*** out of ****
(for sequence of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language)
Released: March 29, 2018
Runtime: 140 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, T.J. Miller, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Now included in my ranking of the entire Spielberg Canon.
(Listen to Charles Elmore and I discuss Ready Player One and our Spielberg Top 5s on this edition of The Bad and the Beautiful podcast.)
I can’t wait to see this again.
In his best pure pop entertainment in a generation (yes, it’s been 25 years since Jurassic Park), Steven Spielberg recaptures his blockbuster movie magic. With Ready Player One the former wunderkind shows his modern contemporary rivals, the ones who’ve picked up the torch after him (only to bloat out digitally over-stuffed cinematic universes), exactly how it’s done.
Many from the new Hollywood breed are akin to corporate-shill Sorrentos, only affecting popcorn fun according to the info they aggregate from a team of crack Oologists, but not true masters of their cinematic Oasis. Now along comes Spielberg – American pop culture’s Gunter OG – with all the right keys.
If that analogy didn’t make sense to you don’t worry, it just means you haven’t read the book the movie is based on. That’s okay. The film – a briskly paced 140 minutes that fly by – is almost entirely different. Spielberg takes the same premise, characters, and key building blocks but then crafts a whole new plot around them. And it’s better.
But don’t take the kids. One mid-film sequence in particular will scare / haunt / disturb / mess with them. It’s absolutely brilliant, mind you, but it flirts with the R rating as it pays tribute to a horror classic. Other content may prove too much as well.
Expanding on Ernest Cline’s best-selling Willy Wonka-esque virtual reality scavenger hunt phenomenon in all the right ways, Spielberg hasn’t only made a better version for the screen but tells a better story period, regardless of medium. Like its source, the movie still geeks out on late 20th Century pop culture (in a visual explosion of references that would take countless viewings to catch), but the idolization of those icons is more tempered, dialed back, at times even wary.
Cline’s book was a total nerdgasm, some might say obnoxiously so, elevating anti-social gamer-obsessed movie-quoting geeks to hero status, all in a fantasy where the ones who’ve shut themselves off from the world would ultimately be the ones to save it.
That essentially holds true here, but gone is the ego-posturing of one’s extensive pop culture recall prowess, and what’s emphasized is a more egalitarian, ecumenical admiration of fandom. It’s not so much encyclopedic knowledge of media that makes someone admired but, rather, the purity of loving it. And who’d have guessed that, of all the 80s pop culture to double down on, Spielberg would expand upon and deepen the John Hughes-style teenage romance?
Plus, while Cline favors highlighting things like War Games and Ladyhawke in key sequences, Spielberg geeks out on auteurs instead.
Ready Player One is the story of teenager Wade Watts who lives in the dystopian future of 2045. The world is a depressing trash heap on the outside, but inside the OASIS – a virtual reality of endless destinations and possibilities – lies a magical escape, especially for people like Wade who come from poverty. The OASIS is the most powerful (and lucrative) thing on the planet.
The inventor of this VR paradise, James Halliday (new Spielberg fave Mark Rylance, wonderful here with his tender, fragile eccentricities), has been dead for five years. Upon his passing, a global scavenger hunt was launched inside the OASIS. The grand prize? Whoever is the first to pass through three gates would become the sole proprietary owner of the OASIS. It would not only change a person’s life, it could change the world.
And being obsessed with Halliday’s favorite pop culture obsessions will help contestants decode clues along the way.
So, naturally, the multi-national corporation IOI has built an army of gamers (dubbed Sixers) to win the competition for them. Fighting them are Gunters, independent gamers with integrity who want to maintain the OASIS for its original intent of being a free gift to the world. Wade is a gunter. One of the best. Possibly the best.
His OASIS avatar is named Parzival, and his closest VR allies are Aech, Daito, Sho, and Art3mis. Art3mis is the girl, and Wade / Parzival is crushing hard. None of them have met in real life. These “High 5” dominate the leaderboard, sharing and trading pole position with Sixer soldiers led by Nolan Sorrento, the head of the IOI and embodiment of every evil corporate cliché.
Front-loaded with exposition, Ready Player One dispenses of its biggest obstacle – information and world building – right out of the gate. It’s dense but it clips by and, before you know it, Spielberg has Wade (and us) squarely in the middle of the film’s first big set piece. It’s spectacular, and it won’t be the last.
In fact, Ready Player One may very well be the first example of VFX overkill that’s appropriate, even artful. Context is everything, and in Ready Player One the digital wizardry is virtual reality, not actual reality. Studios have, for too long, expected viewers to accept this kind of animation as a credible substitute for reality, and no doubt they’ll continue to, but here, seeing the same kind of onslaught fits and works because of its context.
And then, amazingly – even magically – Spielberg gives it all soul.
With a strong ensemble led by Tye Sheridan (child discovery from the indie Mud, and Cyclops of recent X-Men films), Spielberg is not only able to elicit strong performances through all of the technology, he’s able to conjure authentic sentimentality like only he can.
Restricting the race’s plot mechanics to their bare essentials, Spielberg makes more room and time than the book did for nurturing relationships. I legitimately cared for these people, in the midst of all this fakery, and the two are brilliantly merged – character and spectacle – in scenes like the hypnotic “Stayin’ Alive” dance sequence. The film also slows down to allow them to connect in the real world.
Sheridan’s the anchor but Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) is the passionate, beating heart. I’ve never been big on mocap acting (not even the lauded Caesar from the recent Apes trilogy) but, as Art3mis, Cooke delivers the strongest, most realized, most emotionally resonate mocap performances since Andy Serkis’s Gollum. I’m late to the party, but she’s convinced me of mocap’s potential.
Every sci-fi adventure needs a worthy bad guy, and Rogue One‘s Ben Mendelsohn creates an (arguably) award-worthy one. Sinister without being remotely moustache-twirling, there is a cold calculating drive to Sorrento’s menace. He’s not trying to be intimidating, he simply is, manipulating and threatening from a position of confidence and power. This is a genre film with serious villain.
Through it all, Spielberg mounts an old school summer movie throwback with the height of 21st Century skill, finding ingenious ways to communicate a blitz of information and action with narrative and visual clarity.
Then, at the crescendo finale moment, for the true pièce de résistance, this iconic filmmaking genius imbues Ready Player One with something I wasn’t expecting or even considered possible:
Cline’s book strived for it, but his characters were too simple and clear cut. Spielberg is more generous here, more hopeful, and consequently more honest and true, guided by the belief that the things that are bigger than ourselves will create legitimate awe when they’re finally revealed to us, when we see the miraculous for what it truly is, no matter how selfish our motives or limited our vision may have been.
I’d be posing if I didn’t confess that this got to me. I was choked up. Spielberg’s Ready Player One wants us to live our lives with that kind of transparency. Even as it embraces the thrills and potential of virtual reality, it doesn’t want us hiding behind avatars, visors, or masks. It knows that true human connection can only occur in the real world.
Whether you experience the same kind of romanticism or not is ultimately beside the point. As Spielberg said at the film’s Austin debut, this is a movie, not a film. See it on as big a screen as possible, with a big tub of popcorn in your lap. Ready Player One is why we go to the movies and not merely stream them. It’s an homage to why we always have.