Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Hannah Jon-Kamen, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller
Released: March 29, 2018
What a pleasant surprise that this wasn’t awful. Then again, when your movie is in Steven Spielberg’s hands you can usually breathe a sigh of relief, but even for him this was a tough hurdle. He was working with an at best mediocre novel, and he managed to elevate it to an enjoyable blockbuster.
Wade Watts is a socially awkward teenager living in Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. He spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual world where you can be anyone and do anything. The game’s founder James Halliday, in his will, states that whoever wins a contest to find an easter egg in the OASIS, will win his whole fortune and control of the entire simulation. Using his wits and with help from his friends Aech, Daito, Sho, and his crush Artemis, Wade must find the clues and win the contest before the evil IOI does.
If you’re looking for something deep with themes to chew on, don’t even bother seeing it. But taken as it is, Ready Player One is an enjoyable if flawed blockbuster and a respectable addition to Spielberg’s resume. I found it to be at least more enjoyable than the novel it’s adapting. The script from Zak Penn and author of the original novel Ernest Cline actually changes quite a lot from the source material, keeping the premise but making the actual challenges work for a film, tightening the pacing, and adding new scenes that work better for a film adaptation.
Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, actually manages to be sympathetic in the film. He’s socially awkward with dreams of having a better life by winning the contest. The film gets rid of the unintentionally unlikable elements from the novel such as Wade acting like a stalker towards Artemis after their breakup, and has him try to stop a tragedy from happening. Still, he’s nothing special as a protagonist and has no meaningful development. Artemis is in her own right a very interesting and likable character, and I found the relationship between her and Wade to be just believable enough to work. She’s even given some more backstory this time around that explains why she’s so obsessed in winning Halliday’s contest. Unfortunately the other side characters Aech, Daito, and Sho don’t have any memorable characteristics outside of the reveals of their real world identities. The villains are quite hammy and cartoonish, especially Hannah Jon-Kamen as the main villain’s second in command. She has no character other than being evil. While this is a blockbuster primarily concerned with entertainment, other popcorn flicks like the last few Marvel movies have shown you can have complex villains in them. That said everyone gave a good performance even if their characters were bland.
What really brings it home is how non-stop entertaining it is. Instead of merely being tests of how much pop culture you know, the challenges require both mental skill beyond your knowledge of classic video games and movies, and you have to be just as good at driving a car or dodging an axe to win. The three challenges are both very unique and will get you more than your money’s worth in entertainment, with the first challenge being a race with all of the excitement and energy you’d expect from Spielberg, and the second challenge referencing The Shining in the most awesome way imaginable. The plot has a fairly decent pace, albeit the first act at times feels either rushed or too slow depending on what’s happening. While some people will be left scratching their heads at just how does the OASIS actually work, some of the characters having martial arts mastery, and a couple of other plot holes; the movie’s focus on spectacle and not taking itself too seriously makes up for it. It doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting or looking down on its audience, it feels like it’s a part of the audience and wants to have a blast with it. It also manages to succeed, or at least succeed more so than the novel in having a cautionary message against overindulging in escapism.
The pop culture references are updated to fit modern tastes this time around, so you’ll see just as many Batman and Superman nods as you will Back to the Future and Atari video game ones. There were a few times where they were rather obnoxious and almost patronizingly explained to the audience, but there were also a couple of moments where even I couldn’t help but get excited at seeing a favorite character or vehicle from a franchise I love. This all comes to a head in the climax, which is just pure, unadulterated, shamelessly pandering fanservice that you will love every moment of. I knew I would have my fun when “We’re Not Gonna Take It” started playing.
The special effects in the film are pretty decent, but are 100% CGI and you will never be convinced otherwise. Now because most of the film takes place in the virtual world, that works and they never looked straight up terrible, but it’s a shame more convincing effects weren’t added. What elevates them is Spielberg’s direction, which manages to inspire a level of awe and reverence to the world and characters of the OASIS, especially during the exciting action scenes. Except for the music during the climax, I have to say I didn’t find the score by Alan Silvestri to be anything memorable except for the main title, which sounds like something John Williams would make.
Ready Player One is not great, but it towers over its source material and other films like it. It will probably be one of the better films of the year if you’re looking for just entertainment. It’s not a deep film, but it’s not a dumb one either and Spielberg is not trying to trick you into thinking it’s anything more or less than a fun blockbuster that gamers, 80s movie fans, and other nerds can have a good time with. Even if you’re not in those three groups there is still fun to be had with it.