OnScreen Review: "Ready Player One"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Ready Player One is a film based off a very popular book of the same title back in 2011. Ernest Cline’s novel is an ode to the 80s, video games, pop culture, and geekdom in general. Steven Spielberg, whether as a director or executive producer, is a figure who was heavily involved in the creation of much of which Cline’s book celebrated. Therefore, it makes a certain amount of sense that Spielberg would be the director to adapt the book for the big screen.

The premise for Ready Player One is that a virtual world known as the OASIS has been created in the near-future where people live out their lives through their avatars; partly because the real world has gotten so terrible, but also because of the ease of accessibility. There are planets in the OASIS where people can do just about anything. The OASIS is essentially where life is happening; a cross between a MMORPG and a virtual society. People access it through virtual reality goggles and haptic devices, sometimes as little as just gloves or full body suits on the high end.

This vast virtual world was the invention of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a Steve Jobs type who created easter eggs in the OASIS at the time of his death that if found would bequeath control of the OASIS to whoever finds the easter eggs. People known as gunters (egg hunters) spend their entire lives devoted to trying to find his easter eggs, one such gunter is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), aka Parzival, a teenager living in the overpopulated trailer stacks of Columbus, OH. His pursuit of the eggs brings him in contact with another famous gunter known as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). His eventual discovery of the first egg also gets him on the radar of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and their CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who employ an army of gunters known as “Sixers” and will stop at nothing in their attempt to seize control of the OASIS.

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Ready Player One is a book I read far enough back that the details are fuzzy enough in my head that I do not recognize all the changes from the book to the big screen, but there are definitely some drastic changes made to the storyline. Most of the changes are perfectly fine and since Cline was a co-writer of the script, he must have been ok with the changes on some level and approved them. In some cases, the changes improve the story. The first easter egg in the film lies at the end of a seemingly unbeatable race where King Kong crushes anyone that gets to the finish line. It’s a necessary change to what happens in the book because movies are a visual medium.

There are a lot of elements of the film that are fun and exhilarating and captivating, though nothing quite reaches the level of “peak Spielberg” for me. A mid-movie sequence takes Parzival, Art3mis, and their three other gunter friends (Aech, Daito, and Sho) straight into the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. It’s inspired stuff and truly impressive how they were able to incorporate actual footage from the movie and recreate/reimagine/repurpose scenes from the movie to fit the story here. It’s arguably the highlight of the film.

The future that this film depicts is one that is not that hard to picture being a reality in the not-so-distant future, especially with VR and AR starting to be looked at more and more in gaming and entertainment. It’s also a next logical step in the evolution of the internet. Also, the corporate greed on display here, which is not at all subtle, is also completely believable. A corporate suit like Mendelsohn’s saying that they can get away with X-amount of advertising on the screen before a consumer will have a seizure is not so far-fetched.

I’m a big fan of Tye Sheridan and am happy to see him start to get his opportunity to be part of a big, mainstream movie that isn’t X-Men: Apocalypse. Olivia Cooke is having a moment too, impressing here and in another recent movie, Thoroughbreds. Lena Waithe has a fun supporting role and Simon Pegg and T.J. Miller get minor roles as well. Mendelsohn is always great and portrays his villain with just the right amount of menace, never going over the top to chew the scenery; he is perfectly cast here. Unfortunately, Mark Rylance feels completely miscast in this role. For whatever reason, whenever he was acting as Halliday and not Halliday’s avatar Anorak I could feel him acting, his affectations to display Halliday’s social awkwardness felt forced and I just couldn’t get past it.

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The film is full of pop culture references and nostalgia. There are far too many references to count, and I’m sure there some that I didn’t even notice as they just flash by quickly on screen. Spielberg is probably the best-equipped director to handle this material since he was so heavily involved in so much of the pop culture source material for the book and the movie. Part of me does wonder though what this movie might have been like if it had been made by someone who is truly a fan of what this film is nostalgic for as opposed to someone who was heavily involved in the actual creation of the pop culture this movie is nostalgic for.

Spielberg throws a lot on the screen to dazzle and provide plenty of visual flair to everything. In the virtual world, the possibilities are virtually endless, and Spielberg likely comes closest to maximizing that possibility in this movie, though I think even he is surprisingly limited by his own imagination here. In a world like this, you want to pull a Christopher Walken and tell the director to “explore the studio space… I mean, really, explore the space!” For whatever reason, it feels like Spielberg gets about 80% there.

And maybe that last 20% is what I find is holding me back from completely embracing this film. It feels like there is just something missing that I can’t quite place my finger on. Maybe it gets back to that middle sequence where the film goes into The Shining. At the end of the day, nostalgia only goes so far, and a virtual re-enactment is no substitute for the original artifact. Maybe a bit too much of this movie is geared toward nostalgia being a means to its own end, and with some tweaking it could have been a film that pointed its fans to seek out the things it is nostalgic for. Maybe that will be the case for some people. On the whole, Ready Player One feels like mid-level Spielberg, something in the range of Hook, War of the Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, The Adventures of Tintin, or The B.F.G. It has nearly every element that should predispose me to loving it, but instead, I ended up just liking it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars