Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling book of the same name Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One could honestly be marketed as Pop Culture References: The Movie, and to be honest if you’ve seen the trailer that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but with one of the premier directors of this or any generation at the helm we at least know that it is going to be an entertaining ride.
The story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045 where much of the Earth’s population live well below the poverty line (but way up in the air in what one must call very unsafe housing), and it’s there that we find our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who lives in one of these unsafe housing projects called The Stacks, and like many people he spends most of his time in the virtual reality world of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) because the real world sucks and in the OASIS one can create a better version of yourself while hanging out in fantastical worlds.
The creator of OASIS was a brilliant but incredibly introverted nerd named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) who after his death revealed in his will that he hid three keys inside the OASIS that will lead to an Easter egg and anyone who finds this egg will land themselves a half a trillion dollars and complete control of the OASIS. If this scavenger hunt plot seems a little reminiscent of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory it should because Ernest Cline has made no bones about the fact that he was basically remaking Willie Wonka only with 80s pop culture references instead of candy.
Spielberg takes the basic premise from the book but does mix-up the contest a little; no longer is 80s pop culture trivia the key to solving the quest but instead its hidden nuggets about Halliday’s life, this works well and provides some heart to the story, and because movies are a visual medium Spielberg is able to go whole hog presenting us with countless “Hey, I get that reference” moments without having to literally spell them out as Cline had to do in the book. For the most part Spielberg’s structural changes to the source material works but the two hour and twenty-two minute running time does spend a little too much time on the visual spectacle of the virtual world and very little on the characters that occupy it. Wade in his virtual avatar persona of Parsifal works with his online best bud Aech (Lena Waithe) and fellow virtual badass and possible love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and aside from Art3mis we aren’t given much backstory to any of them during their quest for the Easter egg. These are fun and engaging characters but we really don’t find out what makes them tick, hell we don’t even learn how anyone makes real money to buy stuff like food or pay rent.
The greatest victim of the “character assassination” problem are Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) who pretty much pop out of thin air halfway through the movie as two of Wade’s online friends and aside from them being Asian, and one of them being an eleven year old boy, they are fairly forgettable. Ernest Cline’s book was no literary masterpiece but he at least spent some fleshing out all the players, while in the movie the secondary characters mostly have the unfortunate job of showing up to spout clunky expository dialog and then disappearing. Now this review may sound overly negative, and the film has several things to be negative about, but I have to admit that I enjoyed myself quite a lot watching this movie and most of that stems from Spielberg knowing how to shoot the hell out of an action sequence. When Parsifal hops into the Back to the Future De Lorean, while Art3mis blows by him atop Kaneda’s bike from Akira to win a game that puts Wacky Racers to shame, all the while trying to avoid a T-Rex and King Kong, I was in seventh Heaven.
Of course the real villain in Ready Player One isn’t a prehistoric beast or a giant ape it is the more sinister threatl of corporate greed, and in this story that would be Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) the evil CEO of a video game conglomerate that wishes to win control over the OASIS so that they can basically remove Halliday’s ad blocker and make a shit ton of money filling the virtual world with giant pop-up ads. Mendelsohn is a lot of fun as the villainous Sorrento and he leaves very little scenery, virtual or otherwise, unchewed as he and his virtual reality bounty hunter i-R0k (T.J. Miller) do their best to thwart our band of plucky rebels.
Spielberg pulls out all stops in the creation of the virtual worlds in Ready Player One; the aforementioned race, the trip into a certain Stephen King movie was a treat, and the final massive show down with more pop culture character than one could shake a glaive were simply spectacular, it just would have been nice if the screenplay could have spent a little more time on the dystopian aspect of the world (the opening narration spends most of its time talking about the OASIS and not much on how the real world functions) and if that glorious last act was trimmed just a tad we could have got to know our heroes a little better as well.
Note: How the virtually reality rigs works are played rather fast and loose in this movie; we see Wade on a multi-directional treadmill but then later we see everyone out in the street joining him in virtual battle but they are just on sidewalks outside not any kind of treadmill. Wouldn’t they end up running into traffic or accidentally punching the person standing next to them?
Ready Player One is an entertaining “E” ticket ride and though some of the changes from the book I quite liked, and any movie that has The Iron Giant fighting Mechagodzilla is a tough movie not to love, but the short changes made to the characters stopped me from being full invested. That all said I can still heartily recommend the trip out to the theater to see this thing as it is “A world of pure imagination”.