‘Ready Player One’ Review: It’s Game Over For This Heavy-Handed Adaptation
As a book, Ready Player One is a craven mish-mash of pop culture iconography, in which almost every sentence is punctuated with references to beloved films of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not so much a novel as it is zealous fan fiction; the literary version of Chris Farley on SNL interviewing famous guests — “Hey, remember when you made Jurassic Park? That was awesome.” With Steven Spielberg behind the camera, Ernest Cline’s book had potential to transcend its source material. It’s disheartening that the finished product is little more than the cinematic equivalent of a pop culture mashup tee, which takes cherished icons of film and coats them in garish CGI while clumsily smashing them against one another like a child playing with action figures.
Steven Spielberg introduced us to iconic characters like E.T. and Indiana Jones, and gave us indelible, awesome images of monstrous sharks and massive dinosaurs. As one of — if not the — most prolific director of our time, Spielberg has inspired multiple generations of movie fans and countless filmmakers, many of whom revere his work on near-religious levels. His decision to direct Ready Player One — a story crafted almost entirely from references to pop culture touchstones — was somewhat bizarre, given how often his own films figure into Cline’s bestselling novel.
But if you can look past all those references, Cline’s story is about the kind of dreamer that often inspires Spielberg; a young man trying to escape his dire circumstances via the fictional characters and worlds that he loves, and his desperate journey — with a few misfits — to save all of it from being destroyed. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old who lives in what’s known as “The Stacks”: A futuristic trailer park that could easily be mistaken for a junkyard. In this future, everyone uses VR technology to enter the OASIS — an immersive world created by the enigmatic James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who’s like Steve Jobs by way of Garth Algar.
Not unlike the real internet, the OASIS allows its users to be anyone or anything they want to be, whether it’s a character from comic books (Batman) or movies (Buckaroo Banzai) and video games (lots of Mortal Kombat in there), or merely a better version of themselves. It’s the ultimate breeding ground for catfishing; Nev and Max would not be able to reverse-Google image search their way out of this one. But unlike our internet, users of the OASIS aren’t sending women death threats for their inaccurate Harley Quinn costumes. The world of Ready Player One is meant to look like a dystopia, but at least in this way, it feels positively utopian.
When Halliday died, he left behind a trilogy of puzzles that, when solved, would lead the user to the ultimate Easter egg and (literally) give them the keys to the kingdom. Wade, along with his pals Artemis (Olivia Cooke) and H (Lena Waithe), are on a mission to save the OASIS from the corporation IOI and the evil CEO Noah Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to take control of the VR world for financial gain. He’s essentially trying to repeal net neutrality. He’s also the kind of dumb bad guy who leaves his passwords laying around on Post-It Notes.
Despite the efforts of our most beloved modern director, Ready Player One is a complete mess. Outside the OASIS, the action is handsomely shot, and the Stacks themselves are impressively elaborate. But once we enter the OASIS, the film turns into The Sims version of Avatar. Close-ups are fine, but action sequences — of which there are several — are difficult to watch. After a while, it’s all just so much visual noise, like every fight in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. You can’t tell who’s who and what’s what, though Ready Player One goes out of its way to deliver many cameos and references with the same heavy hand used to execute an obnoxious needle drop. (It also has plenty of those.)
Spielberg’s saccharine proclivities are prominently featured in James Halliday’s personal backstory — which figures heavily into the search for his Easter egg. It’s a familiar, tragic tale of a boy who spent too much time indoors, playing video games and going online and seeing movies; the biggest regret of his life is being too scared to kiss a girl. Zak Penn’s script turns this tired fanboy stereotype into a heroic, tragic figure. Wade and Artemis have memorized every aspect of Halliday’s life, from his favorite food (Hot Pockets) to the intricacies of the falling out with his collaborator, Ogden Morrow (a tragically underused Simon Pegg).
The parts of Ready Player One that feel truly dystopian probably aren’t the ones Spielberg and Penn intended; the real ugliness of this world is that it is a fanboy utopia where every inane piece of useless trivia has some divine purpose, and where all the time these loyal players spent indoors consuming pop culture could very well be their golden ticket to total control over the characters and fiction they love. Ready Player One tells fanboys that the very parts of this culture that have become so toxic — gatekeeping, in particular — are actually good.
Whatever message the film is trying to convey is utterly garbled by an exhaustive third act (the movie itself two and a half hours long); up until that point, the motives of Ready Player One are confusing at best. Fans are trying to protect their favorite franchises and brands and characters from corporate interests — you know, the same corporate interests that are responsible for bringing this film to the masses in the first place.
There is an undeniably genuine quality to characters like Wade and Artemis, and Spielberg certainly tries his best to give this story some heart. It’s just difficult to feel that through the layers of CGI. Spielberg’s own T-Rex from Jurassic Park is a generic, computerized creation stomping through the streets alongside King Kong and a DeLorean. It’s almost like a metaphor for the ways in which cinema is repurposed and digitally abused. Mostly it’s just sad. (Also sad: The inclusion of T.J. Miller, who was not removed from the film despite recent sexual assault and harassment allegations.)
To certain viewers, Ready Player One is a terrifying story set in a world senselessly devoted to zealous fanboys, carelessly combining random bits of pop culture and shutting out anyone who’s a “hater” or a “noob.” (Someone in this movie actually says “noob.”) If you don’t love the right movies and games, and if you don’t appreciate the right parts of them in the correct fashion, then you’re a fake, unworthy fan. But if you’re the sort of person who just wants to see the Iron Giant in the same movie with Gundam, the Mach Five from Speed Racer, and the characters from Street Fighter II, then Ready Player One might be for you.