REVIEW: Ready Player One (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. Pictures

The following is a review of Ready Player One — Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Steven Spielberg — you won’t find many directors as skilled as he is, and you probably won’t ever find a filmmaker with as good an eye for entertainment as he has. His name is etched into the world of film and pop culture, and there really are not many like him. It is pretty perfect for the director behind such films as Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones-films, and E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to make Ready Player One — a film so drenched in nostalgia and popular nerd culture that it might as well have been called ‘Easter Egg: The Movie.’

Unfortunately, while the film is yet another entertaining Spielberg picture, the film doesn’t really present much more than empty popcorn entertainment, distracting character avatars, and a few loose ideas about the dangers and effects of over-dependence on fanboy culture and worlds made entirely for escapism.

Ready Player One is based on the novel of the same title from co-screenwriter Ernest Cline. The film takes place in the 2040s — a point in time when escapism is all mankind has to look forward to as reality is looking depressing and grim. To escape reality people from all places enter into the virtual reality world of the OASIS, in which they can look like and be whomever they would like to. You can drive the classic DeLorean, you can wear the costumes from your favorite films and video games, and you can change the way you look whenever you like.

The OASIS is the creation of Ogden Morrow (played by Simon Pegg) and James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance), with Halliday having since passed away. But Halliday had a few tricks up his sleeve. He has designed an elaborate game in which one has to discover clues and gain three keys to win. When we are first introduced to the world of the OASIS no one has even gotten a single key yet, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Because, you see, if you win the game you get to have full ownership of the OASIS. So, essentially, this is a virtual reality, nerd culture version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as one of the trailers also seemed to suggest via musical clues.

Our story’s hero, Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), who plays as the character avatar ‘Parzival,’ is obsessed with Halliday, and he believes that there are hidden clues — ‘easter eggs’ — in the virtual library, which includes footage of Halliday’s entire life. When Watts discovers a game-changing clue that allows him to become the first player to achieve one of the game’s keys, he piques the interest of the organization known as IOI, which wants to control and use the OASIS for its own gain.

IOI’s CEO Nolan Sorrento (played by Ben Mendelsohn) tries to win the confidence of Watts by trying to speak the same ‘fanboy language’ as Watts, but our protagonist sees right through it. “A fanboy knows a hater,” Watts utters as he rejects IOI, which, as a result of his decision, now wants Watts dead and gone before he gets all of the three hidden keys.

When I think of Spielberg one of the first things that come to mind for me is the iconic ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park-scene’ in which Jurassic Park‘s three central characters see a dinosaur for the first time. It is an awe-inspiring introduction to the world of wonder and amazement that the park was envisioned to be. Compare that to Ready Player One and the introduction of its realities — the OASIS and real life — and that sense of amazement is replaced by a fast-paced tour of a Columbus, Ohio slum area and the OASIS guided by voice-over from the film’s protagonist.

Okay, maybe it isn’t fair to compare this film to Jurassic Park, but hopefully you see my point. In the first act of this film, Ready Player One gives us a rushed tour of the world via a large information dump and a dizzying CG landscape that made me feel more uncomfortable than impressed. This isn’t to say that the film is devoid of impressive and wonderful scenes — not at all (and I’ll talk about that further down in my review) — but I say this as a way to introduce you to some of my structural problems with the film.

But it doesn’t just come down to the way the opening act is laid out. You see, in my opinion, Ready Player One is an overlong film with a disorientating and rushed introduction and an overstuffed third act complete with an overabundance of weightless destruction inside a virtual reality world. Furthermore, I think the film, with its overreliance on pop culture references and easter eggs, now and again, becomes somewhat frustrating to watch.

There definitely was a breaking point for me, when I became tired of spotting new character avatars that I recognized. Instead of smiling at the many references, I started to roll my eyes at them. Ultimately, your mileage may vary. Maybe you’ll be perfectly happy with playing Where’s Waldo? for 140 minutes, but, at a certain point, it became too much for me. There definitely is an easter egg-overload here. Also, just as a fun side note, let’s not ignore the fact that a film about easter eggs opens on Easter weekend.

Ready Player One is another industry production filled with nostalgia and references, but the film as a whole felt empty and hollow — just like the empty shells of the character avatars taken straight out of the source material for the wish fulfillment of the many people inside the OASIS. There absolutely are references to many different franchises hidden in the film, and that will definitely be the enticing selling point for many people who may be excited to see the Iron Giant on the big screen again.

But if you look past the colors, the computer-generated images, and the virtual reality world you are left with some pretty forgettable characters and a central performance that is just really bland. While I do think Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao are fun to watch and very charming, I, ultimately, did not care much for the main character who utters the aforementioned fanboy-line and also, at one point, calls another character a ‘noob.’

I do, as a matter of fact, really like Tye Sheridan (seriously, people, go watch Jeff Nichols’ Mud from 2012), who plays the central character that I didn’t really care for, but he gives a fairly bland performance as the heroic central character. Olivia Cooke, of whom I’m also a fan, is set up to be the love interest to our protagonist, but the film doesn’t really treat her character all that well either.

But I didn’t, ultimately, dislike Ready Player One. Ultimately, I thought this film was fine — more than watchable — and I was actually very impressed with how immersive the long virtual reality sections of the film are. On top of that, in spite of the film being overlong, Ready Player One is never boring. Spielberg knows exactly how to make these audience-pleasing blockbusters, and this is another one of them. There are some cool action sequences, with the dizzying but entertaining first act chase sequence being one of the highlights.

But the one sequence that people will probably talk the most about once they leave the theater is the sequence that is meant to be a tribute to a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, which is all I’ll refer to it as. It is an extraordinary sequence and, probably, the most entertaining part of the film. But, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure if I am ‘okay with it’ or not.

Don’t get me wrong. Like I said, I really enjoyed it, but I don’t like the idea of having another filmmaker toy with one of Kubrick’s films and leave Ready Player One‘s greasy fingerprints on its legacy, even if that filmmaker is the great Steven Spielberg. I don’t want the film to which they are paying tribute to become ‘the film from Ready Player One.‘ That is my issue. Also, as the sequence goes on and on, eventually Spielberg is a bit too liberal with Kubrick’s film by adding in elements that only seem to exist to oversimplify the late filmmaker’s masterpiece for a younger audience — thus gamifying the film, one might say.

Ultimately, I am not the one to decide this, but I’m not entirely sure Stanley Kubrick would’ve liked what they do to his film, even though Ready Player One’s sequence is a glorious tribute. And, yes, I do know that Spielberg, who would, admittedly, have a much better idea of what Kubrick would or wouldn’t like, made the fantastic film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — a long-time Kubrick project that he didn’t get to make before he passed away — but this feels like a different matter altogether. I will say, on the other hand, that one of the good things about this film is that it may bring new viewers to that Kubrick film, as well as John Hughes films and many other films referenced in Ready Player One.

I think I have a love-hate relationship with Ready Player One already a few hours after having seen it for the first time. A part of me really enjoyed the action sequences and the impressive visuals, but I am conflicted here. Because while this is solid escapist entertainment that will have your eyes working overtime to find every character you recognize, it did become tiring for me. And, ultimately, this film didn’t manage to get a strong emotional response from me.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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