While Ready Player One is a fun romp while you watch it, it isn’t a great movie; it missed being the brilliant classic it should have been.
Like many of the gamers in the Oasis, it hovers at the edges of greatness, but never manages to cross the finish line. There are certainly casting and script reasons for this, but primarily the fault lies with Spielberg’s (The Post) direction. What he delivered feels something like The Wizard of Oz meets Tron (with a bit of Zardoz thrown in) for High Schoolers. But let’s start with the good.
Production-wise, the creative team really got it. Even forgetting the lack of tech advancement they envisioned at points, they created wonderful interfaces and a good sense of an immersive game world. The VR sequences are imaginative and absorbing. See it on a big screen to really get the full effect and appreciate the richness and complexity of the view.
Another great part of the fun in this popcorn flick is that Spielberg manages to make more bald references to other movies than any other film I can remember (barring satires like Scary Movie that do it to make fun of the source). There were constant groans and laughs of joy at recognizing the references. I won’t spoil any here as, honestly, they are about the best part of the film. Now, whether those references were appropriate for a story that takes place in 2045 is a different question.
Despite these pluses, action, and visual candy, the movie just ends up sitting there on screen.
Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) is a large part of the reason for that lack of life. He just isn’t up to the task of carrying a major motion picture, though Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem) does her level-best to help him through it and support him. She sparkles on screen. But you just can’t connect to the characters or story. Sure, we want the crazy kids to recognize their totally obvious and middle-America attraction to one another as two healthy, white, young folk (talk about unbrave choices given the possibilities that are even discussed at several points). There are also some great one liners and moments by T.J. Miller (Deadpool) and Lena Waithe (Master of None) but neither gets a plotline or payoff. Ultimately, we don’t really care all that much who lives or dies or who gets together or not. Heck, even Sheridan doesn’t seem to care who lives or dies; he doesn’t carry the weight of any action that occurs to or around him in the tale as it progresses.
Even the bad guys, Ben Mendelsohn (Una) and Hannah John-Kamen (The Tunnel), don’t raise a burning need in the audience to wipe them out. Why? First, because we’re always sure who will win, but second because there is no gray. Our bad guys are just bad and their storylines are just absurd. C’mon, John-Kamen’s character is named F’Nale. Seriously? Only Cameron’s unobtanium was sillier. If you’re going to go for that kind of tongue-in-cheek, then you have to do it across the board, not just in spots.
The truth is that most of these gaps in acting are really more how they were directed. In trying to make a 4-quadrant film, Spielberg blew it, however sacrilegious that may be to say. The result was something that aimed broadly intellectually, but was emotionally targeted squarely at the 12-17 year old bracket. The real-world sequences are as distant and unbelievable as the VR sequences are wonderfully fantastic. It is an issue Spielberg often has (A.I. comes to mind as a comparable tale in scope and maturity). Spielberg, when aiming at a younger audience, never quite lets you in to connect with anyone. He likes to keep it all “safe.” And the ending sequences in the real world of Ready Player One just fall apart, being both unbelievable, too easy, and just plain, well, stupid.
Part of the problem was the script by Penn (Alphas) and source book author Cline. It shortcuts a lot of the plot and forces relationships and situations in very unnuanced ways. That approach played into Spielberg’s hands and weaknesses. He loves evoking that sense of the 50s in modern garb, trying for a storybook feel that offends no one but, at this point, also illuminates nothing. We’re past the days of E.T. and Close Encounters feeling real; show us less than truth and reality and our bullshit meters goes off. Life is messier and we know that. We may crave simplicity, but it needs to be a believable simplicity.
Spielberg, even misdirected the brilliant Mark Rylance (The BFG) and Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Collision Course), allowing them to be put in makeup and costumes that made them look ridiculous. The intent was to bring out the nerd in the nostalgia, but they just never came across a bit as believable or natural. They felt like clowns, neither smart enough nor adept enough to have built the empire that included the Oasis.
Ready Player One is a reasonable distraction. There have been many adaptations of video games to screen, most of which have been middling at best. The recent Tomb Raider was only the latest in a long line. We’ve also been assaulted by adaptations of books since the beginning of film to varying degrees of success; for me, that was most recently Love, Simon. This is, however, one of the few times I can remember an adaptation of a book about a fictitious video game. Talk about going completely meta. Only Jumanji (which was a way better movie) comes to mind, but that was a picture book, not an adult novel.
Ready Player One is certainly a big screen film, so if you do want to see it, you really do have to see it at the theater. But, as a story, it will not stand the test of time. For many, I suspect it will not stand the test of its 2.5 hours as anything other than as a short-lived amusement. You can see the possibilities in the result and you’ll enjoy the cultural insider jokes that glue it all together, but you’ll leave it empty and unfulfilled, or perhaps filling in the missing aspects mentally for yourself to prop it up. The more I thought about the film as I walked away, the more disappointed I became with it. That was not the experience I had hoped for, nor the experience I had expected from such a master filmmaker. At one point, all I could think was that I wished Spielberg’s good friend Kubrik had still been alive to take this one on. He would have the balls to keep it real and dark while still entertaining. As it is, Ready Player One needs some Extra Life of its own to succeed.