Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: March 29, 2018
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance
The year is 2045. Five years have passed since the death of James Halliday, the man responsible for the creation of OASIS, a virtual reality world designed for everyone in the real world to escape to, take part in, and become anyone and anything they want to be. Since Halliday's death, a number of players have been chasing an Easter egg at the heart of a game he designed requiring players to obtain three keys hidden somewhere within the OASIS, among them being the young Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan), known in the OASIS as Parzival, a mysterious female player known as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of a shady organization called IOI, the ultimate prize for finding the Easter egg being granted complete control of the OASIS. When Watts becomes the first person to find a key, the race is on to follow the clues hidden in Halliday's past and across the pop culture he was obsessed with to keep the OASIS from falling into IOI's hands.
On the surface, Ready Player One seems like a film designed for someone like me. It references a staggering amount of films, television shows, games, and so on from the '80s, '90s, and beyond from beginning to end that have been a part of my life, proudly wearing its influences on its sleeve, and it's directed by none other than the man responsible for a lot of those very influences, Steven Spielberg, my favorite director of all time. In fact, it's easy to argue that no other director could've been able to tackle a project like this in the first place, as Spielberg's decades-long status and pull in Hollywood undoubtedly played a hand in getting the rights cleared from all the various studios and so on to give us a movie that features the chestburster from Alien emerging from a Mortal Kombat character's chest and the DeLorean from Back to the Future racing around a battlefield as the Iron Giant fights Mechagodzilla.
Unfortunately, though, there's a spark missing. Unlike, say, the Harry Potter films or The Dark Tower that I've reviewed before, I haven't read the book by Ernest Cline that Ready Player One is based on, so I won't be analyzing how his novel and its adaptation compare, but I would hope that the novel has more meat on its bones than this. Despite Spielberg being in the saddle, Ready Player One feels as though it was made by someone with a love of the era he reigned in trying to make a Spielberg movie but missing the mark, as odd a thing that may be to say.
Spielberg has always excelled, in my opinion, at making the characters that populate his films in the action/adventure realm relatable, and that's something that has made most of them timeless and worth revisiting again and again as a result. We enjoy the man versus nature element of Jaws, the serial pulp of the Indiana Jones series, or how life finds a way in Jurassic Park, but those films have earned their staying power because spending time with characters like Chief Brody, Hooper, Quint, Indy, and Ian Malcolm is akin to revisiting old friends. And that's not to mention the type of inner wonder Spielberg has had an uncanny ability to tap into that bridges the gap between childlike innocence and the realities of adulthood and all that we forget when we grow up that gives films like E.T., A.I., or even the underrated Hook big, beating hearts. Say what you will about Spielberg's sentimentality, but no one else delivers it with such tangible sincerity, which is why Spielberg's works and the characters that reside in them have resonated with so many people for decades.
All of this is to say that Ready Player One is missing that special touch I was expecting that could've - and should've - elevated it into classic Spielberg territory. Many of the characters, for instance, are drawn so paper thin without any semblance of personality that it's hard to identify with them, an issue that wouldn't be as big of a deal if it didn't apply to the film's own main character. I hate to say it, but Wade Watts is a dull lead, and though he's given a tragic backstory - his parents died and he moved in with an aunt with a poor choice in lovers - none of it really means anything, as the character is never given flaws or quirks that give any insight into who he really is or what his experience has been like. By the end of E.T., your heart breaks for Elliot when he has no choice but to say good-bye to his extraterrestrial best friend who filled the void of an absent father. By the end of A.I., you've come to see the humanity in David and feel the weight of emotion and importance behind the last day he'll ever spend with his mother. By the end of Ready Player One, you're not even sure why Wade - of all people – truly deserves power over the OASIS just because he figured out Halliday's game, and though the film builds towards a theme about remembering to live in the now, it doesn’t really land when the character meant to learn the lesson is so bland, which is a huge problem for what the film tries to accomplish.
That issue trickles down to everyone else, from Mendelsohn's cookie-cutter corporate baddie to his right hand woman F'Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) to Halliday's former partner and co-creator of the OASIS, Ogden Morrow, a role that wastes Simon Pegg. Even Wade's direct allies are underserved, with Lena Waithe's Aech, Wade's best friend, in particular given an interesting development late in the film before the character is pushed into the background. And the two characters that stood out the most, T.J. Miller's bounty hunter i-R0k and Olivia Cooke's Art3mis, work almost in spite of the film, the former getting by on the sheer strength of his line delivery and the latter carrying a far larger sense of purpose on her shoulders than Wade. Cooke - who I personally loved for five seasons on Bates Motel - deserved a lot more here, and it's disappointing that it feels as though corners were cut around the development of her character for the sake of forcing her into a needless love story.
It's no real surprise that Wade and Art3mis - whose real name is Samantha - fall in love in a movie like this, but it's handled so bizarrely as to be off-putting. Despite never meeting in the real world, knowing nothing about one another, and only knowing each other for a couple days at most, Wade declares his love for her, and then once the two inevitably meet face to face for the first time, a kiss nearly happens in a moment that comes off creepy and unrealistic rather than the sweet event it's played as. And it's this very moment that represents the film's willingness to sacrifice character work for the sake of hitting the next beat, as it occurs not long after someone important to Wade has been killed right before his eyes, mere minutes when watching the film, and yet here he is, swooning over the girl of his dreams and never giving a second thought to the person he just lost until it's convenient to bring up later in the film, long after it's been proven that there was no emotional toll on him.
It has now been a week since I've seen the film, and it's for all these reasons that I needed to hold off on writing about it in order to let it sink in. Indeed the spectacle is there: A crazy race through an obstacle course early in the film is staged well, for example, and the final battle is a smorgasbord loaded with character appearances that charmed my audience, particularly an appearance by a certain horror icon. However, it feels like fast food a week later; in the moment, I enjoyed it, but now I have no real desire to have it again because it ultimately left me empty inside. The film's best sequence is arguably its slowest, an extended stretch involving a journey into Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that I can truly say captivated me for its loving attention to detail, but then it's left in the dust as the film inevitably shifts back into speeding along, concerned with feeding the audience as much as possible instead of taking the time to slow down and cook up something that truly resonates.
Even the score is missing something. It's hard not to wonder what the legendary John Williams could have delivered here, but composer Alan Silvestri is far from a terrible second choice. That said, however, Silvestri's work here never truly sticks out, the most memorable moments arising when he references his iconic work on Back to the Future, and the fact that the film doesn't have a theme you're left humming on the way back to your car after it's over almost feels criminal considering how important themes were to many of the films that shaped the pop culture at the heart of Ready Player One. Instead, songs like Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams" or A-Ha's "Take On Me" take the spotlight, and while I’m not complaining about the song selection, it's unfortunate, as a combination of the nostalgia inherent in those types of songs and the arrival of a truly memorable new theme worthy of a place in modern pop culture could've been something truly special.
If you're content with an experience that's purely referential, you won't be disappointed. From Star Trek and Star Wars to DC Comics to Overwatch to King Kong to the direct acknowledgment of real-life people like Robert Zemeckis and Warren Robinett, Ready Player One will continue to offer up something new to spot tucked away somewhere within its frames and, hopefully, create new fans of things within the film from those interested in digging deeper into the meaning or relevance behind something they saw. But ultimately that's all the film is, a harmless but borderline meaningless celebration of pop culture supported by the thinnest of narratives and characters that even Spielberg himself couldn't elevate to become something of importance and worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the classics films that line the road of his own legacy.
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