Ready Player One Review: Pop-up Culture
Ready Player One review: Director Steven Spielberg’s take on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name is visually stunning and fun, but lacks depth.
Over the last few years, Ernest Cline’s best-selling book Ready Player One has become somewhat controversial. On the one hand, it’s a nostalgia-drenched tale infused with massive amounts of pop culture, wrapped up in a quest involving good vs bad. On the other hand, it’s not exactly Shakespeare, the female characters are basically just plot moppets, and the pop culture in question was pretty much the exclusive providence of middle-class white kids with money to blow on toys and games.
Both sides in this debate are right, and both sides can be exhausting to listen to. So maybe it’s good that director Steven Spielberg basically said to hell with it and stripped the book down to its core, then recreated it in a very-Spielbergian way. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing may depend on what you’re hoping to get from the movie.
Like the book, the film centers around a contest. In the year 2045, civilization is not doing all that well. As a result, the majority of the world has retreated into a virtual world known as the Oasis, a place where anything is possible. Using a combination of facial recognition software, haptic suits, and a virtual headset, people don’t just visit the Oasis, they retreat to it and live their lives there.
When the Oasis’ creator James Halliday/Anorak (Mark Rylance) dies, it kicks off his last game. Hidden somewhere inside the Oasis are three keys that lead to an egg (an Easter egg), and the first person to find it takes control of the Oasis (and Halliday’s staggeringly large fortune). Halliday’s only clues were that the puzzles were connected to his life, which in turn kicked off a massive wave of renewed interest in the era of Halliday’s childhood, and especially pop culture.
With the 80s back in vogue, contestants and Oasis devotees like Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) are searching for the egg to improve their lives, while others like Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) hunt for it to take control of the resources and make the world a better place. Others still, like Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), want to take it over and make the Oasis into a corporate-run universe locked behind pay gates. When the first key is discovered, things heat up and the competition becomes deadly serious.
The worlds of the Oasis are dripping with pop culture references that will require a swift thumb and a pause button to catch when the movie comes out on home media. From DC characters to Ninja Turtles to Gundam to Battletoads, the world is an 80s kid’s heaven. And throughout it all, the presence of Spielberg – whose works deeply influenced the era – can be felt.
The characters are straight out of any youth-based Spielberg action movie, starting with Parzival, a sweet kid that is poorly treated but keeps doing the right thing anyway. You could call him down on his luck, but he never had any luck to begin with, and Sheridan does an excellent job of breathing likability into him. Art3mis, meanwhile, is the crusader, willing to fight for what is right and risk it all. She is confident and optimistic, and Cooke plays her well.
The rest of the characters backing Perzival also have a few moments to shine, but they are sadly underdeveloped. Mendelsohn has a few scenes he chews up, but there’s not much to him beyond the stereotype of a corporate asshole. One exception to this, however, is Rylance, who turns in a quirky performance that takes what could have been an annoying role and makes him intriguing. His character’s story is a little more problematic though.
One of the biggest of the many changes from the book is in the challenges themselves. Rather than the characters playing classic games to complete to earn the keys, Parzival and company need to solve puzzles from Halliday’s life. There’s supposed to be a message there, but it’s not a great one and it borders on creepy with a touch of stalker thrown in. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s emblematic of a bigger issue.
Ready Player One continues to threaten to tell a deeper story, but then it backs off again and again. It starts with the world of 2045, which appears to be somewhat dystopian, but it’s never clear if that’s because of the world or if it’s just the neighborhood Parzival lives in. The idea that people spend too much time in the virtual world is also a major point that never really gets developed beyond a few lines of dialogue here and there.
There’s a smart movie buried in Ready Player One, but it never emerges. Instead, the action and adventure angle dominates… mostly. It never goes far enough in either direction to really excel, which – ironically for a movie about enduring pop culture – will probably make it appear and disappear like a pop-up restaurant. It also makes the climax feel a little underwhelming as people learn lessons that land without any impact.
One area where the movie absolutely shines though, is in the effects. Ready Player One has a slight advantage in that the animated characters aren’t supposed to look like photorealistic facsimiles, but instead, video game creations come to life. You buy into its virtual world and forget that it is a complete construction. The scenes where the virtual world and the real blend together are seamless, and it’s easy to forget exactly how heavily reliant this film is on VFX. It’s also one of the few films you may want to go out of your way to watch in 3D.
Ready Player One Review Conclusion
Spielberg can put together a scene like few others. Even if the whole suffers a but, the pieces are good enough to carry the rest. You can see the pieces of greatness trying to pop out, but as a whole, the film never lives up to its potential.
As a whole, Ready Player One is an entertaining and visually spectacular film. It wants to be more than that though, and that’s where it falters a bit. If you can ignore that and just focus on the action, you’ll enjoy it. Just don’t expect a lot more.