Ready Player One Review
Like The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey before it, Ernest Cline’s 2010 novel Ready Player One is a bestseller that has managed to achieve crossover literary success while being roundly derided for its more questionable excerpts of prose. The film adaptations of the former two novels couldn’t wrestle with the questionable storytelling when given a cinematic makeover, and it turns out even a director of Steven Spielberg’s calibre can only do so much to polish a turd.
His adaptation of Ready Player One feels like the most impersonal movie he’s ever made - the first in his entire filmography that is devoid of his visual and narrative sensibilities, replaced by an insatiable and inexplicable need to ape the VFX-heavy, yet directorially anonymous, style of a contemporary blockbuster. Everything that made Spielberg’s earlier blockbusters such a charming delight is absent in Ready Player One. He hasn’t exactly shied away from overtly commercially friendly fare before, but this is the first time where he’s instinctively trying to catch the zeitgeist in the hope of obtaining a box office success that has recently alluded him. It’s far from being the first bad film in his career, but it is the first in four decades to feel cynically conceived.
The film is set in Columbus, Ohio circa 2045: a vaguely dystopian future where contemporary pop culture no longer exists, and people entertain themselves solely via TV, films and music from the 80s and 90s, like a never-ending Peter Kay standup routine. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the “Stacks”, a slum on the outskirts of the city with his aunt - but spends most of his life hooked up to the virtual reality video game the OASIS, where people get to live out their pop culture fantasies in a series of high octane challenges. The co-creator of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) passed away five years previously, leaving behind a challenge within the game to find three Easter eggs that nobody has yet discovered, which will lead to the the company’s assets (valued at half a trillion dollars) bequeathed to them.
Rival video game magnate Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has spent the past five years getting his gigantic workforce to constantly play the game in the hopes of getting the Easter eggs and taking over the competitive corporation. However, Wade’s digital avatar Parzival stumbles upon the first key to the Easter egg - leading to Sorrento orchestrating a mass manhunt, both online and in the real world, to make sure he doesn’t get any further in completing the game.
The first half of Ready Player One is set almost entirely within the digital realms of the Oasis, leading to an action-adventure spectacle that effectively utilises 3D technology - a trend so unfashionable, time may prove this to be the last film worth watching in the format. Introductory exposition guides us through the OASIS and all the different virtual worlds within, from a casino planet to the thrill of mountain climbing with Batman, all but promising a grand visual spectacle that the film eventually compromises on delivering. With with one exception; a mid-film set piece that effectively uses CGI to throw the digital avatars of the characters into the world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
As well as being a riotously entertaining stretch of the film, it’s also the only moment Ready Player One feels personal to Spielberg, as he gets to demonstrate the admiration he had for Kubrick, his old friend and mentor, in a way he hasn’t been able to since his 2001 masterpiece AI: Artificial Intelligence. The use of digital effects to blend the visuals of Kubrick and Spielberg is eye-catching, but this moment stands out for being the only time the director’s genuine interests are being represented onscreen, and backed up with the metatextual undercurrent of the friendship between the two filmmakers ensures it provides a surprise emotional punch too.
As the film progresses, the cinematography from Spielberg’s recurrent collaborator Janusz Kamiński becomes uncharacteristically flat, culminating in several sequences set in futuristic Columbus, Ohio that struggle to disguise the fact that they’re clearly filmed in Birmingham, England. In one of the most laughable cost-cutting moves of any $175 million budgeted blockbuster in history, Spielberg has made the decision to not dress Birmingham up as a futuristic city and instead just give virtual headsets to random extras on the street, in a half hearted optical illusion. This is made even more noticeable due to the fact they haven’t even been given clothes by the costume department to look like they belong within the film’s setting.
It should also be noted that the screenplay, co-written by Ernest Cline, makes the wise decision of toning down the referential excesses of the source material. Unfortunately, this just makes the flaws in the half-hearted storytelling feel more apparent. There is a delightfully insane premise waiting to be discovered here, as it attempts to balance the same anti-corporate thesis with a love letter to the joys of corporate entertainment properties as The Lego Movie and yet, the characters in Spielberg’s film prove to be less emotionally involving than generically designed plastic bricks. There is one exception to this rule, of course, and that’s Mark Rylance’s charmingly bizarre supporting performance.
Mark Halliday was written by Cline as the Willy Wonka of the video game world, yet Rylance characterises him as something significantly less conventional, with offbeat comic rhythms that jettison the film’s conventional, pandering storytelling and inject it with a genuine sense of character whenever he’s onscreen. You also get the sense Rylance is the only person onscreen who isn’t afraid to acknowledge the dire nature of the screenplay, taking immense thespian pleasure in sarcastically delivering lines like “Reality is real”, letting the dialogue hang in the air for a moment so the audience can truly soak up how meaningless it all is.