Release Date: March 30, 2018
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance
Director: Steven Spielberg
Studio: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
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Spoilers: Medium

Ready Player One, the film adaption to Ernest Cline’s much loved/maligned 2011 bestseller, is here to deliver 80s nostalgia (kinda) in a spectacular visual experience (sometimes) with a dose of a message (too little, too late). The book has been planned for feature filmhood ever since the publishing contract was inked.

So, 6 years later, after the overwhelming opinion on the book has changed (Vox wrote about it recently here), how does the movie handle? I was not a fan of the book in the slightest, but I will do my best to stop the references to it here. This is a review of the movie and the movie alone.

Ready Player One is all about the OASIS, a virtual world and the players inhabiting it, the megacorps trying to own it and the heroes who want to defend it, keep it free and unhindered for all. Well, there’s a girl and a rebellion and since our main character thinks he’s in love with her after virtually hanging out twice he’s on board too.

The key by which the OASIS can be either kept free or enslaved to corporate interests: The Egg, the last act of game creator James Halliday, which when found would grant ownership and a whole bunch of money to its finder. Cool quest.

Unfortunately, as the movie continues that quest for control, the characters occasionally pop into the real world. But whenever we have to leave the warm spectacle glow of the OASIS, the movie moves in a herky-jerky manner. Characters meet quickly, apparently, all live within the same 5 blocks of future Columbus, and don’t really go anywhere.

In that way, the real world segments feel incredibly tiny and uninteresting. Maybe that move is intentional to make the audience want to get back to the OASIS ASAP, but I think I may be giving Cline and Penn (yes Cline worked on the screenplay as well) too much credit, it seemed more like the B plot that wasn’t well thought out needing to be tacked on and rushed through.

So, if we are wanting to spend all our time in the OASIS bits, that must be the best stuff, right? That is also unfortunately incorrect. The opening of this movie, after an exposition dump via narration, we are thrown into the first challenge for the first key. A death race through virtual New York City featuring impossible physics and obstacles, Mario Kart on HGH.

As the scene continues I found myself moving from awe to boredom. It didn’t take long for the realization to hit that none of it ‘meant’ anything. Don’t get it twisted, it looks fantastic, but it doesn’t do much past that.

There was no thrill in Wade/Parzival escaping the traps narrowly because there was no worry of the consequence. The movie does reference in passing that money in the OASIS is essentially real money and Wade being so poor could never afford to work his way back up should he die, but you never really feel any of that.

Last point: This movie is built on the foundation of references. That’s what made the book such a hit, being a big ol’ nostalgia bomb. So, of course, the screen packs it in. There are numerous wide shots of hundreds of characters charging around or walking about the OASIS and you know it is littered with characters from popular media.

This is irritatingly distracting. In those moments it felt that instead of following the story you had to pause to play Where’s Waldo? (though in this case, Waldo is Tracer, Battletoads, and all sorts more probably even Waldo!)

The realization of the audience who this is for, the people who can just see a representation of something they like and be pleased is embarrassing. It’s pandering, like Mendelsohn’s Sorrento as he attempts to prove his 80s chops to Wade Watts. Referencing things the audience knows and likes shouldn’t be enough to win them over, but I worry that for the majority it is. ‘I see Minecraft World, I like Minecraft! I like Ready Player One!’

Maybe there is some big commentary about nostalgia culture here, beneath it all. That the references to previous works mean nothing without further analysis or discussion of why they are important to us. But I remain unconvinced. After all the movie turns the (famously pacifist) Iron Giant into a fighting mech blasting away at other players, which can only work if it’s completely satirical. But the movie never gives us reason to believe that or that it is at all smart enough to be capable of suggesting so.

A lot is made of this being a ‘dumb popcorn flick.’ Spielberg is masterful at setting up his action, there’s no doubt there and he can imbue a movie with that sense of wonder, but he can only polish a turd so far.

Ready Player One is in theaters now.

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