A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2018

READY PLAYER ONE jj
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2018, PG-13, 140 mins.

 

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts / Parzival  /  Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook / Art3mis  /  Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento  /  Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow  /  Mark Rylance as James Donovan Halliday / Anorak  /  Hannah John-Kamen as F'Nale Zandor  /  T.J. Miller as i-R0k  /  Win Morisaki as Toshiro Yoshiaki / Daito  /  Philip Zhao as Akihide Karatsu / Shoto  /  Susan Lynch as Alice  /  Ralph Ineson as Rick  /  Kae Alexander as Reb  /  Lena Waithe as Aech

Directed by Steven Spielberg  /  Written by Zak Penn and Cline, based on his novel

 

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

Steven Spielberg's READY PLAYER ONE - adapted from the popular 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline - often feels like a video game with gloriously and beautifully rendered cut scenes that regrettably has somewhat lackluster gameplay.   

For the uninitiated, it may feel like an odd analogy to use video games to describe a movie, but READY PLAYER ONE - both in silver screen and book antecedent form - is a massive homage filled love letter to both the games and cinema of 1980's and beyond.  It tells a story of a futuristic world that's driven by such crippling overpopulation, pollution and corruption that nearly every single person on the planet has plugged in and escaped to a virtual reality world where seemingly anything is possible (like, for example, becoming your favorite game or movie character in digital form).  

The unbridled nostalgic factor is exceedingly high here, and Spielberg crafts an undeniably gripping and epically rendered visual nirvana of the sights and sounds of the pop culture of yesteryear in the VR world within the movie.  It's impossible not to be swept up in the intoxicatingly spellbinding premise of READY PLAYER ONE.  Everything in the VR world here is so meticulously engineered for maximum return viewing value (no one single screening will ever be enough for junkies to spot all of this film's Easter Eggs), but the large and regrettable disappointment with the film is that never fully fleshes out its human characters outside of this dazzling virtual landscape, making the overall dramatic stakes in the story seem oddly inconsequential and tension-free. 

 

 

Opening in the not-too-distant-future of 2045 Columbus, Ohio, READY PLAYER ONE (adapted by Cline himself and Zac Penn), we are introduced to humanity that's despondent with the ever escalating problems that surround and suffocate them.  Columbus in particular has been reduced to a slum that features unfathomable numbers of RVs and modular homes being stacked up upon one another like LEGOS to save space.  As a form of ultimate escape, people flee to the virtual reality world of the OASIS ("Ontologically Anthropcentric Sensory Immersive Simulation") where they can be anyone and do anything they want, with the only limitations being their imaginations (if you desire to mountain climb as Robocop or drive around an imaginary metropolis in BACK TO THE FUTURE's DeLorean...so be it).  The most massive of massive multiplayer online game worlds was the brain child of James Halliday (Spielberg's recent muse, Mark Rylance), and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), both of whom had a personal falling out while seeing their simulation software becoming as omnipresent as smart phones.  Everyone seems to be using the OASIS in some form or another. 

Halliday had some tricks up is sleeve, though, for the OASIS, even after his untimely death.  He created a game quest within the OASIS game that requires players to locate three extremely difficult to acquire Easter Eggs that, once found, will give that player complete ownership of the OASIS and a fortune that would be larger the gross national product of a country.  Predictably, everyone on the planet with VR goggles wants this, especially the 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who's not only a Halliday fanboy and has studied his life in every minute detail, but he's also an obsessive pop culture junkie, both traits which will prove helpful in navigating himself successfully to the end of Halliday's quest.  Of course, greedy corporations get in on this action as well, especially IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a vast company that manufactures most of the OASIS VR tech in the world.  Its CEO, Nolan Sorrento (the perfect cast Ben Mendelsohn), wants to own the OASIS for obvious financial gain, and employs an army of his own gamers to infiltrate the VR world to find those hidden Easter Eggs.  Wade and his fellow "Gunters" (Easter Egg hunters) obviously don't want such a vile corporation to own the OASIS, which forces them on the offensive.   

People are going to see READY PLAYER ONE because they want to see Spielberg recreate the impossibly vast and dense world of the OASIS, and he's probably the best director possible to take up such an intimidating challenge.  Cline's book was driven and populated by a dizzying array of icons from the entirety of the pop culture world that, in turn, populated the OASIS, and Spielberg seems wholly equal to the challenge of visually bringing this to successful life.  READY PLAYER ONE, if you excuse a crude equivalence, is a geek's wet dream.  Spielberg has arguably never been this playful or spontaneously inventive on a level of pure visual immersion in a film, and the end results - even being the 100% product of cutting edge CGI visual effects - are nothing short of mesmerizing to behold.  Take one bravura sequence early on in the film featuring thousands of OASIS players in a massive car chase through a virtual New York (that morphs in and out of shape) searching for Halliday's first Easter Egg (eagle eyes will spot the 1960's era Batmobile and AKIRA's red motorcycle) while trying to outrun the T-Rex from JURASSIC PARK and evade the attacks of King Kong.  This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the nuttiest chase sequence in movie history.  Spielberg outdoes himself, though, with a later scene featuring Wade and his companions - in avatar form - populating multiple scenes from a very famous early 1980's horror thriller that I will not name, other than to say that the end results are legitimately mind blowing.

Paradoxically, the masterful creation of the world of the OASIS by Spielberg and his visual effects wizards are both the largest strength and weakness of READY PLAYER ONE.  There's a very easy claim to be made that the film overall is more exhausting than purely entertaining, seeing as Spielberg is so enamored with the OASIS and its endless possibilities that it subverts the development of anything that happens outside of it.  The world of futuristic Ohio is quickly and somewhat hastily explained in early scenes (featuring a voiceover track from Wade that comes, then mysteriously disappears in the film), not to mention that Wade himself as a hero - in human and pixel form - is vanilla bland and lacking in compelling layers.  He's the hero because the script makes him the hero, but aside from learning a few scant details about his broken home life (which are so casually thrown out the window as the story progresses), we learn next to nothing about Wade as a person, other than he's a pop culture obsessed Halliday devotee.  READY PLAYER ONE tells an obligatory story of a young nobody becoming a heroic savoir, but he's so lacking in definition as an intriguing protagonist that you're left wondering why he should be rooted on to final victory.  Some of the other characters presented throughout the narrative are afforded a bit more depth, like Olivia Cooke's spunky revolutionary that befriends Wade in his quest to stop IOS, not to mention Mendelsohn's icy cold villain, who utilizes some despicable tactics to beat the youthful heroes at every waking moment.  The wonderful Mark Rylance has many quietly strong scenes as his Steve Jobs-esque introvert that gives this rather artificially envisioned movie some much need soft spoken gravitas and warm humor that it so desperately needs.  

Unfortunately, READY PLAYER ONE can't seem to ground itself on relatable human levels, which makes it all the more emotionally and thematically shallow minded.  There's something unhealthily regressive about this film's ultimate message about how the digi-verse of the OASIS is more important than the palpable and concrete pressures and dilemmas of the real world.  What it boils right down to it is this: The entirety of READY PLAYER ONE is about its heroes trying to save a world...that's fake.  There are virtually no large scale hazards to be had in not "saving" the OASIS, besides ensuring that it doesn't fall into the hands of an opportunistic businessman.  Losing the OASIS to Sorrento won't fundamentally change, for instance, the crippling economic and social despair that Wade finds himself a part of in his slum neighborhood.  There's a feeble attempt during the film's contrived and cornball ending to engage in some commentary about the need for people to seek out and be with other real people outside of the OASIS, but they're half-heartedly introduced at best, stemming from the fact that the READY PLAYER ONE is more fascinated with its faux world within its faux real world.   

Other things bothered me while watching this movie, like the manner it forced me to ask so many questions about its own internal logic.  Thereís a scene late in the third act that shows dozens of people running through the streets while they have their OASIS VR goggles on to secure its freedom from Sorrento's grasp, performing their actions in the real world as they correspond to the VR one. How they are never able to crash into anyone or anything is beyond me.  Also, it appears that the filmís hero - and those in his surrounding neighborhood - are destitute, so how are any of them able to afford what I'm assuming is ultra expensive VR tech, let alone the unfathomably fast internet service speeds they would need to partake in this insanely complex online game?  Maybe Iím asking too many questions, but at an endurance testing 140 minutes READY PLAYER ONE really fumbles the ball in terms of adequate and acceptable world building.  

The insatiable appeal of this film is unmistakable; as a lifelong gamer and cinefile, I gorged with awe and wonder at the non-stop carnival of 80's iconography come lovingly to life (or VR life) here, and Spielberg has painstakingly and successfully crafted one of his most ambitious films in his entire career on a level of pure imagery (the fact that he made this at 71 is pretty extraordinary).  But READY PLAYER ONE's ultimate failure is that it goes all in on nostalgia referencing as a cheap, audience placating short cut instead of generating some genuine emotional connection with the material that's born out of characters we care about.  I'm sure that this film will be ravenously studied in film schools and nerd circles for decades to come that want to catalogue the immensity of intellectual properties on display in the OASIS.  Strip away any clinical dissection of its eye candy and READY PLAYER ONE implodes on itself as a cold and dispassionate pop culture delivery engine that's pretty dramatically inert.  And since Spielberg is - as he's always professed - a big geek kid at heart, it's oddly disappointing to see him make a movie about our collective childhood passions that doesn't contain much heart.   

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