We are in a very strange era of entertainment. We live in a world where everything has basically become meta; self aware, chock-full of pop culture references and not just references but pop culture itself plays a vital role in the stories that are being told. Look at the likes of the Lego movies, Deadpool, Rick and Morty, and others.
But it’s hard to tell where Ready Player One stands in regards to this. In the not too distant future, the world has become a place where everyone has stopped trying to fix problems and instead choose to just try and live with them. To escape the drudgery of everyday life, they plug into The Oasis, a virtual reality world where you can be anyone, go anywhere, and do anything. This leads to a world that is almost entirely made of pop and nerd culture. From The Iron Giant to Ninja Turtles to Batman to Freddy Krueger, the Oasis is inhabited by every character you can think of. This concept and setting is where things get a little divisive.
The setting of the film allows for some truly spectacular action set pieces, and these are the strongest parts of the film. When the creator of The Oasis (the incomparable Mark Rylance, who delivers a truly inspired performance here) passes away, he leaves a hidden treasure deep within the game. Whoever finds three keys scattered throughout The Oasis will receive a massive fortune and complete control over the virtual world. There is a race and a battle for these keys that are both filled to the brim with hundreds and hundreds of recognizable characters and vehicles and weapons. It’s a wonder to witness. It’s Spielberg spectacle at his best. These sequences are jaw dropping, and most of the credit has to go to the incredible animation and motion capture performances.
There is a downside to all of this nerd-dom though. The references and imagery of everything sometimes comes across as pandering to the point of groan-inducing. They’re treated in a Big Bang Theory kind of way where they feel the need to say the name of things that anyone on the planet would recognize, treating the audience, who I imagine would mostly be fans of these things already, as if they’re only vaguely familiar with whatever it is they’re referencing. If this is meant to be the ultimate love letter to all things nerd, why does it feel like it was made by someone who has only a passing familiarity with everything crammed into this film? The most wasted segment of the film is in the middle, which has our heroes visit the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Instead of doing anything interesting with this, we simply go through the iconic scenes from the Kubrick film. It’s bland and exists only to have you go “Ah yes, The Shining exists.”
While Steven Spielberg is, well, Steven Spielberg, and this film is obviously competently made, done by a literal master of the craft, one can’t help but feel that he may have been the wrong choice for this project. Spielberg himself created so many of the things in this film that the characters are fans of and was a huge influence for the creator of the original novel. This is supposed to be a story for those who have grown up and been inspired from these things. It would have been nice to have gotten this film from someone who has that perspective (think J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars films). Something made for the fans, by a fan. Spielberg lacks that perspective, and unfortunately, it sometimes shows in this film.
Had this been made even just a couple of years ago, I feel like the main character of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) would have played a bit better. The isolated, lonely nerd who lives only for his video game and doesn’t know how to talk to girls, virtual or not, just leaves a kind of bad taste in your mouth in our current post-Gamergate world. The film tries it’s best to make him charming in that awkward, geeky kind of way, but Wade, for the most part, comes across as a bit unlikeable and not all that compelling. His lowest moment comes when he tells Art3mis, the gamer girl he’s met during his adventures in The Oasis, that he’s in love in her, despite not actually knowing anything about her and spending a limited amount of time with her. This moment is saved, however, by it being completely undercut by Art3mis herself, who calls Wade out on it, telling him that he is not in love with her and the two barely even know each other. Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is the true hero of Ready Player One, as she understands the true worldly implications of winning the challenge and finding the keys, and is not in it for the glory or riches (which is Wade’s motivation at the beginning of the film). Art3mis is the first person to pull Wade out of his virtual world and wake him up to the real world that is full of real problems.
Ready Player One has plenty of problems. None of the humor ever really works (a kick in the crotch during the climactic battle doesn’t play well), a good amount of the dialogue is eye-rolling (“A fanboy recognizes a hater when he sees one!”), and the human characters can end up feeling very thin by the film’s end. But I love living in an age where this kind of film exists. Yes, I do love seeing the DeLorean race The Batmobile and the bike from Akira. Yes, I love seeing them race past the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and get stomped on by King Kong. I am on the edge of my seat watching a team of Spartans from Halo (played by a group of 12 year olds, the only good in-joke in the film), The Iron Giant, a Gundam, Tracer from Overwatch, and many, many more charge into battle against a massive army. Ready Player One is still a huge amount of fun that never slows down and will ignite joy into the heart of anyone who grew up and loves these characters, movies, toys, and shows.
Most of this film, at the very least, comes across as well-intentioned, and that’s something I can respect. Maybe it’s simply because I’m a nerd myself and am an easy target to pander to for this sort of thing. I can accept that for now, because despite its issues, I still had a blast at this movie and you will too. See it on the biggest screen possible.