Film Review: Ready Player One

Electrifying visuals and state-of-the-art showmanship can’t mask the fact that Steven Spielberg’s latest is essentially a hollow vehicle.
Major Releases

There is a lot of explanatory material through which we need to work before we can begin the story of Ready Player One properly. Screenwriters Zak Penn (who has a number of superhero movies to his name, including The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk and X Men: The Last Stand) and Ernest Cline, who wrote the cult book on which the film is based, do not even try for an elegant solution to the problem. Instead, they begin straightaway with exposition. And lots, and lots, and lots of it.

So we learn through supers and voiceover the year is 2045 and teen Wade (Tye Sheridan) is living in the city with the world’s fastest-growing population: Columbus, Ohio. Following events of great unrest, Wade’s parents died, leaving him in the care of a harried aunt and her string of loser boyfriends. Wade and Aunt Alice live in “The Stacks,” a kind of industrial favela comprised of trailer-cars stacked one on top of the other between rickety iron poles down which Wade makes sliding look awfully fun. 

The world is bleak, its problems large, and rather than fight for change, people spend their time playing in a virtual-reality world called “The OASIS,” where they can make avatars that look and act however they want. The OASIS was the brainchild of a man named Halliday (Mark Rylance, who can do no wrong wherever he appears), an awkward genius with a pathological love of ’80s pop culture. When Halliday dies, in typical eccentric fashion, he leaves behind a tape informing the world that somewhere in The OASIS he has hidden a giant Easter egg. Whoever finds the egg will win control of The OASIS—but first, they must solve three ridiculously insider-y clues and earn three keys.

It’s been five years, however, and no one has been able to earn the first key. Not even the wealthy bad guys, a corporation named IOI that is headed by one wet noodle of a villain, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Sorrento and Co. want to win the Easter egg because The OASIS is the world’s “most important economic resource,” and because, if they own The OASIS, they can finally dismantle the barriers Halliday placed against advertising there. Subtlety is not Ready Player One’s strong suit.

But soon enough, Wade, whose avatar name is Perzival, is able to use his encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday and his research skills to win the first key. With a little help from his new crush, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and four other friends he made in The OASIS, Wade continues questing for the Easter egg in the virtual world, while IOI makes life difficult for him in the real world.

That’s a lot of information to impart, and the filmmakers give most of it upfront, at once, rather than revealing the movie’s world-building details bit by bit through the natural course of the narrative. Although, perhaps, given the number of details that need to be explained before our players are ready, they may have had precious few better alternatives. (I don’t really believe that, but realizing Cline’s vision onscreen must have been an immensely difficult task. You can imagine a meeting in which the filmmakers said to one another, with a shrug or a sigh or a touch defensively: ‘Look. Let’s just state it all outright.’)

But boy, does it feel convoluted. And for a while the story continues to feel convoluted, though its overall schema is easy enough to understand: A group of friends embarks on a quest for a magic object and to prevent bad guys from doing their nefarious take-over-the-world thing. TERMS and WORDS and NAMES whiz by with the lightning speed of FX lasers, but basically, you get it.

The most fun to be had with Ready Player One is in its set-pieces. Director Steven Spielberg is at his best when he’s dazzling you. And razzle-dazzle ’em, he does, often succeeding in making you feel as if you are inside a videogame, or at least on a ride at Universal Studios. Before Wade wins the first key, he and the others engage in a car race that’s just terrific. You’re up, you’re down, you’re at stomach-churning angles, look, there’s a T-Rex, here’s King Kong, watch out, you’re going to crash…! The concluding battle has a few moments of breathlessness, too, and an entertaining interlude in which our heroes enter the world of The Shining is fun and visually impressive. The attention to details of design is wonderful.

But that’s all spectacle. Would that the same focus had been given to character development. It’s a weird hero’s journey that includes no moments of self-doubt. That has extraordinarily little conflict between the hero and any of his friends—that is, moments that make the hero seem human. Wade battles against Sorrento, a real dunce of a villain, but with himself, or anyone we might care about, everything is and remains OK. Even when he briefly turns against Art3mis for her own good, he says she will forgive him, and sure enough, and with no struggle whatsoever, she does. Art3mis, or Samantha IRL, has an insecurity that could have been interesting, but after it is revealed to us, no mention of it is made again. The actors are fine, but how dull the roles they’re called to play.

This flatness of character fatally detracts from the spectacle Spielberg has created. When Wade gives a speech calling the nation to rebellion, when he professes his love and speaks about morals and duty and things, his words fall flat. Because love and morality are human characteristics, and we have not seen enough that is either convincingly fallible or compassionate—human—before this point. What his speech did do was make me long for The Hunger Games. I would have given anything for Jennifer Lawrence’s fiery eyes and cracking voice and suggestion of a breakdown just moments away. Like Katniss, Wade has experienced great trauma, but unlike her, he seems unmoved by it all. Thus, so are we. The fight that commences after his speech is cool from a technical standpoint, but following this moment of stale and failed galvanization, it too fails to thrill.

In the end, Ready Player One evinces a failure to connect, for which no amount of technical wizardry, however stunning or entertaining or Spielbergian, can compensate.

Click here for cast and crew information.