Only a few months after the release of The Post master director Steven Spielberg is back with a movie as different from the wordy and political film imaginable, with a special effects laden celebration of pop-culture and video games. Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, demonstrates how Spielberg is still able to keep up with the constant advances in technology and special effects after all these years, even if he lets the spectacle overwhelm the characters at times.
CGI has become so commonplace and accepted in blockbusters lately that it’s common for characters and action sequences to resemble something out of a video game (particularly in superhero films like last year’s Justice League), so it makes sense for Ready Player One to embrace that aspect and set the majority of its story inside an enormous online game world. In the year 2045 most of humanity spends their time hooked up to the virtual world of the OASIS – a combination between the Internet, an MMO, and social media. Anything in possible in the OASIS – one can change their appearance, engage in any activity imaginable, and connect with people all around the world. For our main character, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), his goal is to find three hidden keys spread throughout the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever finds the keys first is granted full ownership of the OASIS, which Watts is determined to do before a company like Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and its profit-motivated CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) can take control and privatise the whole place. The links to modern concerns like Net Neutrality and Pay-to-Play systems aren’t subtle, but then again little about this movie is.
The real selling point of Ready Player One is pure spectacle, and fortunately Spielberg has always been able to deliver visually stunning moments of cinematic excitement. The OASIS is filled with references to all sorts of real movies, TV shows, and video games – I doubt even the biggest pop-culture nerd would be able to spot them all on the first viewing. These references are both Ready Player One’s greatest strength and weakness, as while I can’t pretend to be iron-willed enough to not enjoy seeing Back to the Future’s DeLorean racing through an obstacle course avoiding Jurassic Park’s T-Rex or King Kong himself, too many of the conversations between characters end up divulging into spouting nerdy trivia back and forth. The script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline also relies too heavily on the 80s nostalgia that has been pervasive in pop-culture lately and is feeling increasingly tired. Modern properties like Overwatch and Halo have brief visual appearances, but it would have been nice to see Cline’s seven-year-old book be updated even more.
Spielberg has been responsible for some of the most iconic and original moments in cinematic history, yet there’s a disappointing lack of originality displayed in Ready Player One. The obsession with nostalgia goes so far that the characters literally end up invading the world of another film for a significant portion of the second act, which only served the purpose of feeling like a borderline blasphemous invasion on another director’s work while making me want to watch that film instead. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable spending time in the world of the OASIS, as Spielberg and the team at ILM have constructed a futuristic and flashy setting that Janusz Kamiński has the camera whooshing through, and one of the climactic battle sequences contains so many iconic characters fighting each other that its almost impossible to not get some geeky pleasure out of, but it never manages to avoid feeling artificial. When the characters that die can immediately sign back in and re-join there’s never any tension, and the attempts to introduce the threat back into the real world fall flat due to that setting being so underdeveloped and uninteresting compared to the OASIS. The cast is filled with talented actors, yet I could feel that they were so weighed down by the wires and motion-capture suits that they struggled to really connect with the audience.
Ready Player One ends up being incredibly entertaining, and a popcorn flick of high quality, without providing much memorable for itself. The overall message of the film, that we shouldn’t sacrifice reality for artificial worlds, felt particularly appropriate as I happily wandered back into the real world after 140 minutes in this one.
3 and a half stars.