Hot Take: This nostalgia stuffed adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel can be fun at times but sometimes feels like the movie equivalent of a greatest hits album from one of the best directors of our time. Like a greatest hits album, it’s fun to experience but feels all too familiar to be anything better than good.
The trailer for Ready Player One is enough to tell you if you’re going to enjoy the full-length film. The 2 hour, 19 minute glimpse into a fictional dystopian future where the world has gotten lost inside a virtual world known as the Oasis is also an opportunity for director Steven Spielberg to flex his science fiction muscles which he’s not done much of in recent memory. Expectations for this film were indeed high and, in some ways, it delivered but, overall, Ready Player One falls short of greatness as the pop culture references and not the characters or the plot are what keep you entertained. By the third act, when the characters and the story become what’s most important, Ready Player One‘s shoddy stitching can no longer be hidden underneath all that nostalgic fabric layered over top of what essentially is a generic flick featuring a Mary Sue of a protagonist in Wade Watts and a relatively derivative storyline that not only borrows its references from pop culture but blends up some of the classic storylines we’ve seen in Sci-Fi and serves it up as freshly squeezed. Is that a hint of The Matrix that I taste?
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Ready Player One, here’s a quick synopsis. In 2045, much of the Earth’s most populous cities have become slums. As an escape, the citizens of the world have turned to the OASIS, a virtual reality world where you can look and be whomever you want. Created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is an obsession for most of the world. Upon his death, Halliday revealed Anorak’s Quest, a game within the OASIS which features the prize of owning the OASIS should the quest be completed. IOI, headed by CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants to complete the quest and own the OASIS for purposes of prosperity and greed and have employed a group of indebted gamers known as “Sixers” to seek the prize. Meanwhile, another group, known as Gunters (Easter Egg hunters) have also made the completion of Anorak’s Quest their mission. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of those Gunters. In the OASIS, he’s known as Parzival and works with a few friends in the game in an attempt to complete the quest. During the first race which has not been completed in 5 years since Halliday’s death, Parzival meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and their conversation leads Parzival to a clue to solve and complete the first race. Along with his friends and Art3mis, the group forms the “High Five” and begin working together to solve the last 2 phases of the quest in a race against the IOI team who has also discovered their true identities and taken to the real world to keep them from completing the quest in the VR world.
Throughout the story, Ready Player One is littered with pop culture references. The first race takes place throughout a cityscape which resembles New York City and features Wade’s vehicle choice of the Delorean from Back to the Future (retrofitted with the red-light grill scanner from KITT in Knight Rider). The Batmobile also makes an appearance as well as the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and Kong from King Kong. There are references to Highlander and Last Action Hero and other pop culture droppings. The pop culture references come fast and furious throughout the first and second act. They are too numerous to detail although Den of Geek pulled out 190 in this article if that’s what you’re after. The references are fun, well placed and provide an easy way to stay disconnected from the actual story unfolding on screen.
Once the novelty of the pop culture references wears off, what’s left is essentially an adequate film with an unwarranted lead character who never really establishes himself as much more than the main character because the writers have decided he is the main character. Art3mis who reveals as Samantha Cook in the real world is a more worthy lead but plays second fiddle to Wade because, well, that’s how it’s written. Sheridan is okay as the lead but he doesn’t have a ton to work with here. Fresh off seeing her in Thoroughbreds, my opinion of Cooke’s work could be tainted as there’s a possibility of a halo effect based on her excellent showing in that film. Rylance is becoming a Spielberg staple as you can almost feel him winking, nodding and hat tipping throughout this trip down memory lane. Again, though, it’s almost distracting from the story itself and by the time that becomes the focus, you haven’t made it to the edge of your seat with anticipation for what comes next. You’re probably still too busy looking for pop culture references.
That’s not to say Ready Player One isn’t worth watching… especially at the theater on the biggest screen you can find. The effects are excellent and there’s plenty of eye candy to satisfy even the healthiest nostalgia nerd’s appetite. Having not read the book, I have no frame of reference on how the film version lives up to its literary counterpart. It’s probably pretty safe to say it doesn’t, though, because when does it ever? At this point, the expectation shouldn’t be there for the movie version to deliver the same experience as the novel. It’s just unfair. For Spielberg, though, this work is a little disappointing. He’s done sci-fi better and made plenty of films with more emotion and heart. This one falls a bit short of the greatness he’s given us in the past and settles on good.
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