Ready Player One is the most Spielbergian movie that Steven Spielberg has made in decades. That this deeply flawed, relentlessly paced sci-fi actioner works at all is a tribute to Spielberg’s creative will. After all, this is a nonsensical story aimed at Gen X’ers, infused with Millennial sensibility, as told by a Baby Boomer. Ready Player One doesn’t have a thought in its pretty little head, and anything even approximating a thought is spelled out in nauseating detail. The structure is a mess, which makes for characters and action sequences that have no emotional connectivity to the viewer. This should have been the cinematic debacle of 2018.
And yet, it still works… kind of.
On a very fundamental level,
Ready Player One symbolizes what Spielberg does best, as well as what continues to bedevil him as a filmmaker. No director understands the creative possibilities of action-adventure filmmaking better than Spielberg. Here, he instills Ernest Cline’s 2011, pop culture obsessed novel with an overwhelming sense of visual wonder.
Like his contemporary and collaborator, George Lucas, Spielberg loves to paint in the corners of the frame. Yes, it’s fun to watch
King Kong or the T-Rex from Jurassic Park thunder across the screen, but the real joy comes from spotting the less obvious icons loitering on the periphery. Freddy Krueger might be battling a soldier on a level of Doom, or a “Rush 2112” poster might hang inconspicuously on a kid’s bedroom wall. This is an entire film devoted to Easter eggs, released over Easter weekend, no less.
In fact, it’s the search for a giant Easter egg that fuels the breakneck pace of
Ready Player One. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old dreamer living in the Columbus stacks. The stacks are the first audacious visual from Spielberg, featuring a legion of trashy mobile homes stacked to the sky on the beams of a rickety scaffold tower. In 2045, after countless economic crashes and energy crises, the only escape for a dreamer like Wade is a fantasy world created by the virtual reality software OASIS.
In the OASIS, the poor can be wealthy, the weak can be strong, and the mundane is transformed into videogame splendor. When players ‘die’ in the OASIS, for instance, their avatar is instantly transformed into gold coins and greedily devoured by opposing players; the monetization of a soul, if you will. Who knew that gobbling coins in
Super Mario Bros. could be so existential?
Wade, who goes by the handle of Parzival, cruises the OASIS for Easter eggs with a little help from his friends; a rebel named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a mechanical wizard named Aech (Lena Waithe), a guy who is devoid of distinguishing characteristics named Daito (Win Morisaki), and the reincarnation of Short Round (Philip Zhao). They race against the other egg hunters, called “gunters”, in search of the final gift left by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the deceased co-founder and tech savant of the OASIS. The winner of this quest inherits the OASIS and complete control over cyberspace or something.
The huge narrative challenge presented by
Ready Player One, and the problem that exemplifies Spielberg’s biggest bugaboo as an auteur filmmaker, is that it tries to occupy two different worlds simultaneously. There s the humdrum coming-of-age action plot that constitutes Wade’s reality, and the limitless enchantment of Parzival’s fantasy OASIS. Certainly, this isn’t the first film to co-mingle the realms of fantasy and reality. Starting with classics like The Wizard of Oz and continuing through modern CGI fests like Tron and Avatar, we’ve seen characters literally transported into astonishing worlds of visual fantasy.
Ready Player One differs from its predecessors is that Wade never completely transitions into his fantasy world. In fact, he’s free to simply lift his virtual reality visor and re-acclimate to the real world any time he likes, even in the middle of an OASIS action sequence. This shatters the very illusion (not to mention suspense) that Spielberg is so adept at building.
This creates a bizarre feeling that
Ready Player One, and by extension, Spielberg, is at war with itself. It wants to celebrate unfettered imagination and mindless consumerism while still delivering the thematic sledgehammer that true happiness can only be obtained by transforming your miserable reality. These are dangerous artistic gymnastics for Spielberg, who spends a huge chunk of the final act indulging his weakness for pandering sentimentality.
It makes for a sometimes frustrating viewing experience. For every scene of startling creativity, like ethereal dancers suspended above a bottomless chasm re-enacting the iconic disco dancing from
Saturday Night Fever, it’s contradicted by a scene where characters stop to deliver on-the-nose speeches about the importance of appreciating reality. This is a textbook case of literary themes clashing with the exacting demands of cinematic structure.
To his credit, Spielberg does a passable job creating the illusion of substance in what is otherwise a vat of visual cotton candy. And he nails the OASIS, creating a shifting, sprawling playground of iconography that leaves you breathless. Rather than simply name-checking our childhood favorites, Spielberg designs entire sequences around them. Just try not to giggle like a film student when our heroes must navigate the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s
The cast does a reasonable job standing their ground against the spectacle. The young Sheridan doesn’t quite seem ready to carry a film, but he does well navigating the jarring tonal shifts between reality and the OASIS. The one standout is Rylance who, in only a few scenes, creates a vulnerable genius determined to do the right thing despite his social ineptitude.
Mark Rylance in Ready Player One (2018) (IMDB)Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC – U.S., Can
Ready Player One narrowly succeeds due to Spielberg’s knack for visual storytelling and his uncanny feel for action pacing. The many narrative shortcomings rarely interfere with the exhilaration of seeing something so inventive, yet still comforting and familiar. Ready Player One won’t ever be confused with one of Spielberg’s best, but it’s a fascinating, frustrating, and entertaining microcosm of his artistic acumen.