Katy says the challenges in the book are all about solving complex puzzles, and it sounds like the whole 1980’s obsession is explained better, but we’re at the movies now, so some quick backstory narration and a killer car race will do just fine. Our dude Parzival (Tye Sheridan of Joe and Mud, young Cyclops in the last X-Men) figures out how to cheat at the racecar event and win the first of three keys in a massive contest to gain control over the virtual-reality universe that all the poor suckers on the dying planet of the future spend all their time in, meanwhile falling for Artemis, a hot red avatar his own age who turns out to be an actual hot girl his own age (Olivia Cooke of Thoroughbreds). Parzival’s badass tough-dude engineer buddy H turns out to be Lena Waithe (Master of None) and his ninja friend Sho is actually 11 years old – they’re all kinda okay kids, but I don’t know if it’s a happy ending when they’re handed the keys to the global economy at the end, and besides shuttering the evil company run by lame Ben Mendelsohn, they close the internet for a couple days per week so kids have time to make out.

Alison Willmore calls it an accidental horror movie:

A lot of the pop culture references in the adaptation have been updated, improved, added to, or made more cinematic, including a sequence in which The Shining gets turned into a survival horror experience in a way that’s both blasphemous and easily the most memorable part of the movie. But onscreen, even though familiar characters (Duke Nukem! Gundam! Chucky!) fill the frame, franchises cross, and the legal fees to clear everything must have been astronomical, Ready Player One doesn’t really feel like it’s about nostalgia. Instead, it seems more concerned with escapism, and how much its characters use pop culture as a womb to shelter them from the ugly realities they’ve accepted from the world outside. It’s not about looking back so much as looking away.

Pearl (Patrick Osborne)

Machinima/cutscene clip about a girl growing up with her dad with a car and music then getting too old for dad and hanging out with friends with the car and music then remembering poor dad and going back to visit. It felt kinda like an extended commercial, but not as good, surprising from the guy who made Feast. Ah, it was created with VR software, how cutting edge.

Borrowed Time (Coats & Hamou-Lhadj)

Bummer cowboy story, sad man goes to cliff edge where he accidentally killed his dad whom he was trying to help up with the use of a shotgun. It doesn’t feel like 3D animation is best suited for this sort of thing. The codirectors are seasoned Pixar animators.

Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev)

Girl is born with a left eye that only sees the past and a right eye that only sees the future, sometimes by a few hours and sometimes by thousands of years. Maybe you could do some cool things with this concept, but the movie’s only concerned with grabbing the viewer and saying look, wouldn’t this be terrible? Imagine if you had to live like this. Wouldn’t it be just awful? Wouldn’t it? Huh? The end. Ushev is a prolific shorts director and this is the first I’ve seen.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley)

Long story of the narrator’s troubled friend Techno who gets rich then needs a liver transplant. At least this one has cooler visual style and music than the others, though it’s another sadness drama, and all women be sexy-ass bitches. The director was an Aeon Flux artist!

Piper (Alan Barillaro)

Still the best. Sandpipers rule.

The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel)

Wrenching doc about self-appointed post-bombing rescuers in Syria, mostly set during a training session in Turkey. It would also turn out to be a really useful movie to use when looking for IMDB or Letterboxd users with terrible opinions to block, if either of those sites allowed me to block users with terrible opinions.

Six more Charlie Brooker-written dystopian fictions, now streaming in our dystopian reality.


Nosedive

Not the best opening to the new series, too blunt and screamy for my tastes. A yelp/ebay/etc star-rating system gone out of control, with everyone rating everyone else over every interaction, and all social status and even home loans depending on personal ratings. Lacie (Bryce Howard of Lady in the Water) gets increasingly desperate as her plan to increase her ratings for a society wedding backfire, and she spirals down until she can’t even get picked up hitchhiking due to her short-term social media reputation. Trucker Cherry Jones gives her an inspirational speech about living outside society, then Lacie crashes the wedding. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), cowritten by Parks & Rec‘s Michael Schur and Rashida Jones, and featuring the best Black Mirror music ever, courtesy Max Richter, who incorporates the downvote sound effect into the music during Lacie’s death spiral.


Playtest

Cooper (Wyatt Russell, the guy who pretends to still be in college in Everybody Wants Some!!), kind of a likeable idiot, gets stranded while traveling the world, signs up to earn some quick cash playtesting a VR game. I’m a sucker for movies with dream/game layers where you can’t tell what’s real, and this was a good one. The idea behind the game is a haunted-house horror experience that uses your mind’s own fears against you, and Coop’s biggest fear is losing his mind like his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father did, which is what happens when his attempts at trade-secret espionage interfere with the equipment and it fries his brain. Director Dan Trachtenberg made 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Coop playing an early, harmless demo:


Shut Up and Dance

I don’t think this one is based on any technology that doesn’t already exist. After trying to have affairs or look at child porn or other blackmailable offenses, strangers with prankster-infected laptops get dragged around the city making deliveries and being asked to do increasingly terrible things, including bank robbery (“I saw it in a documentary. It looked easy”) and fistfighting to the death. Then their secrets get leaked to friends and family anyway, a grinning trollface sent to each of the victims. Director James Watkins made The Woman in Black and Eden Lake, lead Alex Lawther played young Turing in The Imitation Game, and his older partner in crime was Jerome Flynn of Ripper Street, not Michael Smiley like I first hoped.


San Junipero

Just what I needed after the nihilism of the previous episode, a lovely story with complicated ideas about (virtual) life and (actual) death. Opens with a Lost Boys poster and Belinda Carlisle song on the radio and Max Headroom on TVs, pushing its 1987 setting hard, but then “one week later” we’re in 1980, and “one week later” it’s 1996. Shy Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis of Always Shine) met exhuberant Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) one night in a time-hopping Matrix fantasy world but didn’t have the nerve to follow through on their relationship, and now searches for her every week during their time-limited trials, as their actual, aged bodies live in separate nursing homes. The most human-feeling Black Mirror, and also the one that ends in the most inhuman manner, a robot arm attending to its databank of disembodied consciousnesses. The director did last season’s Be Right Back, also about personal/virtual relationships.


Men Against Fire

Not my favorite episode, by director Jakob Verbruggen (Whishaw/Broadbent miniseries London Spy) who makes a hash of the action scenes, but it’s one of my favorite evil technologies – military implants that help soldiers kill the enemy without hesitation by making the enemy “roaches” look and sound inhuman. Lead soldier Stripe, whose equipment glitches so he can see the truth, is Malachi Kirby of the new Roots remake. He’s briefly allied with Ariane Labed (Alps, The Lobster) before his partner catches up with him, kills Ariane and his equipment is recalibrated to brainwash him back into blissful ignorance and conformity.


Hated in the Nation

A combination of previous ideas – rogue hacker messes with people over social media leading to their deaths, and intrusive government technology leads to dystopian horror. In this case the gov-tech is bee-drones which replace the country’s dying honeybees and happen to double as ubiquitous surveillance devices. After our hacker uses a sort of twitter poll to let the people decide whose brains the bees will burrow into through their ears, cop Kelly Macdonald (voice star of Brave) tries to protect future victims. She finally gets lead beemaker Benedict Wong (Prometheus and The Martian) to try deactivating all bugs, but instead they go after everyone who participated in the online death polls, killing hundreds of thousands. A nicely apocalyptic way to leave off. Director James Hawes made a TV remake of The 39 Steps a few years back.

A most unusual movie. Katy loved it and wants to see more like it, if such a thing exists. Opens in Oz, which is like a Miiverse Second Life, then quickly becomes the story of Kenji, a student and not-terribly-important freelance Oz coder, who gets talked into joining cute girl Natsuki at a family reunion to pretend to be her boyfriend.

Family reunion conflict:

Oz gets super-hacked, which has real-world consequences because, unlike Second Life or Miiverse, people and companies use it for actual business, and traffic signals and emergency services can be accessed through it. After the family’s beloved grandma dies, they pool their real and online skills to stop the Oz hacker, with some great digital swarm animation along the way.

One of the few movies I’ve watched recently without reading any critic reviews/comments first – just looked interesting when Alamo programmed it last month – and now all I can find is Adam Cook hating on it at Letterboxd. Good thing I didn’t read that sooner, since we’re now looking forward to more of Hosoda’s movies.

Rebellious young Judy (Marta Alicia of Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure) is rebelling against Infinisynth, the mind-control company that provides her family with virtual-reality escapism via a data port in the back of their necks. She’s chastised by the Systems Operator for invading her mom’s dreams and soon expelled into the wastelands outside their cushy VR-fueled apartment building, where she’s discovered and protected by post-apocalyptic survivalist Bruce Campbell and threatened by a cult of underground mutants led by Angus Scrimm.

Angus displays his ID card:

Bruce displays a possum:

So it’s Ash vs. The Tall Man in a post-apocalyptic virtual-reality sci-fi/horror… in HD. But it’s poorly made, dingy looking and dull, all those promising ideas and cast members wasted on a movie that doesn’t quite work. At least it continues to get weirder, Angus having his mutants comb through the ruins of civilization for useful junk, occasionally sacrificing a mutant via his person-juicing-machine. He reveals that he’s Judy’s father and reveals his plan to repopulate the earth with her in the same scene. Bruce proves an ineffective protector, is fed to pirahnas. Then Angus says it was all a test, that he’s the SysOp of the VR universe and he wants his daughter to take over. Then that was all a dream – then that was all a dream. The Matrix and Existenz would use similar ideas with improved cinematography.

Judy’s mutant army:

Sleep pods from Je t’aime, je t’aime:

SysOp Guy Fieri:

Produced by the short-lived Fangoria Films, who at least attracted good casts, with Oliver Reed and Karen Black in their other early-90’s movies. From the director of Scanner Cop II and Hollywood Boulevard II (no way), written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3 and 4, The Net). At least something good came out of this movie – Bruce Campbell married the costume designer. Also, it appears to have invented the roomba.

Stiller manages a perfectly realistic virtual-reality simulator set in the future so government (and increasingly, industry) can make predictive policies. And about ten minutes into the three and a half-hour movie I realized that Stiller is himself a fictional character inside a virtual reality. I knew this because I’ve seen science fiction before, and the story was seeming familiar – turns out it’s based on the same source novel as The Thirteenth Floor. Fortunately, Stiller figures this out at the halfway point, after obsessing over an erased security chief whom only he can remember, so we’ve got the whole second half (episode – this was a TV miniseries) to deal with this info. More fortunately, there’s no slow grinding of the plot gears as the characters slowly realize something that I already know, because the film is 100% fun to watch, even while being obvious. Fassbinder has found a way to make low-budget, no-effects TV sci-fi look terrific, covering every surface with mirrors and windows and screens (you catch sight of the camera crew pretty often – another fun game), creeping around corners with his Ruizian camera (with sparing use of the requisite 70’s zooms) and playing with perspective. With this and Sam Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street being my only touchstones, I have to assume that mid-70’s German television was amazing.

Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron), the shortest person in the movie, is taking over the project because his predecessor/father-figure Vollmer has unexpectedly suicided. Vollmer’s daughter Eva, Stiller’s main squeeze, has grown distant, the corporate project head (Stiller’s boss) Siskins is becoming more demanding, and Stiller’s new secretary Fromm (Fassbinder regular Barbara Valentin) is obviously a spy, implanted to keep Stiller abreast of the situation.

Get it?

Stiller gets more impertinent, programs a singing, tap-dancing version of his boss into the simulacrum. He goes on the run after his mid-movie revelation, realizing that Vollmer was killed for finding out the same thing. Eva reappears, says she’s from the real world, that Vollmer never had a daughter until she programmed herself in a few days before, that they have many virtual worlds but this one captured attention for being the only one that created its own sub-virtual-world. And since the real Eva is in love with the virtual Stiller, she helps him escape by swapping psyches with someone outside.

Eva and Stiller trying to pull a Minority Report pose:

I liked the electronic music, daring for 1973, but sometimes the bonkers, intense squeals which occur when Stiller is troubled would make Ash upset. I also like that you can have fully naked women on German television. Don’t know much about Fassbinder, assumed he’s kinda Nick Ray meets Doug Sirk meets Sam Fuller meets Hedwig, based on my decade-ago half-rememberance of watching The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Stiller being told that he’s a fictional character:

Stiller sneaks into a theater while on the run from the law, watches what appears to be based on the last few minutes of Dishonored:

Nashville Scene rightly calls it “a film that feels somehow inevitable in your viewing, a missing link that should have been there all along.”

Another key reference for World on a Wire is Jean-Luc Godard’s own lone foray into sci-fi, 1965’s Alphaville. Much like Godard’s film, World generates a futurescape from the present mostly by judicious selection. Abandoned building sites, freeways and glass skyscrapers, it seems, are forever. (In the final moments of World, Fassbinder completes the homage as Alphaville’s star, Eddie Constantine, makes a cameo appearance.)

Eddie C.:

Film Quarterly:

Despite not actually being an adaptation of a Dick fiction, World on a Wire has more in common with the wry mordancy of Dick’s work than many official Dick adaptations, not least in the way that it shows each of its three nested worlds as being equally drab. We actually see very little of the world “below” (the world inside the Simulacron) and almost nothing of the world “above” (the world one level up from what we first took to be reality). The world below we see only in snatched glimpses of hotel lobbies and inside a lorry driver’s cab. But it is the revelation—or non-revelation—of the world above at the climax of the film that is most startling. Instead of some Gnostic transfiguration, we find ourselves in what looks like a meeting room in some ultra-banal office block. At first, the electronic blinds are down, momentarily holding open the possibility that there will be some marvelous—or at least strange—world to be seen once they are up. But when they do eventually rise, we see only the same grey skies and city- scape.

Vollmer, just before his death:

Not a bad little virtual-reality teen horror movie. Well, okay, it’s quite a bad little virtual-reality teen horror movie, but Trevor and I have sentimental attachment to the stupid thing. So how could we pass up watching the edited-for-television version (“I’m in deep stuff”) at Dolly’s house?

Edward Furlong continued frittering away his Terminator 2 goodwill after Pet Sematary II and before his brief 1998 resurgence, appearing as a troubled (dead mom, metal albums) video gamer who gets a demo disc of an immersive VR experience, a shoddy Existenz starring a punk clown called Trickster. In first-person, Eddy stalks then knifes a sleeping neighbor. His gaming buddy Kyle knows too much, so Ed goes back the next night and wakes up hearing that his friend has died (we don’t watch this part). Next he tries to rebel against Trickster and stop the killing, but Tricky wants Ed to take care of his crush Kimberly. Another killing spree ends with a vigilante neighborhood watch group shooting Kyle’s dad, I think. But Ed wakes up and everyone’s still alive – it was all part of the game experience. So he trashes his room a bit, then hands off the disc to a hated authority figure, and all ends well.

Written by Andrew Walker, who specializes in convoluted serial killer stories (Se7en, Sleepy Hollow, 8mm), mostly pretty tame but with a few scenes that seem like inspirations to later works (Lost Highway, an Aphex Twin video). The actors who played Furlong’s friends Kyle and Kimberly would go on to appear in nothing much, and nothing much, respectively, but the killed dad was in Scanners, which is the movie people always think you’re talking about if you mention Brainscan.