MOVIE REVIEW: Ready Player One

(Image: Entertainment Weekly)

(Image: Entertainment Weekly)


Ask yourself this quick question.  When was the last time you came away blissfully excited from a Steven Spielberg film?  Lately, the 71-year-old genius has felt like Hollywood’s old and lecturing Social Studies teacher, not having taken on a truly out-there challenge since 2011’s collaboration with Peter Jackson and Edgar Wright on The Adventures of Tintin.  As cited in this website’s reviews of Bridge of Spies, The BFG, and The Post since then, the filmmaker has been playing it safe and painting-by-numbers, netting plenty of awards buzz yet very little outright joy.  You gladly appreciated the lessons, learned a few things, and respectfully tipped your hat to the tenured authority with kind claps and compliments towards the preached messages.  

What’s been missing has been the next level of engagement and resonance.  Such a connection requires more energy. In bringing his stately expertise and imaginative craft to Ernest Cline’s best-selling 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg has found the electric elixir he was lacking to amplify his efforts and, hot damn, what an supreme jolt it is!  With its daring digital delights and hero worship hurricane of pop culture, this new blockbuster reaffirms the astonishment that made Steven Spielberg a master of popcorn and escapism.

The earthly setting of Ready Player One may take place in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio filled with piles of trailer park favelas, but the action happens online in the OASIS, a decadent virtual reality gamescape of exponential MMORPG size created the late James Halliday (Bridge of Spies Oscar winner Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).  Millions around the world like Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) plug in to be someone more than their squalid lifestyles.  In the OASIS, he is Parzival, a talented and naive gamer chasing imaginary prizes and prestige among the infinity of name-brand avatar mashups.  The grandest of them all is a puzzle of challenges set by Halliday himself before his passing that will reward full ownership control of the entire OASIS to the first lucky winner to find three hidden keys.

The sheer volume of the potential monetization that would come with complete power drives the megalomaniacal CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), Nolan Sorrento, played by professional movie villain Ben Mendelsohn.  He will stop at nothing and spare no expense to indenture an army of drones, think tank researchers, security forces, and, worst of all, contained prisoners forced to into internet infantry service. When Parzival finds the first key and attracts leaderboard notoriety in the OASIS, he gains an embittered enemy in Sorrento and his hired gun i-R0k (Deadpool’s maligned T.J. Miller).  Luckily, he is bolstered by helpful friends in the form of the beautiful and cunning Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl), the brawny Aech (Lana Waithe from Netflix’s Master of None), and the warrior brothers of Daito and Sho (PrizmaX pop star Win Morisaki and newcomer Philip Zhao) who want to revolutionize the OASIS away from IOI’s clutches.  Smirking surprises and jaw-dropping exploits enliven every twist and turn of this lush labyrinth of Easter eggs.

Many just and unjust labels are going to get slapped on Ready Player One.  The film is an extremely loose iteration of Cline’s book, even with the author himself receiving a writing credit after a screenplay treatment from former Marvel hitmaker Zak Penn.  Like any film adaptation, a novel’s thick depth is the first thing to get trimmed to retain a core, and that means character development. Sheridan and Cooke make for fine heartfelt heroes, but neither are formed in classic bedrock, with characterization as pliable as their virtual visages.  The film’s unwieldy departures and changes may upset a subset of hardcore fans. Furthermore, some ostentatious viewers who aren’t hip to the gamer and geek references are going to look down on this roller coaster as ten pounds of crystalline fan service sugar stuffed in a five-pound bag. Both quibbles, the inaccuracy and the nerdy showiness, do make for a breakneck film with an overpowering amount of rapid-fire detail to receive and interpret on the fly.  None of those objections of creative license become irresponsible affronts to the spirit of Ready Player One.  

Spielberg and company have created a grand quest with a marching band’s worth of bells and whistles.  Go-to Robert Zemeckis composer Alan Silvestri is a game veteran who doesn’t need to compare resumes with Spielberg’s usual musical muse of the great John Williams.  He develops a punchy and plucky score that smoothly suits the memorable eras being rekindled and marries well with the 80s-heavy jukebox soundtrack. The phonebook listing of visual effects artists created staggeringly textured mashups of character stylings and virtual world designs that took the familiar and spun them with fresh applications.  Their incomparable advances of visual effects wowed even the director.  Not all of the glamour is pixelated.  The Academy Award-winning production design and set decoration team of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock (The Grand Budapest Hotel), costume designer Kasia Walick-Maimone (Moonrise Kingdom), and the scroungers in the prop department worked overtime to raid a continent’s worth of garage sales to unearth and adorn this spectacle with an endless collection of goodies.  

Ready Player One is the liveliest Spielberg film in a decade or more.  You could spend hours pausing every frame of this film to discover and relish in the multitude of buried treasures, making the film’s rewatch and replay value tremendous.  The nostalgia factor of this film should be a high-score badge of achievement and not a knock of pitiful pandering. Dream fulfillment is a worthy and ambitious target for audience inspiration.  That tangible sensation equals the desired blissful excitement this film delivers.

Observing the achievements of Ready Player One cements the redeclaration of Steven Spielberg with two statements in WWE crowd chant fashion: He’s still got it and he never lost it. Spielberg’s artistic savvy and his combined technical prowess have never left him. Diving into the soaring themes of the Cline source novel, Spielberg rediscovers the gushing aquifer of his signature sense of wonder that embodies so many of his best and most beloved works.  That sparkle is back and couldn’t be more brilliant.

LESSON #1: THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP-- With all of the complicated intricacies and techy gobbledygook swirling around the melee and maelstrom of this movie, the draw of supportive companionship remains a huge virtue for any heroic victory to be found.  Beyond the CGI, you can’t get more analog than good, old-fashioned friendship.

LESSON #2: THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE OF HERO WORSHIP-- The main advantage to Parzival’s in-game success comes from doing his expansive homework on Halliday, his history, and his motivations.  It’s idealized hero worship from Wade, but that route is also rooted with teachable moments of making sure he doesn’t make the same mistakes as the late inventor.

LESSON #3: IT’S OK TO PLUG INTO A CREATIVE SPACE-- Quite of bit of rancorous ranting in society today is made about self-images being created through social media, video games, and other online community platforms.  Yes, the dangers are there, as is a prevalent mentality that someone can be whatever or whoever they want online without consequences. Not all of that is problematic when used properly.  For many, what folks curate and put out there, from Pinterest boards and blogs to Snapchat followings and Twitter handles, is a motivational outlet of creativity. The confidence built there can carry over into real-life.

LESSON #4: IT’S ESSENTIAL TO UNPLUG AND PARTICIPATE IN REALITY-- That final statement of Lesson #3 only works if there is a healthy moderation.  Online cannot be the only setting where people gain a sense of belonging, interaction, or success.  Have fun, be yourself, and aim high, but do so with limits and an anchor for the real humanity that lies unplugged and off-screen.