Ready Player One
Rated: PG-13 for Sequences of sci-fi violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini
“Ready Player One” is based on a novel by author Ernest Cline. Published in 2011 Cline’s novel is a love letter to geek culture with a particular focus on 1980’s geek culture. It weaves nostalgia with forward-looking Sci-fi with some of the most realistic extrapolations of current technology. “Ready Player One” is one of my favorite novels and this adaptation has been one of my most anticipated films of the year. I realize books are books and films are films; as such it isn’t fair to judge a film on the same criteria as the book on which it’s based. That said the inescapable questions are how they would translate such a dense pop culture text into film and how successful it would be. It is directed by the incomparable Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”, “The Post”). It’s co-written by Zak Penn (“Behind Enemy Lines”) and Ernest Cline. It stars Tye Sheridan (“Mud”), Oliva Cooke (Bates Motel), Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), and Ben Mendelsohn (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”).
The film takes place in the not too distant future of 2045 where a number of social and economic declines have taken their toll on the US and the rest of the world. The only thing that keeps most people going in the drudgery of their day-to-day lives is an omnipresent online virtual world called The Oasis. More than a massive multiplayer game it’s an alternate reality where people live and work. In the Oasis people can be whatever they want from a human avatar to massive cyborgs, dragons and fictional characters. The story centers on Wade Watts, known in the Oasis as Parzival, played by Sheridan. Wade is a regular kid from a broken home who’s only solace has been losing himself in the Oasis. This all changes when the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, dies leaving behind a contest. The contest consists of taking on challenges based on Halliday’s history and interests. The person that wins the contest inherits Halliday’s vast fortune including a controlling interest in his company and the Oasis itself. This touches off a race between Wade, along with his friends and the corporate army belonging to IOI (an evil mega corp with designs on global domination).
First off it’s immediately apparent the story has been updated and modernized dropping much of the ’80’s references. This doesn’t really impede the film as it is able to draw from a ton of sources from the past four decades. “Ready Player One” is heavy with an endless stream of easter eggs, allusions and cameos. From Ninja Turtles, to Hello Kitty, to more recent icons like Overwatch’s Tracer. There are more than a few lines of dialog and little musical cues which act as a wink and a nod. A few bars from the main theme of “Back to the Future” or Wade lifting a boombox over his head (“Say Anything”) to rally the troops at the final battle are just a couple of examples. In truth moments like these run throughout “Ready Player One” and will have fans combing through it for a long time to come. All of it works extraordinary well in terms of the films intent on being a reflection of years of media. However, there are times when the callbacks and references become self-serving and gratuitous.
The writing and acting hold up offering a fair amount of humor in and among the action moments of pop-culture revelry. There are also plenty of times the film weaves it’s plot in with references to other films. Having the main characters run around a set from a classic horror movie in pursuit of their goal is creepy and entertaining. It’s one of the better blending of elements taking the foundations from Cline’s novel and reinterpreting them to work on the big screen. The acting is strong across the board with each member of the cast turning in good performances. Tye Sheridan proves to be up to the task of carrying the bulk of the film on Wade’s shoulders. Oliva Cooke is a great foil for Sheridan as the coy intelligent Artemis. However it’s Mark Rylance as Halliday that almost steals the film. His awkward mannerisms and gestures perfectly capture Halliday’s hyper intelligent but socially awkward screen presence.
The cinematography is handled by Janusz Kaminski Spielberg’s go to DP for such films as “Schindler’s List”, “Catch Me if You Can” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”. The camera work and special effects are all top-notch which helps delineate the virtual and real worlds. The Oasis has a stylized CG look all its own which may be off-putting to some but it works in context making sure the digital effect holds up even in the midst of the film’s major set pieces.
Where “Ready Player One” falters the most is in a lack of grounding. With all its fantastical elements, effects and plot the film badly needed something to anchor it. A better focus on the more human elements of the story would have gone a long way to keep the narrative from getting lost in the weeds. This is primarily due to a lack of characterization. With a few exceptions many of the characters a thin and one-dimensional. There are two characters in particular that are ported from the novel but are barely a presence. They are given too little to do and as such have little to no investment. This is a consistent problem throughout and it does hurt the film. There are moments that don’t land with the weight they should and there isn’t a transcendental resonance which sticks with you after the credits role. There are also some pacing issues especially in the first and third acts which make the film feel unbalanced.
The up shot is “Ready Player One” is a fun film. It has enough strong elements that work together and provide a lot of enjoyment. Unfortunately there are some significant weaknesses that hold it back from being anything more. There’s not enough of a human element and little emotional investment. It may make you laugh, cheer the good guys and boo the villains, but it probably won’t stick with you like some of Spielberg’s other films.
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