Ready Player One is frequently unbearable, occasionally inspired, has flashes of interesting characters, and is probably the worst Steven Spielberg movie I’ve ever seen.
Spielberg is a director I love, easily in my Top 5 favorite filmmakers, no matter the day, but his direction and vision has never felt so lifeless and uninspired as it does here. Though, I think I am going to lay the blame at the feet of the source material here, as Ernest Cline’s book of the same name is the origin of all of the qualities that I loathed while watching this adaptation. The endless chest puffing over all of the 80’s “nerd ass shit” (what happened to the 50 years of pop culture in between?) that the film’s lead Wade/Parzival can pull right off the top of his head is just slightly less interminable feeling, but it still makes you roll your eyes and groan in pain at how not cool it all is. It’s also like, what is the point of all of these references? When the Iron Giant gave that thumbs up, I was ready to blow my brains out.
The references, which never seem to stop, are the aforementioned unbearable and pointless, but the Willy Wonka-esque rip off inside the Oasis can be filed under pointless once it is all said and done. Wade spends every waking minute in the Oasis, a video game type thing that is a virtual world that people would rather spend their lives experiencing over the real world. Wade is also a member of a subset of the community that devotes every minute of their time trying to solve the Oasis’ creator’s, Halliday, dying call to discover an easter egg he has hidden in his creation. After finding the first key, Wade becomes a celebrity and the target of a corporate organization I0I, as well as a group of revolutionaries led by a young woman named Art3mis.
Enough plot, I just needed to get enough of the particulars out there to discuss more problems with the film, as well as find a few moments of praise. The script just seems to be going through the motions at all times, with no greater meaning to really any of the proceedings. Spielberg himself said this is a movie, not a film, but does that mean it has to be completely brainless? If even a fraction of the energy that was put into coming up with all the pop culture references and mash-ups was put into the characters and story, this film could have been quite a bit more engaging.
There was an opportunity to elevate a female character to the top of nerd culture, but instead Art3mis is nothing more than a manic pixel dream girl. A mostly fantastical creation that exists to be exactly what Wade wants. Olivia Cooke is so good she almost breaks away from the shackles of white nerd fantasy, but ultimately she’s there to tell Wade “He’s the only one.” The romance could have used any creative energy, but instead we are stuck with I love you at only meeting once or twice as avatars. Wade’s best friend, Aech, also had the potential to explore some interesting ideas about gender, but the script would rather just make jokes about it. The closest it gets to exploring something interesting in the real world is some vague notions to the ideas of corporate consumerism, but that is mostly due to a fun and knowing turn by Ben Mendelsohn as the film’s villain and leader of I0I. It fails to address the poverty in the film, the social and economic inequality, the dangers of spending your life in a virtual environment, why not even dip a toe or two into these ideas?
The film’s, excuse me, movie’s pacing is a mess for the front half, as my enjoyment was mostly centered around a big action car chase around Halliday’s easter egg game and the way Spielberg runs us through it a second time. The opening and closing set pieces are where Spielberg’s direction makes the film most enjoyable, but is there action in video games better than this, probably. Only one sequence in the film really stands out as something special, one that I won’t spoil other than saying it is centered around the jade key, but the fact that nothing really feels special in a Spielberg film seems next to impossible, but Ready Player One somehow does it. That sequence by the way makes the reference work because it is new to someone involved, plus, the technical feat of pulling it off is the most impressive filmmaking in the movie.
I’ve given shout outs to Cooke and Mendelsohn, but I think Tye Sheridan deserves some props for making Wade a character that didn’t make me literally want to burn the theater down. He can’t smooth over a few truly awful lines of dialogue, but he does make the Wade/Parzival at least watchable. Still, I’d rather have seen Art3mis take over and be our lead. Oh, Mark Rylance is also great as Halliday, just a great oddball performance. The world of Oasis also deserves a bit of credit for at least looking pretty damn good, even if it was underlit, and I appreciated Spielberg’s visualization of the I0I teams getting knocked out of the game; every single one of those shots found a new way to show them getting “killed” in new and interesting ways.
Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a film I don’t think I need to ever really see again, and that makes me sad. I wasn’t a fan of the book, the half-ish of it that I read at least, but I was holding out hope that Spielberg would be able to tone down the nostalgia porn and have fun with the idea of the Oasis; I was unfortunately wrong. Still, the movie has a couple of decent sequences, plus one great one, and a couple of good performances to boot. Spielberg can’t make garbage, but this is the weakest and least memorable effort I’ve seen yet from him and probably isn’t worth your time.
P.S. Also, if we are going to complain about the nerdy stuff here, the fact that the film doesn’t have the rights to anything in the Nintendo or Disney/Marvel/Star Wars/Muppet IP’s is a huge shortcoming for what would undoubtedly be filling the Oasis over the majority of the pop culture cameos we get here.