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Is it too much to ask for a movie to be more than just a TWO-AND-A-HALF-HOUR video game cutscene?

For those unfamiliar with that terminology, a cutscene refers to the scripted sequences in video games between the parts players actually control.

Then again, if you didn’t know that already, then Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One probably isn’t for you; it offers little more than such pop-culture masturbation sleekly disguised as creative references.

Lest anyone accuse me of being a get-off-my-lawn purist regarding the use of modern visual effects, let me just make clear that I obviously know recent advances in CGI technology have expanded the scope of cinematic storytelling. The revived Planet of the Apes movies comprise one of my favorite franchises of the 21st century, and none of them would be possible without such advances. I’m also on-record in asking for MORE computer creations when it comes to dumb action movies.

But herein lies the problem with Spielberg’s latest: it palpably aspires to be more than that (did I mention the excruciating runtime yet?). It desperately wants to be a higher-minded Hollywood blockbuster with prominent undercurrents of social commentary to boot. Whereas CGI was integral to plumbing the themes of Caesar’s tale to explore the relationship between humanity and animalism, in Ready Player One it simply provided the simplest of means to translate Ernest Cline’s novel to the screen. What would’ve required some seriously inventive practical effects in Amblin’s heyday now only calls for a team of programmers and digital designers (and a bunch of servers).

Which isn’t a problem in itself. Planet of the Apes also transitioned Heston-era costumes into invisible green-screen dots, but it did so without sacrificing substance; in fact, the new trilogy told an emotionally-nuanced story that simply wouldn’t have been possible with only 20th century costumes at everyone’s disposal.

The amount that Ready Player One similarly relies on 1s and 0s also wouldn’t have been possible back in the day. But being able to tell a story is not the same as telling that story well…or even having much of a story at all. The ease with which eye-popping visuals can be thrust in front of audiences like an all-you-can-eat buffet feast seems to make writers believe these images are enough to satisfy us; who needs to go through the trouble of digging deeper than such pleasing superficiality?

Sometimes that trouble can actually be avoided, as with Avatar. Cutting-edge technology, like James Cameron’s 3-D, can theoretically compensate for shortcuts on the page. But that’s a once-in-a-generation benchmark, and Ready Player One does not boast such technological novelty. You’ve seen it all before.

Which only draws more attention to its insignificantly-stupid plot-lines, with no meaningful resonance outside of the confines of its own narrative. The story technically flirts with delving into ideas regarding the relationship between the real world and digital worlds, but it does so in a shallowly-general manner that cannot sustain an indefensibly-long ONE-HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY-MINUTES. It’s tough to develop concepts when so much nostalgia-ridden fan service is in order, which forsakes any sort of attainable artistic integrity.

Visual effects may open up new worlds for screenplays, but their writing must still contain more depth than the shiny surfaces of the visual effects.

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