Star rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Every year it seems like society is pushing forward further and further down the nostalgia rabbit hole. Last year gave us another Star Wars film, a sequel/reboot to Jumanji, a sequel to Blade Runner, and another entry in Netflix’s nostalgia-centric show Stranger Things. I’m sure there are plenty I am forgetting. After all of the reboots and sequels and prequels, we’ve been given since 2010 it is not surprising to see Ernest Cline’s eighties-centric novel Ready Player One was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg. A film that, like the book, has one foot in 80’s pop culture, and the other in the future. It’s a nostalgic nerd’s dream come true. While I can’t speak to the similarities and differences between the book and the film, I do know Spielberg’s latest feature is a picture perfect example of everything that is wrong with modern blockbusters.
The film opens with some extended exposition from the film’s protagonist, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), in the year 2045. A majority of the world now spends its time inside a virtual reality world called the Oasis. The Oasis is a sprawling digital realm in which people can be whoever they want to be and do just about whatever they want to do. There are various worlds inside the Oasis that replicate and represent various video game and film franchises, and there are players who play as recognizable characters such as Freddy Kruger, Batman, Iron Giant, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There are few rules in this Oasis, which probably means its less of a game and more of an escape from reality, which the film makes abundantly clear is the case. The world outside of the Oasis is explained to be this run-down, dystopian-like world in which things look trashy and are “bad,” but it is never fully made clear why. It just is, because apparently, the outside world needs to be exaggeratingly bad to contrast the seeming utopia of the Oasis. When the creator of the Oasis dies, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), he reveals a series of hidden challenges exist within the Oasis that players need to find and complete, and upon completion of all three challenges the winner will inherit control of the Oasis (a la Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Like any good dystopian story, there is an evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who is able to hire hundreds of people to try and complete the challenges. Our hero, Wade, must find his way through all of the clues and challenges to beat IOI to save the Oasis from evil advertisements.
During an attempt at the first challenge, Wade is introduced to Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a well known female player within the Oasis. After saving her life from King Kong during the opening race in the film, Wade (who goes by Parzival in the Oasis) and Art3mis start working together to solve the mystery of Halliday’s challenges and save the Oasis. As the film progresses Wade’s Oasis life starts to affect his real-world life as IOI’s founder, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), starts to fear that his minions (called “sixers”) will lose Halliday’s ultimate prize. And that is an oversimplification of the plot of Ready Player One.
Like I mentioned in the second paragraph, the film opens with a lot of exposition. Wade needs to explain the ins and outs of the real world and the digital world so that audiences aren’t confused by the constant environment shifts. The problem with this overuse of exposition is that a lot of this information gleaned from events in the film. Perhaps the only thing that really needs to be explained is Halliday’s challenges since by the time the film starts one clue has been solved and the first challenge site has been discovered. There are many moments when Wade explains exactly what is happening on screen. Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (who wrote the novel) and Spielberg never give the audience the benefit of the doubt to understand what is happening. I probably could have closed my eyes and still knew exactly what was happening and where because of how much exposition this film had. In the first scene, we see Wade in his hobbled together virtual reality rig run across an omnidirectional treadmill. Visually, this explains how he can stay in one plays and still move around within the Oasis. At the same time, Wade explains to the audience that this device is called an omnidirectional treadmill, and allows him to stay in one place while moving around within the Oasis. The visuals in the film make the narration redundant. Thankfully, once the world of the Oasis has been thoroughly and overly-explained, the exposition has been cut in half and is reserved for moments when characters need to tell other characters exactly what they are doing even though the other characters can see them doing exactly what they say they are doing. I know this is for the benefit of the viewer, but it comes across sloppily and insulting to the audience.
Ben Mendelsohn does a fantastic job playing Nolan Sorrento. In fact, at this point, I think Mendelsohn might have been born to play villains. Even though it’s somewhat muddled why IOI is bad and what their ultimate plan for the Oasis is (apart from the introduction of advertisements), I believe that Sorrento is a really bad dude who will stop at nothing to make sure he wins. As a protagonist, Wade is a fairly flat character, along with all of the other main protagonists. His character arc through the film is arbitrary and unearned. He starts the film wanting more money so he can move out of the trailer he lives in which his Aunt and her terrible boyfriend, but ends the film wanting to save the Oasis because a girl told him it was the right thing to do. Within the timeline of the film, Wade has apparently decided that Sorrento is a bad guy and he will do whatever he can to stop him. This only comes because Art3mis told him about a poor mistake her father made. The fact that Sorrento’s next act is to blow up his Aunt’s trailer does little except solidify Sorrento as the bad guy for Wade and the Audience. The other protagonists outside of Wade and Art3mis, are just stereotypes of gamers. There’s the tomboy who plays as a masculine mechanic, the Asain, and the 11-year old boy. There’s little revealed about these characters except for who they are in the real world.
Ironically, early in the film Wade’s friend in the Oasis, Aech (sounds like the letter “H”), warns Wade about falling in love with Art3mis because she could be a 30-year-old dude living in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit, and it is then revealed that Aech is a tomboy named Helen. Luckily for Wade, that isn’t the case with Art3mis and she reveals herself to be a girl living down the street from Wade, named Samantha. The two instantly hit it off, because why not, and now there is a love between the two main protagonists that will overcome all odds, including Sorrento’s evil plan to introduce advertisements into the Oasis. Seriously, there is very little connective tissue between Wade and Samantha that should cause them to fall in love. At first, he gushes over her because of her notoriety within the Oasis, then she uses him because he figures out how to beat the first challenge, then while working on the clue for the second challenge, Wade tells her he loves her, and she responds with a story about how her father was imprisoned and died because of the amount of debt he accrued from IOI, and all of this happens before they meet in real life. Even after they meet, and Wade is thankful shes pretty, they spend very little time getting to know each other. By the time the film ends the only thing they have in common is a love for the Oasis and its creator, Halliday.
While it might seem like I have a lot of negative things to say about the film, there are a lot of good things too. First of all, CGI works for this film. A huge portion of the story takes place in a digital world, which makes it ok that the CGI is noticeable and imperfect. It looks like a hyper-realistic, video game. Outside of the game, there is little to no CGI used, and all of the practical effects are stunning. The world, most of the time, looks like a run down dystopian vision of the future, while IOI headquarters is this shining, Apple-esque place that heavily contrasts with the run-down nature of the real world. Even though the motivations of the characters are lacking, the acting is top-notch, indicating more of a problem with the writing than the film itself. Every aspect of the film, from the buildings and people to the virtual reality devices, has a near-future vibe to it while also appearing distant enough to separate the film enough from reality. Ready Player One has none of the camerawork issues I had with Spielberg’s last release, The Post, there are several shots of kids on the streets flailing around in virtual reality gear that just look silly compared to the high levels of action happening within the Oasis. Based on how aspects of the Oasis are established earlier in the film, I am not sure why these inserts were necessary.
The number one reason why anyone would, and should, want to go see Ready Player One is the easter eggs strewn throughout the film. I already know I am going to have to watch this film again because I am sure I missed so many of them. It’s like a Where’s Waldo? book brought to life on screen at some moments, except instead of a man in a red and white striped shirt with glasses at the beach you’re looking for the Joker or Harley Quinn in a nightclub and suddenly Robocop shows up. This film is stuffed filled with cameos of characters; some of which I didn’t expect like Spawn from Image Comics. What makes this film appealing to every is the varying levels of easter eggs and cameos. Someone like my grandpa could see this film and still catch a few he might remember from his youth, while younger kids will get enjoyment out of seeing Minecraft world within the first five minutes of the film starting. For a cinephile like myself, I was extremely giddy when it was revealed where the second challenge takes place.
Ready Player One is an interesting film. It is by no means a perfect film and based on how this year is going I can’t imagine it will be a long-lasting memorable film. There will be those who love this movie because of the references nestled inside of it, and there will be those who hate it both because they don’t buy into the pop culture the film is peddling and because it’s not a great film. But, there is something to be said for Ready Player One, I think more than anything this film exemplifies everything nostalgic that has encapsulated our attention over the last 5 years. This is a film that has two feet in the last several decades, and one eye on the future. I wish that Spielberg would have done more to include some kind of message about where humanity is going instead of focusing so much on the number of references that can be included, but I think even that speaks volumes about what captures our attention today. Ready Player One is not by any means a great science fiction film that has something to say about humanity, it’s a fun, turn your brain off, adventure into the things that make us forget about the world around us.