Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is easily one of the worst films in his career. This is not to say the adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel of the same name is garbage. Ready Player One is, however, deeply underwhelming.
I hesitate to say Ready Player One is chock full of references because these aren’t references. These are post-mortem product placements. Hollow callbacks to things that have a deep and rich connection with our collective consciousness but without the understanding of why and how we connect to them. Cline and Zak Penn have given us the ultimate male fantasy on steroids.
Ready Player One is set in, where else, but a dystopian future. We are given a quick history lesson from our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Society has all but crumbled, and the economy is in shambles. What exactly happened or how we got to this point Wade only hints at.
We are told only the essential facts. The world has gone to hell, but nobody cares because everybody spends their time in what is called The Oasis. The Oasis is a virtual reality in which players can be anyone or anything their heart or imagination desires. A virtual gaming world where you can earn ‘coin’ and ‘loot’ as well as live out a fantasy life much preferable to the one in the real world.
In the Oasis Wade is known as Parzival, a sleek looking, shiny-skinned Ken doll of sorts. Although I can’t help but wonder if a Ken doll would give a more engaging performance than Sheridan gives. To be fair, I don’t think this is Sheridan’s fault.
I blame Penn and Cline for saddling him, and us, with such a useless jar of mayonnaise as Wade. Wade’s parents died when he was younger and now lives with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in the stacks. The stacks are like a trailer park only vertical.
The Oasis is not the only virtual reality in business. IOI (Innovative Online Industries), their rival, is eagerly awaiting their chance at taking over. Led by a CEO named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) IOI is the less loved and less popular version of the Oasis. Unlike the Oasis, they lack the mythology and inherent drama of its creators James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).
Rylance is the most consistent and best thing about Ready Player One. His stilted line delivery betrays a man terrified of the mere thought of people. Halliday’s social anxiety leads him to create one of the most immersive virtual worlds ever conceived. Rylance plays Halliday with a sort of wide-eyed innocence but with a knowing smirk. A character like that doesn’t make friends easily or keep them.
When Halliday died, he left a message to the world saying he had hidden three keys within the Oasis. The players needed to endure three challenges, each one containing clues to the next challenge. The winner of all three keys would win the Oasis. Naturally, the world and IOI, scramble to find the keys. But Halliday may have hidden the keys too well. Some twenty years later and all anyone has done is found the first challenge, but no one has managed to beat it.
A race through an obstacle course featuring dinosaurs, King Kong, and crumbling buildings, that seems unbeatable. Even Parzival’s friend Aech (Lena Waithe) can’t beat it, and she’s a gunter. Gunters are people who spend their time in the Oasis. They hoard coin and loot and try to find Halliday’s keys. Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Phillip Zhao) are two fellow gunters who spend most of the movie having their names said. It’s while Parzival is racing in his DeLorean that he meets Artemis (Olivia Cooke). She’s riding the bike from Akira and is a legend throughout the Oasis.
Artemis is a legend because she’s one of the best gunters in the Oasis. Within seconds we are left groaning. Artemis is so clearly a more interesting character than Parzival that we are left cursing ourselves that we are stuck with him for the duration of the movie.
In fact, I’m not quite sure why, Artemis, isn’t the main character. Her story is far more interesting and relatable to a modern audience. Her father went into debt and died as an indentured servant working for IOI. She’s actively trying to bring about a revolution and topple IOI. Artemis has a backstory, a motive, and a clear goal. But who do we get? Some kid who has no desire, cares about no one, and only really gets involved because of a girl. Boys like Wade are a dime a dozen. Funny enough so are girls like Artemis.
The resistance is trying to find the keys and ensure the Oasis stays out of the hands of the evil Sorrento. Samantha also has a score or two to settle with IOI. Olivia Cooke is charismatic and is able to make the groan-inducing dialogue sound somewhat believable. She has a way of conveying loss and a sense of purpose within moments of seeing her in the real world. Unlike Wade, Samantha is proactive. She seems to understand the stakes of what’s involved. Ready Player One is at it’s most enjoyable when Artemis/Samantha is on the screen and at its least tolerable when she is not.
The bulk of Ready Player One is largely a repetitive treasure hunt with a tale of two star-crossed lovers crammed into the middle, while the stake of the virtual free world hangs in the balance. If that wasn’t enough we have to contend with someone making a reference or quoting a line of dialogue or talking about how much they love, some random pop culture reference. But let us call it what it really is: hackneyed writing.
Ready Player One seems annoyed it has to even deal with plot or characters. I got the sense while watching it that Cline and Penn would much rather have their characters sit around saying the name of things they love. To some extent that’s basically what the duo have done with the screenplay. What other purpose is there to tell us Parzival’s favorite movie of all time is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension? He never speaks of it or uses any knowledge of the film to help him overcome any obstacle. He never even quotes a line from what is arguably one of the most quotable movies ever made.
Spielberg is a master of his craft. In any other director’s hands, Ready Player One would be a dumpster fire. Instead, it is a mere tedium. The chase sequences are dazzling, and despite everything, I found myself a little breathless while Wade used all three keys at the end of the journey.
One scene stands out, however. The second challenge involves the gang playing through Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and is far and away the best part of the entire movie. The scene understands how to both pay homage, play with our expectations and knowledge of said material, and ultimately re-purpose it for the story’s purpose. I quite liked the moment of Aech pressing the button to open the elevators, and having not seen the movie, have no clue what’s about to happen.
Sadly moments like I just described or few and far between. Ready Player One is the type of movie that has the bad guy change into Mechagodzilla while playing the Godzilla theme song and wants you to applaud it. The characters’ knowledge of all this trivia never plays into the overarching narrative except in the final act at a crucial moment.
Spielberg has crafted a visually stunning film with longtime collaborator Janus Kaminski. But the images have nothing new to say and use already existing images as props for its own amusement. I’d suspect one would get more joy and originality from playing with old action figures.
Some might call Ready Player One an ode to fandom, which is fine. Except one of these days, we’re going to have to stop paying homages and odes and actually do something new. Fandom will survive originality I promise you.
Ready Player One is a movie meant for everybody. If ever there was a director capable of this, it’s Spielberg. It’s marketed as inclusive. But it is actually very exclusive in who it caters to and asks us to relate to. Again I bring up the fact that we are saddled with Wade when Artemis is a much more compelling and fitting main character. The only reason I can see for her second-tier status is because she’s not a boy.
Ready Player One is a grating, crass, calculated, and mediocre exercise in fandom worship. Dull and lazy it adds nothing and says nothing. Ultimately, while a scene or two might evoke a response or be pretty to look at it, Ready Player One adds up to cinematic vapor.