Ready Player One (United States, 2018)

March 27, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ready Player One Poster

Ready Player One brings back a little of the Old Spielberg Magic. No, this isn’t on the level of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Raiders of the Lost Ark, or an E.T. Instead, it’s akin to Jurassic Park: a special effects-laden action/adventure movie based on a popular novel.  While Ready Player One isn’t as groundbreaking as the director’s 1993 dino-fest, it’s no less as ambitious in terms of how it uses computer generated imagery. The popular term “eye candy” seems insufficient to describe what’s on offer here.

In fact, the movie is so strongly reliant on the visual element, it almost demands a big screen where the spectacle of the experience can make narrative weaknesses seem insignificant. Ready Player One is intended to be immersive and that kind of immersion that can’t be obtained outside an auditorium with a big screen and a top-notch sound system. Don’t wait for video; it will lose a lot on a TV or (god forbid) a tablet/phone.

The film postulates a future (2045, to be precise) where the grim realities of widespread poverty and overpopulation have made real life a condition to be endured. People are more interested in escaping than coping and all they need to get away are VR equipment and a connection to the game world of OASIS. In this massive online universe, the brainchild of co-creators James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), anything is possible. You can be whoever you want, do whatever you desire – as long as you can stay connected, that is.

The protagonist is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose OASIS avatar goes by the name of Parzival. Like many other hardcore gamers, he is a “Gunter” – one of several hundred “egg hunters” who are searching for the ultimate treasure OASIS has to offer – Halliday’s last Easter Egg, which will bequeath total control of the world to the one who finds it. Wade is friendly with several other Gunters: his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and the brother duo of Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). He also encounters one of his idols: the wild and beautiful Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who flirts with him until he confesses his love, then she shuts him out.

There are real-world implications to what happens in OASIS because Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of a corporation called i0i, wants control of the virtual universe so he can monetize it. To achieve this aim, his minions must be the first to discover Halliday’s Easter egg and he’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal. Inside OASIS, in addition to having a nasty avatar, he employs the services of i-R0k (T.J. Miller), a weapons dealer and bounty hunter. In the real world, he lets the steely-eyed F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) do his dirty work.

The film is a treasure trove of ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture references with more name-checks, cameo appearances, and Easter eggs than I could possible list here. Whole websites may be devoted to cataloguing references. Although Warner Brothers properties have the most prominence (King Kong, Mechagodzilla, Batman, Freddy Krueger, The Iron Giant, The Shining), Spielberg was able to license images from Star Trek, Alien, and Battlestar Galactica. Back to the Future/all things Zemeckis get prominent placing (with composer Alan Silvestri pilfering a few notes from his 1985 score). Notably missing in action: Star Wars (although there is a mention of the Millennium Falcon), Marvel, Disney, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and – perhaps surprisingly – previous Spielberg outings (unless you count a T-Rex, which doesn’t necessarily have to be from Jurassic Park).

Video games remain a significant aspect of Ready Player One’s DNA but they aren’t as prominent as in the book. (Dungeons and Dragons has largely been cut out, excepting a call-out to Gary Gygax.) The movie takes liberties with the source material. Although it remains faithful to the core themes and ideas, many specifics have changed. Since novelist Ernest Cline is listed as a screenwriter, he was likely involved in the reworking.

One improvement over the book is tweaking the relationship between Wade and Samantha so there’s a real-life component. In the movie, although their first encounters are online, an in-the-flesh introduction occurs fairly early in the proceedings. The romantic tension is enhanced by the chemistry evident between Sheridan and Cooke, and their companionability helps to mask various character deficiencies. These aren’t three-dimensional individuals; their backgrounds are sketchy at best. Their avatars of Parzival and Art3mis are better formed than their human counterparts.

Part of the problem with the busy action sequences, of which there are many (including races, chases, and a massive climactic battle), is the virtual nature of the material. In OASIS, if someone is killed, their character respawns (albeit without coins or equipment). The world that Parzival and Art3mis are fighting to save isn’t real. The only time there’s a heightened sense of urgency in Ready Player One is when danger threatens the characters outside of OASIS.

I liked the first half of Ready Player One better than the second one. During the first hour, there’s a sense of wonder and exploration. The interaction between Parzival and Art3mis is fun and flirty. Their Saturday Night Fever homage is a nostalgic blast. The first conversation they have in the real world gives Sheridan and Cooke an opportunity to show how well they work together. The second half, however, is overwhelmed by special effects-saturated battles where the stakes seem disappointingly trivial (the fate of the game world). As this was going on, I couldn’t help but remember the pilot of the original Star Trek series (“The Cage”), which had a different take on the concept of virtual reality. The movie is confused about how it feels regarding the ethics of a technology that creates virtual societies at the expense of real-life ones.

Spielberg hasn’t had a bona fide escapist hit since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which, despite its hefty box office intake, has not stood the test of time). Those who wonder whether he has lost his skills (or passion) for family-oriented fare (a fair concern after The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG) can breathe a sigh of relief. Spielberg has invested massive creative capital into Ready Player One and the resulting production has all the ingredients viewers expect from potential blockbusters. Whether it achieves the level experienced by Spielberg’s biggest successes remains to be seen, but it is without a question one of the year’s most energetic, visually rewarding, and ultimately exhausting motion pictures.

Ready Player One (United States, 2018)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2018-03-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Innuendo)
Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1