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Review: Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One (2018)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Premise: Based on the book by Ernest Cline. Set in the near future, everyone spends their days in a virtual reality known as the Oasis. When the creator of the Oasis dies, he leaves control of the virtual world to whoever can find three hidden keys.

What Works: Ready Player One is a Steven Spielberg film and this is the director’s best work of action and fantasy filmmaking in over a decade. The movie is beautifully made and has several extraordinary set pieces, especially an early racing scene in which drivers maneuver their way through a highway while being assailed by the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Jurassic Park and the titular gorilla of King Kong. Most of the movie takes place in a virtual world and it has an appropriately digital look. The characters appear in the Oasis as avatars and they often have an uncanny valley look but that works here and actually figures into the story as the characters learn to distinguish digital illusion from physical reality. Ready Player One is a lot of fun. It delivers as an action movie and the film features some likable characters. Mark Rylance is cast as the creator of the Oasis and Rylance brings a Willy Wonka-like quality to the part. His life’s work is widely admired but Rylance’s performance is infused with melancholy. Olivia Cooke plays the manic pixie dream girl who assists the hero in his quest and Cooke’s character has personal and philosophical reasons for preserving the Oasis that make her the most interesting character in the film. Ready Player One also includes a lot of references to pop cultural touchstones of the 1980s and 90s and astute viewers will have fun spotting the allusions. There is an especially impressive sequence involving The Shining that’s gratifying as fan service but also as a set piece. Spielberg has a knack for spotting trends and tapping into the zeitgeist and Ready Player One does that very well. It literalizes the way digital realms overlap with our physical lives as well as the popular nostalgia for pop culture of the 1980s. The film also effectively dramatizes contemporary concerns about intellectual property and in particular the struggle for control of the internet and whether the future of that technology belongs to the public or to corporations.  

What Doesn’t: Steven Spielberg is in some respects the perfect director for Ready Player One. The movie is jammed with references to pop culture of the 1980s and 90s, to which Spielberg was one of the major contributors. But some of Spielberg’s worst tendencies soften Ready Player One’s impact, namely his optimism. Just as he did in Minority Report, Spielberg forces a happy ending onto the movie. The Spielbergian optimism feels false and forced and Ready Player One offers simplistic solutions to complex problems. The lead character played by Tye Sheridan is very bland. Sheridan does a fine job but the character isn’t given a compelling motivation. Just as superficial are the pop cultural references. It is fun to see all these characters and artifacts crammed into one movie but they appear with little or no regard for their original context. It’s just pop culture recognition and nothing more. This is especially egregious in the soundtrack which uses 1980s pop songs by Van Halen and Joan Jett without any discernable reason. There are also some aspects of the story world that aren’t sufficiently explained and don’t make sense. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke’s characters are joined by several allies but these other people don’t really do anything and we never learn who they are. The villain of Ready Player One is a corporation that intends to take over the Oasis and goes about imprisoning and killing people in the real world. It’s unclear if this corporation actually has legal authority to do this or if they are acting as a terrorist group. Those kinds of storytelling foibles keep Ready Player One from being the great movie it could have been.

Bottom Line: Ready Player One succeeds as a crowd pleasing piece of entertainment. Despite its nostalgia, the movie is in touch with this cultural moment and it will speak to fans of video games and popular sci-fi and fantasy movies. It’s a superficial work but it’s an impressive surface.

Episode: #693 (April 8, 2018)