Ready Player One is the latest offering from one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, Steven Spielberg. His previous effort, the Oscar-nominated The Post, is still fresh in our minds, so this turnaround is a quick one. Aside from that Spielberg is adept at directing differing genres – Post is a based-on-true events topical drama while Player is a sci-fi adventure. Spielberg taps into his past to provide audiences with a feature that’s all about pop culture nostalgia. Ready Player One is made for fans of pop culture that grew up in the 80’s and harbored a love for video games. In all actuality, this film is made for a specific demographic (which shall remain unnamed), but thanks to Spielberg he’s able to provide an entertaining movie that’s acceptable for viewers of all ages (as long as you cover your kids’ ears at the right time for one specific word).
Based on the best-selling 2011 Ernest Cline novel of the same name, Player takes place in a dystopian future. The world is in terrible shape, so many out there retreat to the virtual world in order to forget their grim reality. This virtual world is known as the OASIS and is the product of computer genius James Halliday (Oscar winner Mark Rylance). The OASIS has grown into an enormous endeavor and its use the world over has blurred the line that separates it from reality. Regardless, Halliday passes away and leaves behind the ultimate challenge - he will bequeath full ownership of the OASIS to the person who finds three Easter eggs he’s hidden. Enter Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living with his aunt in the “Stacks,” a slum in Columbus, Ohio. Wade is a loyal fan of Halliday and he, like everyone else, competes in the OASIS (competitors are known as Gunters) to find the Easter eggs. He (using the moniker Parzival) competes alongside Aech (Lena Waithe), his only friend, while Wade keeps a close eye on Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a famous gamer whom Wade has a crush on. In the meantime, IOI, a rival company led by the unscrupulous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), has deployed a huge army of gamers (known as the Sixers) to find the eggs so IOI can take over OASIS.
For the most part, Ready Player One is fun. With a running time of 140 minutes, there is plenty going on. Considering Cline’s story (which was co-written by Zak Penn) focuses on discovering Easter eggs, it’s interesting to note that Player is full of its own Easter eggs for audiences to find. During my screening I spotted references to Back to the Future, Akira, The Iron Giant, The Shining, Doom, Mobile Suit Gundam, Mechagodzilla and Child’s Play. That’s just tapping the surface of all the pop culture nuggets Spielberg and Cline were able to jam in. I say “jam in” because after awhile it’s pure sensory overload. But many will see this as part of the fun, so from that perspective it succeeds swimmingly.
As a cohesive film Ready Player One falls well short of meeting minimum requirements. I’ve talked to many bibliophiles who swear by the novel, but what was delivered on screen is a weak story that borrows heavily from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Goonies, Back to the Future and WarGames. The concept is original but the execution is not. If Warners is looking to turn this in to a Willy Wonka for a new generation it’ll fall short because the script doesn’t match such lofty goals.
The acting isn’t much better, although Mendelsohn is a fantastic choice to play this (or any) villain. As Sorrento, Mendelsohn has the look and vibe of a typical 80’s baddie, and because everything else seems so one-note I found myself rooting for him. But I know better – bad guys never win in an 80’s film, especially not in a film that borrows from and pays homage to 80’s films.
Rylance needed to come off as socially awkward - he got that part down pat. The problem, though, is he came off more creepy than inept – Halliday is an amalgam of Steve Jobs, Jesse Plemons’s Robert Daly in the USS Callister episode of Black Mirror and John Wood’s Stephen Falken in WarGames, just without the charm. It would’ve been great if Halliday was the Willy Wonka of the OASIS but Rylance didn’t go in that direction (although, rumor is Spielberg unsuccessfully recruited none other than Willy Wonka himself, Gene Wilder, to appear).
I can’t say much about Tye Sheridan outside the fact that he’s put forth better performances (namely Mud). I think both he and Cooke (who’s also been better in previous work) were limited by the script – Parzival and Art3mis are merely co-protagonists who exist primarily to further the story and fall in love with each other (I hope you don’t think that’s a spoiler). Either way, neither character is memorable outside of the fact they’re running around looking for clues and answers like Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy did in WarGames.
For the most part, Steven Spielberg’s immense talent as a director lifts Ready Player One to a level above hackneyed refurb. Spielberg’s love of making his work accessible for all viewers leaves his latest teetering towards A Wrinkle in Time-like results, but its nostalgia-play will help it succeed where Ava DuVernay’s project didn’t. Having grown up in the 80’s I appreciate the trip down memory lane but that doesn’t make up for the weak (and borrowed) story, the poor character development, and the abrupt pacing. Still, Player’s a fun ride - you clearly see where its budget went (it’s a beautiful virtual world in the Spielberg-verse), and the soundtrack is flawless.
Simply put, this isn’t a movie. It's more so a $175 million video game worth wasting a few quarters on.
3.5 stars out of 5