So I can’t figure out if it would be more ethical to lay out my problems with the concept of Ready Player One on the floor now or to keep them to myself and pretend I’m not entering the movie with any pre-existing biases and I just figure I may as well come clean so whoever wants a shining review (pun unintended) will be let down easy.
I have never read Ernest Cline’s original novel of which Zak Penn based his screenplay on, but from what I understand of it (and Cline) it sounds shallow and emblematic of everything I am unimpressed with regarding “nostalgia as token” storytelling, especially 1980s nostalgia. And to be quite honest, I feel like Penn’s screenplay and parts of director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling retains a lot of the things that make the concept abhorrent to me: the strict focus on male-centric fan culture elements, the shallow background tokenism of minorities as support to the conventionally attractive white characters being the only ones with depth afforded to them (and even then, not by much), the gatekeeping moments where the villain is coded so because he doesn’t have enough John Hughes knowledge (including the now much-mocked line of “a fanboy can always tell a hater”), the antithetical ignoring of certain properties’ core substance to use them as bald action figures bashing against each other (most notably, the famously anti-violence The Iron Giant – created by a character whose only traits that aren’t a spoiler are their love for violent shoot ’em ups and their gearhead intelligence and the character is used accordingly).
None of those things are film-damning to my mind, honestly. It just means I stepped into Ready Player One with little faith to begin with, enough to overshadow my usual faith in Spielberg delivering another great piece of zippy popcorn entertainment despite the premise being trying desperately to sell the kind of escape a person can have in pop culture and video games. Probably because the movie doesn’t know whether or not it wants to also be a doomed look into a society so dependent on escaping reality that it falls apart and that’s honestly the more compelling area of the film to me.
That video game that society is escaping into is called the OASIS, an open-world virtual reality environment where folks have invested so very much of their time and finances to the point of nationwide (at least) dystopia. This environment is represented with two major characteristics: first, motion-captured computer-animated scenes by Industrial Light and Magic that’s understandably “poor” in the way video game graphics would be but also filled with dazzling lighting effects for an imagination playbox as opposed to the last time Spielberg played with this toolbox in the fully animated The Adventures of Tintin. Second, OASIS is filled with a nauseating amount of pop culture references beyond the frequent name-dropping that would occur in character design, set design, vehicle design, and even soundtrack – mostly with wide-eyed shallow love for the 1980s. Which… ok, I guess.
It is completely believable that an unlimited sandbox world would be quickly overpopulated with pop cultures models rather than unique designs or a desire to exude personality, in case we forget we essentially have the OASIS in existence in real as VRChat and damned if you don’t come across a million anime characters and Ugandan Knuckles in those worlds. Somehow instead of the world being bitter about the ruined economical state against the creators of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), they are idolized to the point that when Halliday abruptly announces his death in a pre-recorded stream, he also announces an easter egg hidden deep within the game – the prize of finding it being his entire estate including total control of the OASIS.
Obviously that would attract the attention of a huge amount of players, including ones commissioned by the shadowy commercial corporation Innovative Online Industries and their apparently unimaginative profit-driven CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson), who is somehow able to make his choice of AI as himself except Thanos-color and -body type, desiring to turn the OASIS into a giant marketing platform that would feel like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference of a plot point if it wasn’t obvious this movie would telegraphing the hell out of such an intentional decision. It also grabs the attention of a ragtag group of egg hunters, including blue elf avatar Parzival and his Ohio teen player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts’ hunt leads into digging deeper into the tragic hermit life of Halliday for several clues to help him, gun-lugging orc Aech, Ninja Sho, Samurai Daito, and the mysterious and determined similarly elfen avatar except pink named Art3mis.
And for being the major draw of the movie, it just feels so… bored of its own spectacle. There’s no true investment in most of the decisions on what reference to drop in the film, no giddy excitement like we know Spielberg to shake out of us except within a certain giant battle in the climax of the film and a certain second act challenge that’s an homage to a certain famous filmmaker friend of Spielberg’s right up until they add dancing and floating zombies. Otherwise, it’s no slouch but it’s no more an impressive fully-animated video game landscape than TRON: Legacy, which had character and felt a lot more solid and sleek in a manner that’s much more interesting to watch. Meanwhile, Ready Player One feels like a kid playing with actions figures, but not in an excited joyous way. More like a kid who doesn’t want his little brother to touch them. All the more so by the reluctance Spielberg openly had for referencing his own work, something that’s certainly valiant and humble but wrong-headed when his work defined the era that Cline fetishized.
In any case, it’s still a Spielberg film and it takes a lot of work for one of those to not at least have an efficient sense of pacing (something especially impressive given the 140 minutes it has to move through) and it even manages to give that time some compelling content in the form of the live-action scenes. They’re superior to the animated Family Guy skit of a plotline in every way: Mendelsohn’s performance is so much more interesting when we’re actually watching him flopsweat about (it’s a lesser version of his work in Rogue One but better version of him than The Dark Knight Rises), the design of the dystopian Columbus, Ohio as a stack of trailers looking Babel-esque is able to work at establishing the dive in class for its inhabitants without feeling like miserablism, and most of all, we get to see more of Halliday. It’s a role which Rylance is wildly overqualified to play but something he approaches with lovable earnestness – he takes the social blocks Halliday appears to have and twists them into either vulnerable windows of his fears of social interaction or truly alienating and difficult resentment depending on what the scene asks. In Bridge of Spies, Rylance came across as the least Spielberg-ian entity, but here he is the most Spielberg-ian element of all: a Willy Wonka of sorts that was unprepared to deal with real life with a downfall the movie treats with honesty but not harshness. It is the closest thing Ready Player One comes to feeling like it has a soul and so if you hold tight to the glimpses of Halliday like I did, you might just find yourself at the end of the ride quicker than you expected.
They do have Battle Toads, though. So passing grade.