Ready Player One is a visual feast and boasts impressive action sequences that will certainly entertain, but it’s missing heart, which makes the movie a letdown.
The culture that Steven Spielberg’s latest film Ready Player One invokes is one that he had a hand in creating. Geek culture is something today that is discussed both positively and negatively. It’s about passion over a specific topic. However, it seems in recent times that that passion has grown to dangerous levels. It’s an angle that could have been interesting to explore, especially considering Ernest clines novel of the same name that the film is based on makes a point to criticize the pop culture obsessed. However, Spielberg celebrates the positive aspects of geek culture without acknowledging the negatives.
The entire conceit of Ready Player One is a world where knowledge of pop culture — particularly that of the 80s — is now the currency. That’s because James Halliday (Mark Rylance in a weird, but great performance), has created a virtual world where people have invested all their real world time and money into living in — the Oasis. Players can enter the space and be whoever they want to be, which means a lot of 80s references. A lot. However, this has also caused the real world to crumble. Society has crumbled and completely transferred online. It’s an aspect of the premise that Spielberg ignores to the detriment of the rest of the film.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who was named that by his father because it sounds like a superhero’s secret identity (references and nostalgia!). Wade lives in the stacks. A discombobulated structure of twisted metal and mobile homes built up stories high on the outskirts of the Columbus, Ohio — the fastest growing city in the world. We don’t learn a lot about Wade. We know his home life isn’t great, though that’s barely touched on, which is why he escapes to an abandoned van outside the stacks to live in the Oasis.
In the Oasis, Wade becomes Parzival. He’s an extremely skilled player and Gunter. Gunters, which is short for Egg Hunters, are players who are focused on unlocking Halliday’s last dying wish in the Oasis. Halliday created a scavenger hunt where players must find 3 keys to win complete control of the Oasis both in the game and the real world.
Compared to the book, which I enjoyed, the film is a lot simpler in its execution. To its detriment, the creation of the Oasis and its impact on society are quickly glossed over, which ultimately changes what the film is commenting on versus the book. The book takes time to set up that the world has become an oppressive environment where movement between classes has become impossible, except for in the Oasis. By stripping that message out and barely touching on the dichotomy of geek culture, the movie ends up not saying very much.
It does attempt to have some commentary through Artemis (Olivia Cooke — she does great work here with the little material she’s given). She leads a group of resistance members — at one point she actually says, “welcome to the resistance” — that are focused on preventing IOI, a video game conglomerate that creates most of the equipment used to access the Oasis, from winning the prize. IOI and its CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendohlsen) have been forcing people into indentured servitude to help them win the game — essentially they raise an army. However, even with that storyline ripe for some commentary, the story breezes over it.
Not every movie needs to be subversive. However, Ready Player One is asking us to care about its main characters because they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. But without making them struggle or there being some sense of stakes in the real world, it makes any moment that feels like a rallying cry fall flat. There are moments where a character is all but standing on a soapbox and there is almost no impact.
Ready Player One suffers from a similar problem to last year’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s visually a feast — an accomplishment of CGI. There are sequences that feel like they’re going to be iconic in the future. Dare I say, sequences that people will be nostalgic for. Specifically, the second act The Shining sequence is one of the few references that made me perk up. However, it feels like it achieves those moments at the stake of the plot and characters. No characters, lead or supporting, feel fully drawn out or have complete arcs.
Spielberg seemed more interested in the possibilities that the Oasis presents rather than the societal implications of such a world. He set out to make a modern-day Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but forgot to make the characters as colorful as the world around them. Spielberg is the master of setpieces the race for the first egg — it feels like the perfect amount of homage — and The Shining sequence are both evidence of that. It’s enough to make Ready Player One at least enjoyable. However, it’s one of those movies that slips through your fingers. If you’re looking for a colorful, video game-inspired, 80s homage, give Thor: Ragnarok a chance. It’s everything I wish this movie was.