Movie Review: Ready Player One is All Fun and Games
Ready Player One is a high energy blend of pop culture nostalgia and futuristic virtual reality technology. Director Steven Spielberg is aiming for another escapist action adventure sci-fi blockbuster. Although Spielberg hits the mark with a fast pace and an enjoyable fun factor, Ready One Player doesn’t quite rise to the level of this director’s best hit movies.
In 2045, 18 year old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is living in a rundown section of Columbus, Ohio called “The Stacks”. Like most people, Wade escapes reality by spending time within OASIS, a virtual game world invented by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday created the ultimate contest in the VR world. The first person to complete three quests and discovers the hidden Easter egg wins ownership of OASIS.
The first quest is a vehicle race that is so dangerous that no one has ever made it across the finish line. At the race, Wade, also known as Parzival in OASIS, becomes smitten with a popular player named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Wade’s best friend Aech is skeptical about Art3mis’ true intention. But Wade and his friends must work together to prevent villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) from taking over OASIS.
Where Netflix’s Stranger Things is a retro-cool love letter to the 80’s, Ready Player One is an extravagant romp through a decade of excess. The classic soundtrack is a mix tape that features Van Halen’s “Jump”, New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. In addition to the music, there is a barrage of video game, movie and comic book references. These retro pop cultures references, if you can catch them, are played for laughs and sight gags rather than something that’s meant to be over sentimental.
Each of the three quests which gives this film a solid narrative structure offers a slightly different flavor. My personal favorite is the second quest because it’s a spoof on many memorable moments from an 80’s film. A possible critique of Ready Player One is that it verges on style over substance. However, the film’s not so subtle message (hint: there is nothing subtle about Ready Player One) about living in reality and taking chances in life is meaningful. The quests are tied into important life lessons by OASIS creator James Halliday which is a nice way to add a little bit of depth to the story.
Wade Watts is designed to be like a comic book character. He has a little bit of a Peter Parker vibe: a cash strapped orphan living with his aunt. Wade is bright when it comes to games and puzzles, but is awkward around Art3mis who has her own personal motivations for winning the contest. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke put in solid performances and are decent at portraying a tentative romance.
Mark Rylance is especially good as James Halliday. Though it’s not directly mentioned, the autism spectrum displayed by Rylance is really convincing. Simon Pegg as Halliday’s best friend Ogden Morrow and Ben Mendelsohn as Sorrento round out a strong main cast. As villains go, Sorrento receives plenty of screen time. What’s more wicked might just be Sorrento’s company in what they do to their indentured customers.
Visually there is a lot going on. Ready Player One crosses back and forth between the real world and the completely CGI virtual world. The visually vibrant style of OASIS is meant to be over the top in terms of what can happen there and the types of avatars the players can appear as. For my own tastes, there some moments that are too hectic to process everything in the thick of the action.
Maybe it’s because there are many shots that pay homage to other films that it’s hard to think of an original, iconic moment that stands out right now. That’s not to say there aren’t good highlight moments; there are several, especially in the well choreographed big battle sequence. But when I think of ET, Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark, there are classic images that instantly pop into my mind.
It’s not always easy to put a finger on why a movie with good building blocks like Ready Player One doesn’t become an excellent blockbuster. The jokes in Ready Player One are light and quick but I hardly ever laughed. Even when I caught a pop culture reference, I may not have a personal connection to it so it wasn’t of significance to me. Some of the references, especially in the 3rd quest may be too obscure or too old. There’s so much focus on the visual gags other important elements of the film lacked attention.
For example, I don’t doubt that an 18 year old can become infatuated with a girl very quickly, but Parzival falling hard for Art3mis is not that believable through no fault of the actors. The story and overall message could have hit home harder if they developed this relationship and emotionally tied it better to Halliday’s life lessons. The non-stop thrill ride makes it so there’s no breathing room for any endearing moments to play out over time. Even a kid friendly film like ET has moments that put a lump in your throat because it emotionally affects you, that’s not the case here. The story is well structured but is missing that something extra to make it a special movie. Sometimes a movie has that intangible magic where it lines up perfectly with the era and audience yet has a timeless quality. Again, that’s not the case here.
Ready Player One is an eager to please blockbuster. I never thought for a second that Spielberg could forget how to make one. Judging by the sizable box office numbers, movie goers are spreading positive word of mouth that’s mostly deserved. The action is fast, the visuals are popping and it’s a fun nostalgic ride. As solid as Ready Player One is, Spielberg had made better and more memorable films. My money is still on Black Panther as the movie to beat this year … so far.