Ready Player One movie review: Vintage Steven Spielberg, his best blockbuster in years
Ready Player One
Director - Steven Spielberg
Cast - Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, TJ Miller
Rating - 4/5
For an entire generation, Steven Spielberg is perhaps as mythical as his movies. The stories that we’ve heard about him are unanimously devotional, told years later, after enough time had passed for the negativity to evaporate. I wasn’t born when Jaws or Close Encounters became phenomenons. And I wasn’t there when, continuing an unprecedented streak of success, Spielberg directed Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. But in the future, when many of the ideas that he once imagined have perhaps become a reality, I can say that I was there for Ready Player One. It doesn’t for a moment come close to achieving the greatness of some of his best movies, but it would never have existed without them.
More than anything else, Ready Player One feels like the culmination of the era we live in, a time when being an outsider doesn’t immediately get you mocked. It’s a celebration, a carnival of creativity that only Spielberg could have made - but then again, there is nothing that he cannot do (reminder: The Post came out two months ago).
Having read Ernie Cline’s source novel at the peak of its popularity, it was only reasonable to wonder how - not if - this remarkable vision could be reproduced on the big screen. What the novel couldn’t accomplish in terms of prose - it really was quite plain - it more than made up for in sheer imagination and a propulsive pace. But it needed a filmmaker who understood this world on an elemental level, someone who could scratch beneath the surface and explore the aspects of nerd culture that its overlords would prefer remain buried. And in a stroke of unbelievable good luck, not only did they manage to get someone who, in my book, is the finest living filmmaker in the world, that someone also happens to be the person who invented this sort of movie. It’s almost like if we’d sent Stephen Hawking to meet the first alien expedition that arrived on our planet.
What the trailers didn’t really highlight all that excitedly - for reasons that a committee full of marketing sorts would be better equipped to explain - Ready Player One isn’t simply a story about a dystopian future in which the people of Earth have retreated into a virtual reality. It’s a breakneck chase adventure that’s modelled after, of all things, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of the blurbs on the book made that same observation, calling it ‘Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.’
And as co-screenwriter, Cline seems to have spent all his time trying to live up to that blurb. It’s unusual for a Spielberg movie to have a noticeably weak element - he normally does not pull the trigger on a project unless he is pleased with every department - but Cline’s script, which he co-wrote with Zak Penn, falls into several predictable traps - unlike its characters, who successfully avoid most obstacles thrown their way with relative ease. In order to streamline the plot down to its essentials - Ready Player One, the book, is notoriously clogged with details - Cline displays crippling indecision, retaining unnecessary plot points while at the same time sacrificing the most euphoric moments of his novel. This will probably not mean much to those who haven’t read it, but even then, the movie does rely a tad too heavily on exposition - ‘This is the Orb of Osuvox, a level 99 magical artefact that creates a forcefield that protects the holder.’ That sort of thing.
The trouble is, the Orb of Osuvox plays a significant part in the plot, especially in the loudest, most overwhelming third act Spielberg has directed in years - a 20 minute chunk of non-stop action that has more blink-and-you-miss pop-culture references than it is humanly possible to absorb in one viewing. But before all the mayhem, Ready Player One is a typically entertaining Spielbergian adventure - breathtakingly bold in its visuals, with stunningly choreographed action, and an emotional knot tying all these elements together. Consciously or not, Spielberg seems to have sneakily made a blockbuster film about the state of modern blockbuster filmmaking - pitting a wide-eyed young white male against an army of greedy corporate suits out to purchase his services for monopolistic purposes.
It tells the story of a young man called Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose father wanted him to have a name that sounded like it could’ve belonged to a superhero - you know, like Bruce Banner or Peter Parker, mild mannered men whose alter egos unleash hidden potentials. Like most superheroes, Wade was born into a world of sorrow, sorrows that he tries to drown not in alcohol, but in another kind of drug: virtual reality. Wade, and the rest of what is left of humanity - unhealthy and unclean losers who spend every waking hour pretending like the real world doesn’t exist - are jolted out of their self-induced stupor when James Halliday dies.
Halliday (played by Spielberg’s new muse, Mark Rylance) was the greatest mind of his time, the man who invented the OASIS, a virtual reality world that offers respite from the troubles that have overrun the real one. Wade was born after OASIS opened its cyber gates, so it’s the only reality he knows. That makes him perfectly equipped for the challenge Halliday has left behind: Three clues, three easter eggs hidden somewhere within the endless virtual world of the OASIS which will win the person who finds them the keys to Halliday’s kingdom, and ostensibly, to the most powerful economic resource in the world.
Together with his friends, he embarks upon an epic quest that takes him from unwinnable car races that routinely attract King Kong and the T-Rex, to a house of horror modelled after Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining - all the while being chased by Nolan Sorrento and his evil corporation. It’s a film that is, at a fair estimate, roughly 70% animated, but with the real world always knocking at the door.
But there’s a reason why fantasy and science-fiction is often described as escapist entertainment. The implication is that, had we been living in a perfect world, there would no longer be any need for such tales. We would no longer need to escape. But the art of storytelling goes back millennia - presumably because as a species, we’ve never really been content enough to stop wanting something better than the reality in which we live. So we drew sketches on the walls of our caves, and we carved giant rocks into temples for fantastical beings (that we invented); we wrote words on paper, and we pranced about on stages and in front of crowds. We invented the movies, and through them, we travelled to worlds both familiar and unknown. We escaped. It’s what we do best. And Steven Spielberg knows where to take you.
Watch the Ready Player One trailer here: