When Steven Spielberg is releasing a film, it’s still an event. The most prolific filmmaker in history still tells great stories, but it’s been while since he’s dipped his toe in the action-adventure genre. Perhaps he was scared off following the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
In the decade since, his focus has been on prestige dramas. Some hit (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies) while others (War Horse, The Post), seemed to fade away rather quickly. I didn’t even mention The BFG because I still haven’t seen it. Did anyone see it?
Which is why I was so looking forward to Ready Player One. Not only is it a return to Spielberg’s blockbuster roots, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else tackling the source material considering the book exists in large part due to Spielberg’s work.
The year is 2045. The real world isn’t necessarily dystopian, but it’s kind of boring. People need to escape. To do so, they enter the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where most of humanity spends their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything and most importantly, be anyone.
The OASIS is the creation of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric but brilliant man who’s love of pop culture, books, movies and video games (Particularly anything from the ‘80s) inspires him to create the OASIS for everyone.
But after his untimely death, many wonder who will inherit not only the OASIS, but the great wealth that goes with it. Halliday planned for such a thing as he has left behind three hidden keys within the OASIS. Whoever finds all three will obtain an Easter egg and inherit everything.
Ready Player One is essentially Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the video game generation. Only instead of worrying about turning into a blueberry or falling in a river of chocolate, you have to be mindful of coins you collect to power up and grow stronger within the OASIS. It’s like a VR arcade.
Our protagonist, Wade (Tye Sheridan), much like Charlie in Wonka, is a young man who comes from nothing. But he also happens to be somewhat of an expert on Halliday as well as everything pop culture. When he eventually obtains the first key, he garners not only the attention of everyone within the OASIS, but an evil corporation that has unlimited resources to acquiring the keys and Halliday’s fortune.
Ready Player One is the definition of nostalgia. There are references on top of references. If you were a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s and you have a keen eye, you will no doubt spot and appreciate many of them. Although it will require multiple viewings to consume them all.
Based on the book of the same name, Ready Player One is a well-paced adventure with Spielberg sparing no expense in the set piece department. An early scene features a race through the streets of New York as Wade, while driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, must dodge fellow racers, a T-Rex and King Kong.
In perhaps the best scene in the movie, Wade and his friends must enter a popular horror movie from the ‘80s and wander through it to obtain one of the keys. Everyone in my theater loved every second of it.
Despite a 140-minute runtime, Ready Player One flies by thanks to Spielberg’s direction. But it doesn’t overwhelm you and that’s a testament to Spielberg’s decades of knowledge in crafting and staging exciting sequences. You can follow the action and just when it feels like you’ve had enough, he’ll slow things down so you can catch your breath.
But perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie is the one it shares with the book. If the OASIS is so immersive and fun, why would anyone want to do anything in the real world? Spielberg asks the audience to appreciate what’s real and the people in it. But he doesn’t spend enough time there or develop the supporting characters enough for us to want to put down the VR goggles.
As a result, the ending doesn’t feel quite earned.
Sheridan’s performance is also a bit stale. Nearly all of his backstory is dumped on us through exposition within the first five minutes. From there, we have to just go with the fact that he’s this clever kid. But Sheridan isn’t given room to show personality or charm. Thankfully, his love interest, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), more than makes up for it. She’s a confident, intelligent and a bad-ass character who’s far from being the Princess Peach of this story.
The concept and plotting of Ready Player One is where the movie works best. It worships the past and while it doesn’t really offer anything new, it’s still an immensely entertaining ride.