Ready Player One and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Oh! Do I finally get a chance to see this darn movie!? I swear; it feels like EVERY OTHER CRITIC IN THE WORLD got an invite to an early premiere of this while I’m sitting over here waiting for its ACTUAL release date like a total chump! Now I haven’t read the book so I won’t be going into this with much in terms of expectations, but the premise is on that could really get out of hand quickly if it’s not in the hands of the right director. Just imagine how bad Scott Pilgrim would have been if it wasn’t in the hands of Edgar Wright, or if say Adam Sandler somehow managed to make a movie about classic video games attacking us in the real world. GOOD THING THAT NEVER HAPPENED, AM I RIGHT!? Was Steven Spielberg the right one to adapt this material, or will this be a larger misstep for the venerable director than The Lost World: Jurassic Park? Let’s find out!!
The movie takes place in the year 2045 where society hasn’t really COLLAPSED, so much as it’s gotten really apathetic and there’s a whole bunch of trash everywhere. For most people, they’re way of dealing with it is to go into the most EXPANSIVE AND BAD ASS online video game ever made (right after Second Life) called THE OASIS! One such denizen of this virtual world is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who lives in one of the slums of Columbus Ohio (they literally just started stacking trailer homes on top of each other) but he has big dreams for the future that will get him out of his boring miserable life! Okay, it mostly involves playing games in THE OASIS as his in-game character Parzival, but that’s proving to be more and more of a viable career path; provided he doesn’t start shouting racial slurs. Like in real life though, he’s kind of stuck at the lower tier of THE OASIS hierarchy and spends most of his time either hanging out with his friend Aech (Lena Waithe) or re-reading the history of the inventor of THE OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance) who died about a decade ago. Said creator by the way has stuck three hidden keys within the game that if found will get TOTAL control of his Chocolate Factory… I mean software company, but no one has been able to find even one of them so far; not even the EVIL corporation called Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is head up by the EVIL Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that plan to do EVIL things if they get control of the company! So Wade/Parzival is just going along his day to day routine… that is until he meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) who is one of the top players in the game, and their chance encounter ALSO leads to him figuring out the first clue that James Halliday left behind which leads him directly to the first key! Now the guy is on EVERYONE’S radar! Art3mis is trying to find the keys for herself and wants Parzival’s help doing it, Aech is stoked that they get all the cool gear that comes with finding that first key, and of course the EVIL IOI is after him to either convince him to join them or DESTROY HIM UTTERLY! Will Wade be able to resist the allures of corporate culture and embark on this noble quest to honor the memory of the greatest game developer of all time? What reasons could Art3mis have for needing to find the keys, and does it have anything to do with IOI’s EVIL schemes? Will Wade get the validation in the virtual world that he so desperate craves in his own life!? THAT’S HOW THIS WORKS, RIGHT!?
I can’t say that I hated this movie, and I don’t even think I disliked it all THAT much, but this is NOT a good film and is certainly one of the weaker entries in Spielberg’s filmography. I don’t know how this story plays out in the book which means that I’m not sure how much of the blame can be placed on the his shoulders, but it definitely FEELS like a situation where a director gets saddled with a terrible script (something you’d think Spielberg would be protected against by now) because there is simply too much wrong with the plotting and pacing of the story while there also being too much right about certain moments that felt like the places that truly drew Spielberg into the material; or at least were enough in his wheelhouse that he could excel at for the brief moments they are here in this movie. Whether or not he was working with Grade A material or low rent pandering nonsense, what we’re left with is a movie that’s intermittently fun but just way too shallow and obnoxiously overstuffed with distractions to be all that satisfying. I’ll give them credit for more or less recreating the AAA gaming experience of this current generation, but it hardly makes up for it being a rather unengaging sit.
If I was to some up this movie in one word (other than “passable”) it would be “fractured” because almost every major aspect of this movie feels incomplete and dissonant in some way. The biggest culprit is probably the story itself which isn’t exactly a surprise for an adaptation (even the Harry Potter films cut corners all over the place), but despite the film being filled to the brim with awkward exposition and an endless stream of narration, there still feels like an entire novel’s worth of content that’s completely missing here. Wade Watts isn’t given much characterization outside the virtual world as he only has one interaction with his family before they’re removed from the film entirely; similarly with THE RESISTANCE later on in the movie that is more underdeveloped than The Assassins AND The Templars in the Assassin’s Creed games. It makes it hard to care about anything that’s happening in the movie because the stakes feel so underwhelming due to how little we spend time with these characters outside the context of the quest itself. Sure, we’re TOLD how motivated they are to win (for the glory, for the people, for the love of Halliday), but it all feels so perfunctory and does little to get us invested in their stories. Speaking of perfunctory, there are two characters in this, Sho and Daito (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki), who pop in once or twice at the beginning of the story, but then all of a sudden… POOF! They’re on the quest with Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech, like they were with us the whole time and it’s ABSURDLY jarring because the movie never sets them up to BE that close to our main characters! They never even have ONE face to face interaction with any of them before they’re just… THERE!! It’s like if we were watching The Avengers, and during the scene where everyone is suiting up to head to New York, Batman is just hanging out AND NO ONE MENTIONS IT! You can’t just throw in generic character traits, half assed rebellion storylines, and rather important secondary characters without any forewarning or build up, and expect us to ACTUALLY care about any of it! And look, this might be getting TOO much into the weeds… but I just can’t buy Oasis as a video game. Not in the BIG concept as it feels like a natural extension of both MMORPGs and VR Chat (minus the racists Knuckles), but all of the details just feel wrong from any sort of developmental or logistical standpoint; all of which would be a lot easier to avoid thinking about if the movie didn’t go out of its way to make you think of this game AS an entity within the real world. If this had just been a way to set up a fantasy world that our heroes could have an adventure in, that would be one thing, but this game and the contest within it have SERIOUS economic and political implications that the movie is constantly reminding us of. If IOI or anyone else were SO hell bent on winning this contest, there’d honestly be way easier ways to go about it than to play Halliday’s ridiculously obtuse game. Hacking for example is never brought up; nor is corporate espionage as there’s still TECHNICALLY a company that has to keep the servers running where all this code is stored; and that’s not even getting into the fact that if ONLY Halliday knew where each of the keys were, then it’s very likely that a patch or update in the last decade could have erased them entirely from the system. The movie name checks Let’s Players and Twitch Streamers, but it never feels like a REAL thing here because people THAT dedicated to playing games would have figured out something as basic as “drive backwards” within a day of the contest being announced. How long did it take someone to figure out the secret of PT? Like a day? And that one was honestly WAY more esoteric than anything Halliday thought up!
The lack of cohesion extends to the tone and framing as well. Wade is the little guy with big dreams, but he’s also selfish and rather privileged all things considered. I don’t care what future this is; being able to not only AFFORD VR hardware but to also spend his ENTIRE day in the game is not the lifestyle of someone below the poverty line. He’s not even playing the game to make real world money to keep his family afloat! He’s just hanging out and picking up scraps to keep his in-game loot nice and shiny! Let’s just say that by the time he’s shouting his populist messages about THE PEOPLE, it doesn’t sell very well and gets undercut EVEN MORE by the very end of the movie. The other two main characters, Aech and Art3mis, are far more interesting and should have been the focus of their own stories; particularly Art3mis if you wanted to tell THIS one (Aech has their own thing going on which would ha been interesting to follow). The problem is that, like EVERYTHING else in this movie, it all feels in service of propping up our main star, so despite Art3mis being the far more compelling and sympathetic character, she only really exists as a means to an end. She gets Wade refocused on the quest which leads to the first major breakthrough, and then she’s relegated to a competent tag along as well as a love interest; a another storyline by the way that ALSO falls flat. Something that REALLY could have hit home and been a vital message in the age of virtual interactions is the disconnect we create between how we expect people to be when we know them online and the reality of who they are in person, and the movie touches upon this… but it ends up balking pretty hard as the real world person isn’t all that different or in ANY way disappointing to Wade; not that I wanted some sort of Catfish scenario, but for someone who spends so much time only interacting with people in a fantasy world, the guy slides into this new situation with quite a bit of aplomb. Now that’s not to say that the filmmakers don’t hit on ANYTHING profound in this movie, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. I really like the way i-R0k, the big bad henchman, is portrayed in this as he’s less the typical menacing badass (that would be Hannah John-Kamen character), and is instead a total elitist gamer douche. That’s pretty clever and it correctly shows how people who behave like that are not pleasant to be around in the slightest. Also, while the REAL LIFE IDENTITY plot twist fell flat for Art3mis, it does work in other places and adds some diversity to a hobby where an obnoxiously vocal minority (one that looks quite a bit like i-R0k) have been raging against for years. Honestly, the movie doesn’t go far enough for my liking regarding these issues as problems like harassment, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and unscrupulous business practices are ALL supplanted by a BIG BAD CORPORATION that exists entirely separate from the developers of Oasis. The movie doesn’t even go into how the developers ignoring IOI could itself be seen as a tacit endorsement which would have been a brilliant parallel to draw towards Steam, but the movie is less interested in putting this story in the context of modern gaming to instead us the trappings as a way of telling a rather generic HERO QUEST story. Even the moments where they allude to prisoner gold farming in MMORPGs which is PROBABLY the most direct and biting bit of commentary in this movie is far to underutilized to give this film any real weight.
Speaking of trappings, the UNIQUE SELLING POINT here is the depth and abundance of references you’ll find peppered throughout, so how well do they handle that aspect of the film? Like everything else, it’s a mixed bag but there are enough bright spots throughout that I’m sure everyone will find at least SOMETHING they liked. Granted, it MOSTLY consists of what is colloquially known as GEEK CULTURE callbacks, but there are some interesting choices here that you wouldn’t expect to show up in a major studio blockbuster. Sure, you’ve got The DeLorean, King Kong, Mortal Kombat characters, and even Tracer from Overwatch, but including The Iron Giant as the CENTERPIECE giant robot in this? That’s a pretty solid nod towards Millennials who love that movie despite it not being a huge box office success! Buckaroo Banzai gets name checked which is a good nod towards older fans of more obscure geek ephemera, and they even recreate one of my favorite movies for one of the best set pieces in the entire movie! Some of them are pretty weak like when they have they just throw out a Chucky doll for no reason (if it WAS Brad Dourif doing the voice, it certainly didn’t sound like him) and the dialogue from our main characters are overburdened with pop culture buzz words, but I don’t think they overdo it in an obnoxious way. It’s the world they live in and the movie is ABOUT our endless nostalgia for the media we consumed, so it makes sense that things would look like this; albeit way more cleaned up than you’d realistically expect.
So was Spielberg the right guy for the job? In a sense I would say so because this could have been SO much worse, but I think the source material itself was the biggest problem and could have definitely should have been updated in ways other than what pop culture references they use. It’s a throwback in several ways and most of them aren’t good because at this point the idea itself seems about as dated as the callbacks to nostalgic properties that got everyone’s attention in the first place. It’s a very narrow view of Geek Culture which enough people have honestly kind of grown out of for this to feel as universally relatable as it might have even when it was written a mere seven years ago. There are better movies like this out there such as Scott Pilgrim or even Wreck it Ralph, but Spielberg didn’t completely strike out here so it’s at least a pleasant enough if entirely empty and run of the mill viewing experience. Now if they made a sequel where Solid Snake and Mario teamed up to fight Nazi gamers and MRA scumbags, THEN you’d have the perfect movie about video games!!