Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
One of the nice things about Steven Spielberg directing Ready Player One is the lack of cynicism for two hours and twenty minutes. So instead of a cynical, manipulative, pandering, nostalgic m'eh, Ready Player One is a manipulative, pandering, nostalgic m'eh. It's not a bad film. It's a popcorn blockbuster and it does that fine. It moves along fine, it looks great, it's a technological achievement. But as a Spielberg film, well, it's middle tier Spielberg. Some may enjoy Ready Player One more than I did. Some may like it less. I think it will come down to your patience for nostalgia.
It's not that the nostalgia is pointless pandering - a virtual scavenger hunt has been kicked off with the death of tech genius James Halliday, played by the great Mark Rylance. Like some kind of socially awkward mashup of Paul Allen and Steve Wozniak, with their pop culture obsessions turned to eleven, Halliday has left the clues to the scavenger hunt in his life story. The virtual world he helped create, OASIS, is filled with his obsessions and the folks who are hunting for the ultimate Easter egg have absorbed his fascination with all things 80s and 90s. So it isn't pointless nostalgia. It just becomes kind of tiresome after a while. Too often the film seems kind of soulless in its grinding through the pop culture checklist. Back to the Future check. Firefly check. Marvin the Martian check. The Iron Giant check.
I'm not sure who Ready Player One is aimed at. Most of the pop culture touch points in the movie are intellectual properties that are thirty or forty years old. Some are older still. Are studios chasing 40 to 65 year old wallets? Or are they counting on twenty and thirty somethings who were raised on reruns and retro culture? It would be like if Back to the Future didn't just wrap itself in a 50s setting, but then filled that setting to the brim with 40s and 50s pop culture trappings. Marvin Berry would be the least of the film's sins.
There isn't any real emotional depth in Ready Player One. A character cries and I felt like the reels got swapped, like maybe I missed something. There isn't any danger. There is no sense of risk anywhere in the story. The stakes, which are fed to the audience in narrated exposition big gulps, don't ever feel real. There is a rebellion introduced, but are never shown doing any, you know, rebelling. Plot holes large enough to drive a DeLorean DMC-12 through and plot contrivances of the face palming variety land throughout the film, making us say to ourselves "hey, wait a damn second. That makes no sense. Oh, I remember that thing!"
For a crash course on how to balance pop culture "oh, I remember that thing" moments with a story with emotional depth, turn to Wreck-It Ralph. That was a film that knew what it was from conception to release. Ready Player One never feels that thought out. Wreck-It Ralph offers surprises and humour and depth on return viewings. Ready Player One offers freeze frame moments and "hey, I remember that thing, too".
But not all is awful in Spielbergville. Ready Player One, shallow though it may be, is a hell of a technological achievement. The entire last section especially, with its seamless jumps from the real to the virtual, is something to behold. How the real world physics impact the virtual world is something we've seen before. Inception I'm looking in your direction. But here we have Steven Spielberg bringing his Spielberg hand to the game. And then there is the T Rex cameo, which leads to the appearance of the grand daddy of all movie monsters in the middle of a road race that is one part Mad Max, one part Mario Cart, one part Twisted Metal. I'm pretty sure I won't be the first one or the last one to point this out but it's almost as if Mr. Spielberg is knowingly placing himself on the timeline of film and its growth as art and as technology.
And then there is the one sequence though that elevates Ready Player One from bottom tier Spielberg to middle tier. If the rest of the film had been this good Ready Player One would be the stuff of legend. I'm not going to go into anything about the sequence, except to say it must have been the selling point for Mr. Spielberg, the moment that the rest of the film revolved around. For lovers of film, for fans of Mr. Spielberg, the sequence transcends nostalgia. It is the emotional centrepiece of the film, the moment that will be talked about among film fans for years. This isn't hyperbole, trust me.
Anyway, that is a whole lot of words for a movie that has inspired such deep thought think pieces as The 138 Easter Eggs in Ready Player One. Really. There is such a thing.
Maybe if geek culture hadn't won I would be more wowed by the spectacle and be able to skip past all of the film's problems. But geek culture won and we're getting multiple comic book movies a year and Star Wars films and remakes and sequels. And I just can't bring myself to fully recommend Ready Player One just because it exists.