Ready Player One
The following review contains mild spoilers. None of the major set-pieces or sight gags after the first act are detailed, but character arcs and themes are discussed in some detail.
During his introduction at the premiere at SXSW, Steven Spielberg said Ready Player One was not a film, but a movie -- by which he means a return to the crowd-pleasing blockbusters he’s best known and loved for. And it’s certainly that; it may be a minor shame that it isn’t more than that, or even the finest example of it, but it’s still the world’s greatest living filmmaker indulging in silly fun.
Ready Player One gleefully barrels through every kind of special effect, action sequence, and pop culture reference it can jam into 2 1/2 hours -- a car race where a DeLorean tries to dodge a T-Rex and outrun King Kong, Freddy Krueger getting incinerated by a futuristic cyborg, and numerous others. The margins are filled with references both obvious and obscure, while surface-level references are indulged in for extended set-pieces.
Of course, in this world, it makes sense. In 2045 Ohio, the world is falling apart; people live in trailers stacked in towers, while massive corporations have seemingly limitless power. For many, the one escape from this dreary world is the OASIS, a massive virtual reality simulation designed by a tech genius in love with the culture of his childhood in the '80s and '90s. Within this simulation is a game that has been going on for years -- the winner of which will inherit the $500 billion fortune of the deceased genius, as well as control of the OASIS. Ready Player One follows one player in particular, Wade Watts, known in the OASIS as Parzival (Tye Sheridan), and the various allies and enemies he accumulates in this world, from old friend Aech (Lena Waithe), to anarchic Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), to corporate overlord Sorrento (Ben Mendholsson), the latter of whom barely bothers to hide his nefarious plans for the OASIS. He meets them first in the game, and, eventually, in real life... just as that life is put in mortal danger by Sorrento, willing to do anything to ensure he wins the prize.
In the OASIS, Spielberg gets to go absolutely wild. At first, it seems like the endless digital creations and references will become merely overwhelming and exhausting, but he quickly focuses it with the first major set-piece -- the aforementioned race, as hundreds of vehicles of every shape and size try to evade a stunning, ever-evolving series of traps and dangers. It's an exhilarating, kickass sequence, and only a glimmer of the wonders to come. All manner of genres, locations, and characters collide in scenes that somehow never run out of ideas. A particular highlight is a three-dimensional dance sequence, though there are any number of great scenes best left unspoiled. Best of all, Spielberg doesn't lose sight of the story or characters here, and it always stays just focused enough on those to not descend into mere pointless spectacle.
The result is a lightning-paced ride that blasts through its’ 140 minutes while somehow never tipping over into exhaustion or feeling over-extended. There’s just enough balance of humor, character, and quiet, and enough variety within the set-pieces, that it flows smoothly. It’s a blast.
The unabashed glorification of nerd culture may well have been thrilling in 2011. But in the wake of Gamergate a far too many similar events, it’s difficult to take straight. We’ve now spent years seeing the obsessive collection of arcane trivia used as little more than an excuse for gatekeeping and bullying to horrific, literally criminal levels. The film pushes back just a touch against the glorification in the back half -- the multi-racial team (with two girls to three boys being more equal than usual Hollywood standards), Art3mis’s birthmark being seen by Parzival as a mark of beauty, and the theme of turning off the digital world and embracing the real world regularly all gently nudge against the worst of the culture. But it’s little more than a shrug in the face of a tidal wave; few who engaged in the bullying of non-white male ownership of nerd culture are going to be put off by anything there.
Nor do the characters have sufficient depth to be notable. Parzival is a generic nerdy hero. Art3mis is more intriguing, and does thankfully get important things to do throughout, and isn’t dumped in the third act as in the book as I understand. Yet her rebellious nature and the sense that she’s built an independent, progressive world hidden in between the corporate nightmare and struggling masses is basically dropped almost as soon as it’s brought up. As engaging as Lena Waithe is as Aech, she’s not given any real depth to play with. Ben Mendholsson is expectedly fun as a villain who barely understands what he’s dealing with; this is the sort of guy who leaves his password on a post-it note on his chair, a detail I might find laughable if I hadn’t worked for perfectly intelligent people who left their passwords on post-its in equally obvious locations. Yet the character’s climactic moment of depth comes out of left field for a guy who hasn’t shown a shred of humanity in 2 ½ hours of hunting teenagers and murdering civilians. The actors all excel at making their paper-thin characters entertaining, but there’s no room in all the chaos for them to really come to life.
Yet all the problems under the surface don’t dampen the sheer headlong fun of that surface. You can count on one hand the number of Hollywood blockbusters this decade that match this for sheer razzle-dazzle. Every image is eye-filling, every set-piece an exhilarating, pin-point precise roller coaster. Should we hold Spielberg to a higher standard? Maybe; the guy who can make Jurassic Park on a good day and Jaws on a really good day can do better than self-indulgent silliness that exists purely for momentary pleasure. The guy who made The Color Purple in 1985 can make something that isn’t primarily masturbatorally indulging in everything white male geeks love and does more than acknowledge others. Sure, it gets points for its’ other heroes being a white woman, a black woman, and two Asian dudes, but in a post-Justin Lin Fast & Furious world, that’s lowballing inclusivity.
But empty third-tier Spielberg is still better than most of what’s out there, and in its best moments, better than just about anything else. So shouldn’t we celebrate and engage in it? I think so, but not just for the fun. While having a uniquely grand time at the movies, we should engage in it to engage with all something this good fails to do.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, based on Cline's novel
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T. J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Hannah John-Kamen
MPAA RATING: PG-13 [violence, largely cartoonish but in great quantities; language; mild sensuality]
BUDGET: $175 million
BOX OFFICE: not yet released