharks, UFOs, and a forgotten story about the Holocaust, his take on Ready Player One may bring awareness of VR liabilities. It’s similar to recent movies about artificial intelligence showing enough vivid cinematic evidence of how much it could go awry. Even a movie like recent “Chappie could persuade our present generation to stop taking artificial intelligence too far before reality becomes the most unbelievable sci-fi movie.

It’s obvious Spielberg doesn’t want movie theaters to become archaic. With VR as entertainment at home, this very well could happen within a mere decade. If any of that gets halfway conveyed compellingly in Ready Player One, Spielberg might save the movie theater while also tempering our desire to escape entirely from our own reality.

End Note: Stay tuned for a follow-up piece that looks at the pop culture cross-references used in the upcoming “Ready Player One” film. Is this a sign of film marketing to come to challenge cable at home?

“Wonder Woman” and World War I: Scoping Out Super Heroines in Past, Present, and Future Wars

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Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as war hero.

While we’ve already seen collective cheers for this summer’s “Wonder Woman” finally paving a path for compelling female superheroes, the film’s new time setting might seem a little awkward. Those old enough to remember the original comic book (or TV series) know WWII was mostly the original setting, other than a few variations. Even if the new WWI-based Wonder Woman seems a ruse for leading into WWII for the sequel, the intention might have an unexpected impact.

The idea of a woman superhero fighting in a major world war is already coloring outside the lines for a film. In the few lead female superhero films we’ve seen over the last several decades, almost all were set in modernly contrived situations with little purpose.

All of this was wrapped in the notion that the female superhero still had to fit into an appealing guise for a male audience.

Yes, comic book movies have decidedly made the assumption most of the genre’s fans are male. The intention behind this summer’s “Wonder Woman” seems to make an effort to draw men and women into those seats.

In other words: “Comic book men, meet women.”

At the forefront is the concept of war and the perceptions that’s it’s perpetually a movie genre attracting males. “Wonder Woman” seem to also reference the real world where the prospect of another world war is once again top of mind.

One thing we definitely haven’t seen in any film is a story of women fighting in war. We’ve seen countless movies about war with women in them, usually working as nurses or WACS, WAVES, WASPS, and SPARS. What’s been overlooked is that women fought on the front lines in all wars, notably in World War I.

Most people wouldn’t know this without a Google Doodle scoping out these war veterans. “Wonder Woman” has a setup to give a tangential nod to women fighting in our first world war, at least through a fantasy lens.

What Role Did Women Play in World War I?

 It turns out women played a larger role in WWI warfare than much of modern society knows. Most of this occurred in the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. In the latter case, it was the “Coast Guard Yeomanettes“, something worthy of a movie on its own.

What’s most important about this is it was the first time any women became admitted to a military rank during war.

Now you see a new twist to the new “Wonder Woman” considering we see this Diana Prince trying to prevent WWI from happening. You have to assume the writers and producers of the film realized military women in this world war received short shrift. Not that the real heroes of the war will likely receive any mention.

Nevertheless, it opens the door to everyone wondering about it, including individual stories about women fighting in WWI and beyond. Tales like twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWI, are good examples of how much women became written out of war annals.

At the same time, the new Wonder Woman makes us give a serious think about whether women can prevent or end wars.

With a more alpha male sensibility reigniting itself in our current government, the concept of a war might sound like it’s reverting back to machismo management. In the real world, we’re already seeing it being done while reaping repercussions in the process.

What will the new “Wonder Woman” do to inspire a new idea about a woman managing a real world war down the road?

Bringing Out Our Real Wonder Women Leaders

As our world becomes increasingly volatile, we may eventually find ourselves discovering what a real Wonder Woman could do to stop a world conflict. As noted by Harvard Magazine several years ago, women are proven to have a stronger disposition to negotiating peace and stopping wars. The magazine based this on the way women in international conflict zones work under the radar because of their second-class citizenry in these regions.

What we don’t know is whether we’re experiencing a growing resentment to women becoming major leaders to solve world conflict. If the 2016 Presidential election spread the false notion that a Hillary Clinton would cause WWIII, we might see the inverse faster than we’ve ever seen in history.

The intention of “Wonder Woman” is to merely bring a strong female superhero to the big screen. Its other intentions are perhaps much broader, especially with a woman director at the helm (Patty Jenkins) who knows the opportunities to go beyond.

Let’s assume this “Wonder Woman” can set a precedent for more female superhero movies. Employing enlightening elements about a super woman trying to stop a war might bring a more concerted group effort for women to seek leadership roles. You can assume this was one of the benefits of having an all-woman screening of the film in Austin, Texas before its official debut.

The film isn’t afraid of tackling history and gives us an added reminder of past women being at the forefront of conflict. It’s not something we’ll likely cover up again as we did in times past when it didn’t make sense to the order of things.

By the time we face another world war possibility, we may finally have a real Wonder Woman at the helm stopping it from progressing. Once this occurs, we’re sure to see a “Wonder Woman” sequel giving guidance on dealing with another world war from her original comic book setting.

 

 

 

“Jackie” and the Emerging Power of Film in Addressing America’s Lost Camelot

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The real Jackie Kennedy, who probably psychoanalyzed herself as much as America did and will.

If you think the world changed virtually overnight this year, you’re obviously not living in a bubble, as if anyone really could without deliberately moving to an isolated outpost. Perhaps the only place where we can more realistically escape now is the movies, which might become as much of a bastion in 2017 for well-being as it was during the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

Within that era, Hollywood’s movie-making factory created fantasy films and musicals to assuage those who thought the world was coming to an end. It was a major contrast to how the movies turned out later when more subversive plots began to reflect more violent and turbulent times in the 1960s.

While we’ve always used movies as escape, they’ve increasingly become more of a mirror to our real society, or at least harsh truths of things not said. Now we’re seemingly heading into a new era where the majority of movies begin to reflect our harsh realities after the most contentious Presidential election in American history.

If it’s impossible to accurately predict the future, would movies reflecting our realities become shunned by the public, or become a communal catharsis? That’s a cinematic social test we may soon see, especially with the film “Jackie” metaphorically kicking it off.

Despite some films made before the election bringing a head start to how we view politics (see Jessica Chastain in “Miss Sloane”), “Jackie” had far more foresight. Even though “Jackie” already had a new approach to biopics in mind (thanks to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and Chilean director Pablo Larraín), it’s worth pondering what they saw coming in the world of American politics.

If you can say films like “Miss Sloane” foresaw the possibility of America’s first woman President, “Jackie” perhaps saw a darker cloud on the horizon. Since history never fails to repeat multiple times, this film’s journey into Jackie Kennedy’s mind following JFK’s assassination may also be an exploration of collective American mindsets.

At the core of “Jackie” is perhaps an allegorical wake for losing an allegorical Camelot a second time in 53 years. No matter your political beliefs, there isn’t any argument America is at a crossroads after arguably becoming a little complacent for eight years.

Now with a controversial, reality-shifting new President inflicted upon us, some might look at it as Camelot lost again. Or, others might look at it as the beginning of a new Camelot for a not entirely popular (while still Kennedy-like wealthy) political force.

For those seeing the U.S. heading headfirst into another dark era, “Jackie” may look like it had plenty of prescience on where we’d be once the film released. It’s possibly the beginning of films turning into intentional or unintentional allegory about our emerging times.

This still opens debate on whether the public is going to want to process reality in movies, or demand escape.

Is it the 1930s All Over Again?

During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, many movie studios considered it a public service to create escape films to help the public forget their bleakness. This was the beginning of the fantasy musical assembly line studios like MGM were known for, existing peacefully into the late 1950s.

Eventually, the 1960s began shaping films to reflect harsher realities so we could process all the nervous breakdowns we had through the decade. As always, though, we started to evolve back to more fantasy films. We’ve seen this process repeat, depending on what’s happening in the world.

Yet, never have we seen a slate of movies ahead that seem to reflect all the overwhelming things happening in politics and the world. We’re seeing hints numerous upcoming films in 2017 are about rebellion, war, and even…yes, walls.

Respectively, films representing these themes include “Rogue One”, “War for the Planet of the Apes”, and “The Great Wall.”

To counteract these, you have “La La Land” as the type of escape film America saw 80 years ago. We might see films like it clash with the harsh reality films in coming years, which might mirror exactly what America turns out being into the next decade.

In that regard, it’s almost akin to two opposing timelines colliding with one another, perhaps trying to find our true cinematic identity. Whatever our destiny over the next four years, almost any film intended to showcase rebellion may become a perfect match with what’s happening in reality. Whether intentional or not, we might gain some catharsis seeing more of these films at the most opportune moments.

For those that want to escape, it’s probably going to become a cottage industry. It may even fast-forward more virtual reality movies to completely detach us from reality for a few hours or beyond.

Nevertheless, “Jackie” is sure to stay noted as the starting point where we started with a solemn moment of silence to mirror a mournful era for some. This includes a similar mindset to the Jackie Kennedy we see in this film: psychoanalyzing ourselves internally to figure out how to proceed.

NBC’s “Timeless” and Time Travel on TV: Learning From the Past to Depict the Future

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If any of us could time-travel back to earlier TV eras, some of us would probably bring back forgotten documented proof of how many time travel shows networks attempted in the last six decades. You have to wonder how many programming executives at NBC know that they’ve had more time travel shows than any other network in history. This might place their latest time travel venture (“Timeless”) under a new scrutinizing light.

In the movies, it seems every time travel plot has to try and outdo what’s already been done. On TV, it’s never been quite as competitive with plenty of nods and borrowings from previous shows. With almost 60 years worth of time travel stories on TV, it’s left behind a long trail of mostly accessible time travel plots rather than blowing our minds with complex paradoxes.

While “Timeless” is going to attempt to make time travel emotionally connectable, the movies continue being brazen in taking on complicated paradoxes. Perhaps we’ll soon see the paradox fascination peak while the 30-year-old “Back to the Future” trilogy continues being the greatest ever standard on time travel accessibility and theoretical complexity.

This isn’t to say we should discount the sci-fi standard TV once set. Many producers put forth numerous time travel tropes still in use now, including in “Timeless.” Before you watch it, however, you need to know what TV analysts sometimes forget.

Where Did Time Travel Start on TV?

Those who grew up in the earliest days of TV saw very little in the way of time travel stories. It was the same in the movies until the early 1950s. If ‘50s TV classics like “The Adventures of Superman” touched on time travel lightly, it wasn’t until “The Twilight Zone” began when TV watchers started seeing thoughtful views of time travel in a sociological context.

Even though the 1960 film adaptation of “The Time Machine” set up later films of visiting the future, ‘60s TV was mostly all about traveling to the past. The public saw this in various emotional tales from the astute pen of Rod Serling. Not long after, TV watchers saw the first live-action TV series about time travel to the past: ABC’s “The Time Tunnel.”

You don’t see many television historians talk about this 1966-67 series lately, but it sometimes shows up in syndication. It set up a time travel concept that was copiously copied where two or more people travel together to visit past events. The minds behind “The Time Tunnel” likely wouldn’t admit they subtly took inspiration from animated “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History”, which began on TV seven years earlier.

Concurrently with “The Time Tunnel”, we all know “Star Trek” took on time travel occasionally, and made it more intellectual than the public was used to. Regardless, it was still all about traveling to the past, making it all the more convenient to re-create notable past events rather than take chances prognosticating the further future.

It’s safe to say “Back to the Future Part II” came the closest to predicting our real future than any other time-travel product ever made. On TV, all time travel depictions of the future were (and still are) made tongue-in-cheek so nobody could completely deride the vision years later in reruns.

While Great Britain was already onto more advanced time travel with “Dr. Who”, American TV stayed anchored in exploring and understanding world history. By the early 1980s, America saw the first NBC series about time travel: “Voyagers!” It reached back to the old trope of two friends time-traveling together to right wrongs from specific points in history.

Yes, almost all similar shows had to go back to the Titanic at least once. The doomed ship must have had more time-travelers potentially running into one another on deck than any other notables on board.

By 1989, NBC delved into time-travel again with “Quantum Leap”, this time with a new twist through soul (or mind) transfer. Still, it essentially had two people time-traveling together again if you include Al as Sam’s assistant.

Arguably, “Quantum Leap” had some of the most astute takes on history than any other time-travel series, and some fans still wish for a follow-up or revival.

Now with “Timeless”, you see why we can call NBC the true time-travel network. The series intends to take from past time-travel shows and have near-future people traveling to our past to prevent a rogue traveler from altering events. It’s credible enough where we could almost blame them for why world history turned out so flawed and bloody.

Looking at TV’s next decade, though, what about time-traveling to the future and depicting it without being outrageous?

TV’s Future of Traveling to the Future

“Dr. Who” still manages to visit the future effectively, though mainly in the context of other galaxies, planets, and realities. With “Star Trek: Discovery” arriving next year, we’ll likely get more time-travel episodes as we’ve seen in all other “Star Trek” properties. The “Trek” future is also one seeming most plausible (or maybe cathartic) without going in the direction of post-apocalypse.

Although we’ve seen a few TV shows depicting an apocalyptic view of the future, they aren’t told through a time-traveler’s perspective. Let’s see networks get braver and depict an American future being visited by someone from the past or 2016. Perhaps these visitations should occur over different points in future time to depict how we evolve down the road.

The arbitrary visits to the past might give some insight into history, yet how many times will we see time-travelers visiting the Hindenburg disaster or other pivotal historical moments?

“Timeless” may still work within this context if it gives some twists on how history shaped us into what we are now. Regardless, let’s see a time-travel show that depicts a future reflecting what’s happening today, with conscientious time-travelers attempting to change it from its destructive curve.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Episode VII” Review: Evil Always Returns Ahead of The Force

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

You’ve probably read at least 100 reviews of “The Force Awakens” by the time you read this or discover it squeezed in with other critiques on Google. Back when I wrote film reviews more often, I always attempted to bring something different with an analysis of the audience along with the movie. For “The Force Awakens”, it’s worth the same attempt, though with one caveat: my showing of “The Force Awakens” wasn’t filled with overly excited uberfans dressed in old “Star Wars” cosplay from their dusty closets.

While there were no major surprises in the audience, “The Force Awakens” arguably has one of the most compelling and insightful plot elements of any film this year: A reminder of how evil regimes always return.

Examining our world as it is now, we already see how evil continues rearing its demonic head, sometimes sooner or more intensely than we ever thought possible. The trouble is, not everyone can foresee or acknowledge evil returning. Examples of this in the real world are arguable and enter the controversial realms of recent politics and specific candidates.

In the category of terrorism, we see evil regimes turn up about every decade to 20 years. Each one ultimately gets vanquished, yet it seems we never learn enough lessons to keep it from occurring again.

It’s this dynamic that makes “The Force Awakens” doubly powerful outside its smashingly successful attempt to revive a pop culture behemoth. It’s not hyperbole to say director J.J. Abrams pulled off an out-and-out miracle in making this film have a solidly believable connection with the original trilogy without feeling too far removed.

Catching Up on 32 Years

With The First Order being depicted in the film as more nefarious than the previous Galactic Empire, we see a glaring analogy to terrorist groups we’re trying to eradicate now. We also see how previous heroes who helped destroy prior regimes frequently become mired in myth to a point of frustrating distortion.

In the first quarter of “The Force Awakens”, we see a big idea develop that brings more truth to our real world than any other sci-fi product. In this case, the myth is Luke Skywalker who becomes a former war hero elevated to lofty status. He’s gone missing since the days following “Return of the Jedi”, and nobody knows where he is.

The problem: The First Order is slowly gaining more power over the Republic, now led by General Leia Organa, again played by a regal-looking Carrie Fisher. The Resistance is equivalent to our real-world Homeland Security and only proves its power when in battle action. Fortunately, the Resistance has X-wing fighter pilots with skills even the most decorated U.S. Air Force pilot would genuflect to.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the new roguish equivalent to Han Solo here, and he possesses a map containing information on Luke’s whereabouts. When The First Order tracks Poe down on the planet Jakku to obtain the map, Poe places the map data inside the droid BB-8. The latter is the ubiquitously popular ball-shaped robot that hasn’t yet been made into a cheese ball for further marketing purposes in our world.

Admittedly, BB-8 is cute, fun, and almost overshadows R2D2, but we soon enter the world of the mysterious Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. All the accolades you’ve heard about Ridley’s performance aren’t overwrought. There seems to be a true magic that emanates from unknowns on the big screen, perhaps out of feelings of doing or dying when trying to deliver in the biggest movie franchise of all time.

And, yes, Ridley really does deliver while finally paving a stronger path toward more complex women in lead roles. The same goes to John Boyega playing Finn, a Stormtrooper from The First Order who becomes a conscientious defector. After an escape with Poe above, Finn links up with Rey on Jakku. This leads to the revival of one particularly noteworthy starship you’ll love seeing hitting the skies after sitting idle for 30 years.

Then there’s an entrance stage left: Han Solo and his never-aging sidekick, Chewbacca. If you see “The Force Awakens” in 3D, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the Millennium Falcon’s familiar cockpit again and feeling as if you’re in the passenger seat. All of the expected and perfectly-executed space battle scenes work fantastically in 3D, despite Real D still having troubles with images looking slightly too dark.

At this point in the film, the surprises and unexpected connections start unfurling into a long list of spoilers if revealed. The most interesting non-spoiler revelation here is the psychological study of The First Order’s Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver in one of his best roles to date.

Ren has parallels to tragic Shakespearean characters as a powerful allegory for real-world Millennials and their current ethical struggles. Once his metallized mask comes off, we get a chance to see Driver create one of the most psychologically complex villains in recent memory. His problem is he’s torn between fear and evil, with the latter emotion failingly nurtured by Supreme Leader Snoke.

Snoke is another mysterious (giant) character played through motion-capture by Andy Serkis. Motion-capture has finally taken a flying leap forward, particularly with Lupita Nyong’o and her expressive alien character, Maz Kanata. Maz has lived long enough to throw hints toward many of the mysteriously lost familial connections in the film.

These connections make up the key elements of “The Force Awakens”, and each one were once part of a long slate of rumors.

The Rumors Are True; All of Them

With the above subtitle a play on words for an already popular line Han Solo utters to Rey and Finn about the myth and truth of the Jedi, it’s also a bit meta for many of the film’s longstanding plot rumors. All those plot rumors you’ve heard about are definitely true without any explanation necessary. The only one you can write off is the notion of Luke turning evil, which isn’t fully addressed anyway.

Some may look at the adherence to a few old rumors as a major weakness in “The Force Awakens”, yet it doesn’t lessen the impact. One particularly notable death in the film doesn’t necessarily mean things will stay that way in future episodes. Another rumor you’ve heard about related to Rey is only hinted at and leaves open a lot of questions for the next installment.

Then you have the biggest rumor of all: Where is Luke Skywalker in all of this? He’s definitely there, but you’ll be slightly staggered at how brief his scene is. Nevertheless, the impact of his appearance is one guaranteed to give you chills if you grew up seeing the original trilogy in movie theaters. The beautiful setting of his appearance only adds to the majesty and mystery, enhanced further with John Williams’s new earworm worthy themes.

The Audience

The city where I live used to have a huge “Star Wars” fanbase, yet it seems some of them disappeared. Ticket availability on Fandango for “The Force Awakens” in my hometown was wide open for weeks. Even so, going on a Friday afternoon next to a major mall during the peak of holiday shopping season only gave me visions of sheer chaos.

When arriving, there wasn’t a single person in line at the box office. While the theater had four screens showing “The Force Awakens”, my showing only had 30 people attending at most. Attendees avoided wearing cosplay, and nearly everyone stayed fairly subdued. Whether that’s a sign of the times is up for debate, though there was still an interesting mix of demographics.

Only a quarter of the crowd looked old enough to remember seeing the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The majority were definitely Millennials who only grew up seeing the original trilogy on DVD or endless cable TV plays. They were just as quiet as the older crowd, and no one did much reacting to the film’s breathtaking plot revelations.

Much of this gives me the impression that some audiences find far too many sobering parallels in “Star Wars” to our real world. After construction of a new “Starkiller Base”, the Dark Side in “The Force Awakens” is still strong enough to continue into Episode VIII. All told, there could easily be many more trilogies in the “Star Wars” universe where you’d see the Dark Side continue to return over and over.

If you’re finding real meaning in this new incarnation of “Star Wars”, it’s this: Evil will likely keep on returning in our world as a test of our wills with new lessons learned along the way. Hopefully each vanquishing won’t be forgotten and turned into myth much like Luke Skywalker has in “The Force Awakens” universe.

Total Score: Nine Out of Ten Stars