Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One represents the ultimate fanboy wish-fulfillment dream. It’s a world here all of that obscure accumulated knowledge they’ve (we) spent years collecting, collating, and committing to memory actually means something, is actually important, and saves the world and gets the girl. While it’s remarkably constructed, and contains moments of true awe and Spielberg-ian wonder, the film alternates between reasonable entertainment and obnoxious tedium.
Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling 2011 novel of the same name, Ready Player One revolves around a dystopian near-future where everyone logs into a virtual reality platform called OASIS to do pretty much everything as digital avatars and escape the crushing reality of every day life. After he dies, OASIS’ pop-culture-obsessed creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance)—think an ‘80s fixated Steve Jobs—reveals he created a quest leading to the ultimate Easter egg. Whoever finds this item buried deep within the pixels gains control of the OASIS and instantly becomes the richest, most powerful person in the world. This appeals to, well, everyone. But especially Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by the moniker Parzival online. Along with his crew—Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki)—he follows the clues and tries to crack Halliday’s puzzle.
Fans of the book should find much to cling to. The film makes wholesale changes—every page is soaked in references, so there was an insane amount of rights negotiations involved—and condenses the plot to fit the new medium, but by and large it stays true to the tone and spirit of the book. Which makes sense, as Cline co-wrote the script with Zak Penn. (After the screening, a friend asked if maybe it should have earned the “Inspired by…” designation instead of the “Based on…” credit. My response was that it’s more, “Next door to the book by…”)
The story unfurls as a typical heroic journey. Beat for beat, it’s the structure you’d study in a beginning creative writing class. Nothing unexpected happens, but this is also Spielberg’s bread and butter. Wade, a poor kid with dead parents and a crappy life, is just the type of overlooked dreamer trying to escape his circumstances that populates the director’s filmography. While filling every last frame with nods to video games, comics, movies, and more—fans are sure to scour every square millimeter searching for oblique references—Spielberg moves things along at a swift clip. Once it gets moving, at least. The movie begins with a massive information dump—it’s close to 15 minutes of voice over and heavy, dreary exposition. It’s understandable, and likely at least partially necessary, but lord, that opening drags.
Since much of the action takes place in a virtual world, where real-world people play as avatars, hefty chunks of the film take place in a wholly digital space. In the hands of many other filmmakers, the end result could easily have become a washed out CGI nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times where the onscreen action becomes a headache-inducing swirl of chaos—one early race scene is particularly egregious—but it could be worse. Serious gamers may have a higher tolerance for this sort of action—it basically watches as a massive movie version of any number of video games. Think Minecraft and The Sims had a baby with Call of Duty, which was then raised by Halo.
Though it’s overwhelming at times, it’s no worse than a random big battle from any modern superhero film—my least favorite parts of even the genre’s best—and it’s a damn sight better than any Transformers movie. And at least under Spielberg’s guidance the action maintains coherence—even working entirely with pixels, the man is a master of his craft and makes it look all too easy. How much people enjoy Ready Player One will depend a great deal on tolerance for these visuals and personal aesthetic preference. (I, for example, dislike much of the character design. The characters are well rendered, but I hate the way many of them look, especially Parzival and Art3mis.)
For all the pop culture gags, and they are legion—far too many to even begin to name—some work and occur naturally, while others are shoehorned in and face plant. I was pleasantly surprised that of all of these, the horror nods land best. This includes what is hands down the peak scene in the film, and another small moment in a larger sequence that’s another highlight. (I really want to tell you about them both, but don’t want to ruin either.)
The supporting players are solid. Even though she spends two-thirds of the movie buried under the guise reminiscent of an anime porcupine, Olivia Cooke proves once again she’s one of the most talented young actors working right now. Lena Waithe doesn’t get nearly enough to do, but she brings a sharp, smart-ass cool to her scenes, both real-world and OASIS-based. Ben Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the head of a massive multi-national corporation who wants control of OASIS to sell add space. More than a vicious antagonist, he’s a weaselly bureaucrat, and he clearly has a blast as the type of spineless stooge who leaves his password lying around on a scrap of paper.
It’s the hero of the heroic journey, however, who’s the weakest part of Ready Player One. Wade just sucks. There’s no two ways about it. He’s the single least interesting element of the film. On paper, he’s flaccid and bland, at best. An empty stand-in for every nerd and outcast who ever felt his knowledge of D&D and obscure Atari games isn’t truly appreciated by the greater populace; who knows he’s special and destined for greatness, even though there’s no particular reason and no one else can see it. (Hell, the entire Quest stems from Halliday’s inability to kiss a girl. I’m not kidding.) But this featureless, milquetoast personality-void will show them.
And what’s on screen isn’t much better. Tye Sheridan’s a decent actor, but in Ready Player One he has all the charisma of a soggy paper sack. Again, not entirely his fault, especially given he spends the bulk of the movie as a digital avatar or strapped in place with a mask covering half of his face. There’s only so much you can do with that. Still, when he says things like, “A fanboy knows a hater” (I almost walked out), or gives the least inspiring “rouse the troops” speech I’ve ever witnessed, it’s eye-rolling bad.
Much like the book, Ready Player One is a mixed bag. For all the times it’s a joyful celebration of the geeky, the nerdy, the weird stuff people are into, just as often, it falls into the most toxic traps of fandom. For every moment that encompasses the ecstatic feeling of high-fiving your best friend who just set a new high score, or captures the excitement of discovering something strange and awesome and sharing it with your pals, there’s a noxious dick-measuring competition to see how many obscure references you can drop in a row.
When it sticks to the former, Ready Player One is an entertaining jaunt through the now-hallowed halls of popular culture. When it’s the latter, it leaves a bad taste, and unfortunately, that’s what lingers walking out of the theater. What’s good is fun; what’s bad is atrocious. It ultimately feels like a fan fiction gatekeeping exercise, saying loud and clear that if you don’t love the right movies or comics or games, or don’t appreciate them in the right way, you’re not a real fan. And that’s bullshit. [Grade: C]