At university I wrote my dissertation on the similarities between postmodern theatre and video games. Sort of taking what Auslander wrote about in Liveness and reflecting it back; analysing how design is being increasingly influenced by the performative desire of players. As a part of that I looked at Alternate Reality Games, comparing their successes to the continued failure of the modernist design ideals inherent in virtual reality. In short, the gameplay of an ARG is only tangentially connected to the actual puzzle design work of its creator — the real play comes in the interaction between the community trying to solve it.
The shape of the puzzle literally becomes the shape of those spaces online where the information is stored. A form of collaborative design that must be navigated and iterated upon by the players. Any choice made in construction — conscious or unconscious — will affect how play is perceived and, without the authoritative hand of a designer, that perception changes the very nature of play itself. Our conception of online spaces therefore is skewed by the performative way we choose interact with them.
Which is a long way of saying that when in fiction characters visit a physically manifested version of the internet and, say, Amazon is represented as a enormous big box store: I will never fail to be disappointed.
Ralph Breaks the Internet sees the return of the genuinely loveable Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) as they embark on a, kind of shaggy, quest to procure a replacement part for the out of action Sugar Rush arcade cabinet in order to avoid it being unplugged and its denizens being left destitute. The Ralph movies have this kinda branding problem I guess, neither feels quite sure what it wants to be. The first is by parts a video game movie, a confectionery movie, and a sports movie. Ralph Breaks the Internet eventually finds something to drive the story about half way through but on the whole seems quite content to chill out with the characters.
Which is sorta the mode at which I have the most fun. I’m gonna come right on out and say that I like the pairing that the writers and directors have created over the course of these flicks way more than either of the films in their own right. Reilly and Silverman’s fantastic vocal performances and the easygoing chemistry that create using that alone is wonderful. Like, I’m certain that if this was instead envisioned as some Richard Linklater type chill out movie, I’d be way more onboard.
As it is though, the script gives them ample excuse to get to the internet as soon as possible and hurry them on through a series of interactions with all of our favourite BRANDS. Don’t worry yourself too hard. This ain’t The Emoji Movie. The scepticism that was always going to linger upon having seen that logo emblazoned poster melted away pretty quick when I realised that Disney weren’t too interested in selling me anything. They seem to envision an internet that exists mostly in the liminal spaces. A place for information to exist outside the architecture that humanity has imposed.
Like, what must the psychology be of a search engine, or a pop-up ad, or a youtube algorithm? Alan Tudyck, Bill Hader, and Taraji P. Henson respectively (though it ain’t actually youtube appearing here, whenever approaching something near satire they opt to make the target as broad as possible, hence the slightly vague and legally distinct BuzzzTube). It’s a little distracting maybe, their arrows certainly fly straightest when the bets are safest — a mostly tangential, though thoroughly entertaining, trip to the world of Disney IPs.
Like, that bit is just pure gold. Aaannnnnd at the same time disquieting, I mean, they aren’t trying to sell us anything, but the hegemonic presentation of the BRAND is something to be critiqued in its own right. Sure, nobody needs help to recognise Google, but we must consider the impact of making them the shining star on top of the tallest tower. I can guarantee some suit decided that this film would serve to inflate the sales of the Disney Princess line. Same with an pinterest, or an instagram, there’s a troubling evolving nakedness to the aim of corporate art. Let’s be wary of how it is evolving.
Because even at its most benign the film seems to not fully comprehend what it depicts. Like, I love Henson’s performance as Yesss, she’s a voice perfectly suited to be a hip, millenial, no-bullshit tastemaker. It’s clear that the filmmakers looked at the success of black content creators across the internet and decided that of course the computer program that surfaces their work should look like them. It is an idealistic notion and one that we know to be flagrantly untrue.
Youtube will still recommend me videos from actual literal Nazis, twitter is still to precious of an increasingly fragile userbase to take action against abusers because they’re a huge driver of interaction. From that news story recently about Google inventing a sexist hiring algorithm it’s fairly clear that when Silicon Valley attempts to be apolitical they often fail spectacularly. While I enjoy a representation of the internet dominated by hyper-competent and empowered women who slyly poke at our hero’s fragile masculinity, we’re not actually there yet. It’s not a vision worthy of sharing with the brands that sometimes seem their best to be fighting against it.
It is cool though that the film decides that it wants to be about masculinity eventually though. Unfortunately it happens way too late and sorta takes over everything else. It’s also tied directly into this other tangent about an online video game called Slaughter Race which is the least interesting (visually and thematically) of all the locales visited. It also resurfaces the major problem of the original film, it’s clear that those at the helm ultimately aren’t that interested in the games themselves.
It’s fun, but it never manages to make itself necessary. The climax features one of the most horrifying visuals I’ve seen on screen all year, and there’s a little dude called Gort who I just love. It’s the straining that is uncomfortable. This desperate ache that it has to be meaningful, to say something, while it simultaneously ignores all the things that could be said for fear of casting bad light upon the logos plastered throughout. Sure, it’s no The Emoji Movie, but I’ve felt the need to say that twice now, so it kinda, almost, a little bit, is.
Ralph Breaks the internet is currently screening in UK cinemas.