Film Review: Ready Player One

by Carrie Kahn on March 30, 2018

Reality is a bummer, and so is this movie  

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) enters the Oasis via his virtual reality gear. 

Let me start this review with a caveat, since I know there are a lot of die hard fans out there of Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi book Ready Player One, on which director Steven Spielberg’s new movie is based: I have not read the book. So if you’re looking for a detailed synopsis of how the movie is different from the book, you may as well click off Spinning Platters right now and search for a different review. That said, however, I did attend the screening with a friend who had read the book, and he let me know that much of the film’s plot differs dramatically from Cline’s story; he also opined that he thought a lot of the book’s charm was lost on screen. But that’s where I come in: to discuss a.) what, exactly, is on screen; and b.) to tell you if it’s worth your time and money. And the short answers are: a.) not much of interest, and b.) no.

For those of you who, like me, have not read the book, and have no prior knowledge of the Ready Player One story, a quick overview is in order. The year is 2045, and most of the world is a dystopian nightmare of bleakness and poverty. The only escape from this misery is the Oasis, a virtual reality (VR) game invented by the now deceased James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a revered, Bill Gates-like tech whiz. In the Oasis, players can become whomever or whatever they want, and experience adventures that would be impossible in the grey, dismal R.L. (that’s Real Life, for the uninitiated). Before Halliday’s death, he hid a literal Easter egg in the Oasis (hmmm… coincidence that the movie is opening on Easter weekend!? You decide!). Players must conquer three puzzles, or keys, to get to the prize egg. Whoever succeeds first wins total control of the Oasis.

And so pretty much everyone on the planet is frantically trying to win Halliday’s game. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, Mud), an orphaned young man who lives with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in the Stacks, a makeshift slum in Columbus, OH, becomes the frontrunner Gunter (as in EgG-Hunter) in the game, via his VR avatar, Parzival. Wade joins forces with, as is always the case in movies like these, a rag tag group of misfits that includes love interest Samantha/AKA Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ), resourceful and trusty Helen/AKA Aech (Lena Waithe, Master of None), and brothers Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). The group’s arch nemesis (because of course) is the cold and dastardly Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a huge, nefarious corporation called Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which pours money into trying to win the game for its own insidious reasons.

The dreary Stacks, where Wade Watts and his friends are forced to reside in R.L.

Screenwriter Zak Penn, no stranger to adventure movies, having penned two X-Men films, The Incredible Hulk, and The Avengers, doesn’t stray much from this basic good guys-bad guys-heroic quest template. The movie is heavy both on explication, especially via Wade’s voice over narration, and on overly long battle/chase scenes, both of which become tedious as character development is left by the wayside. The most glaring problem, though, is the story’s overreliance on ‘80s pop culture, which apparently is part of the book, although my book-reading friend told me this element is handled more skillfully and pleasingly in the text.

Here, though, the ‘80s references fly fast and furious, and it’s all a bit much. As a set up for this nostalgia-fest, we’re told that James Halliday was obsessed with the ‘80s, and so has peppered his game (and his three challenges) with ‘80s throwbacks. In the opening scene, Wade drives the Back to the Future DeLorean, for example, and the Iron Giant makes an appearance. Major plot points include nods to both The Shining and Atari 2600 games, and the soundtrack features the likes of Twisted Sister, Blondie, Tears for Fears, and Hall and Oates (which actually is fun, because come on – ‘80s music rocks).

On screen, though, Halliday’s obsession with this stuff ends up feeling like a flimsy and weak excuse for including a myriad of ‘80s Easter eggs solely so the audience can congratulate itself on noticing them. Being inundated with this wistful sentimentality quickly becomes tiresome, and makes you realize that there is so little fresh on the screen that these comforting references are simply manipulative distractions from any real depth of story.

One good thing about the movie’s nostalgic ’80s obsession – it allows the studio’s publicity department to come up with clever movie posters. 

The film is not without a few positive qualities, however. Penn’s script occasionally shows sharp flashes of humor; the best bit in the whole movie is a scene in which we see that Sorrento’s password to his fancy Oasis control center is written on a post-it note stuck his chair. Who among us hasn’t hidden a similar sticky note in our desk drawer and assumed no one would notice? And for comedic relief, Sorrento’s VR henchman iR0k, voiced with acerbic aplomb by the always sardonic T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley), gets all the best lines, many of which are laugh-out-loud worthy.

As for the rest of the cast, Rylance is by far the standout, outshining the others with his portrayal of a brilliant, but socially-awkward and sensitive genius who has always been more comfortable with technology than with people. Simon Pegg, mastering a flat American accent, brings complexity and sincerity to a small but key role as Halliday’s colleague Ogden Morrow. The young actors aren’t as memorable, unfortunately; Sheridan, who was so terrific in 2013’s Mud, doesn’t get to show much range here, trapped by a script that doesn’t allow him to do much but be a conduit for the movie’s action.

Of course when all the chases, battles, and close calls are over and the puzzles have all been solved, what we’re left with is a rather predictable message that “reality is the only thing that’s real.” This banal life lesson may have carried more weight, though, if we hadn’t just spent two hours being hit over the head with irritatingly earnest, unabashed reverence for ‘80s escapism.

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Ready Player One opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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