Steven Spielberg shows why he is still king of the blockbuster, though Wes Anderson’s fabulous, funny and touching Isle of Dogs is the best family film of the moment
Ready Player One (12A) ***
Isle of Dogs (PG) *****
Journeyman (15) ***
The Islands and the Wales (12A) ****
There’s a moment in Ready Player One in which Steven Spielberg demonstrates why none of the slavish pretenders to his blockbuster throne will be usurping him anytime soon. It involves his own slavish tribute to a filmmaker he’s revered since childhood, a filmmaker he ended up collaborating with on one of his least acknowledged masterpieces. In the sequence in question – and those who don’t care about spoilers can Google it easily enough – Spielberg doesn’t just pay homage to their film, he puts us inside it in a way that reveals something weird and unsettling about the mutual act of possession that occurs when a film connects with a fan. In lesser hands, the reference in question could easily be dismissed as a piece of artistic vandalism – a winking pop culture gag in a virtual-reality-set fantasy world where nostalgia has not just been monetised but has become a form of currency itself. But Spielberg isn’t some cinematic remixer intent on delivering an ersatz version of another filmmaker’s work (he’s not JJ Abrams). In this one, audacious sequence – and it’s the best sequence in the film – he slyly draws attention to the emptiness of a world beholden to the past, a world stunted socially by pop culture’s propensity to endlessly gorge on itself.
Unfortunately, the problem with Ready Player One – which is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Ernest Cline (who co-adapted the screenplay) – is that too much of the film trades so heavily on the sort of easy appeal to geek culture that this more subtle critique can’t help but feel somewhat undermined. Built around a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style plot in which control of the virtual reality fantasy world everybody inhabits is up for grabs, the film follows the quest of a bunch of gamers – led by Tye Sheridan’s somewhat annoying Wade Watts – to win the elaborate challenge posthumously set by the inventor of the so-called Oasis (Mark Rylance). These challenges invariably revel in the spectacle of pitting, say, the DeLorean from Back to the Future against King Kong in a city-levelling car race, but the uncanny valley nature of the virtual world avatars are a drag and the hero’s dysfunctional family life has none of the authenticity found in Spielberg classics such as Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Where the old Spielberg magic comes into play are the points at which the virtual game world starts spilling into real world. The surreal sight of people functioning like gods in one realm while looking vulnerable and puppet-like in another conveys the underlying theme of the film far more effectively than its exposition-spouting protagonist does during the rather cornball ending.
Wes Anderson has made a career out of telling meticulously designed shaggy dog stories so it’s only natural he should make that impulse literal with stop-motion animated canine epic Isle of Dogs. Set in Japan, it finds Anderson filtering the work of Akira Kurosawa, Katsushika Hokusai and Studio Ghibli through his own idiosyncratic gaze to create a dazzling dystopian fable in which man’s best friend has been banished by a cat-loving mayor following an outbreak of canine flu. Deposited on a nearby archipelago known as Trash Island, the country’s population of unwanted mutts has been left to go feral, scavenging for food at a time when the phrase “dog eat dog” might not be metaphorical. None of which sounds particularly kid-friendly, but Anderson is great at creating exquisite comic set-pieces from moments of potential tragedy and the hound-dog heroes – voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and Anderson talisman Bill Murray – are wonderfully realised as they risk all to help a ten-year-old boy find his exiled pooch. Anderson’s signature whimsy is present and correct, but the strange way he’s able to temper delight with dread and vice versa is superlative, ensuring the wordplay of the title can’t help but ring true.
Fully embracing the implications of its title, Paddy Considine’s unashamedly sentimental boxing drama, Journeyman, doesn’t exactly distinguish itself cinematically in such an overcrowded genre. A well-crafted tear jerker, it knows that sporting life metaphors are part of the deal and is OK with that. But to Considine’s credit as the film’s writer, director and star, he also quickly transcends the ageing prize-fighter-proving-himself plot to deliver a more unexpected story about a brain-injured champ (Considine) learning to rebuild his life away from the spotlight. True, he backs himself into a narrative corner early on that necessitates pushing Jodie Whittaker (cast as his wife) out of the action for much of the running time, but the ensuing story is told with such heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity that it’s hard not to be won over.
Further proof of the rude health of the Scottish documentary filmmaking scene comes in the form of The Islands and the Whales, Mike Day’s fascinating exploration of life on the Faroe Islands at a time when environmental concerns, health risks and animal rights activism are conspiring to threaten a way of life sustained largely by hunting pilot whales and seabirds for food. Taking a non-judgmental approach, the film unpicks the complex realities of the situation, which takes a turn for the surreal when Pamela Anderson turns up at one point to protest the hunts. ■