Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for Explosions (Both VR and Real Life), Threats of Gun Violence, Partial Referential Nudity, and PG-13’s One Free F-Bomb
Release Date: March 29, 2018
The premise of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is basically nerd wish fulfillment writ large: in a dystopian future, a gamer completes a series of puzzles based on pop culture touchstones in a massive virtual reality simulation for the prize of a billionaire’s inheritance. As it plays out, though, (in both the book and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation) it is more of a Robin Hood fantasy, with the winnings serving as the golden ticket to end income inequality. The improbability and the wish fulfillment are all well and good, but they do mean that everything wraps up a little too perfectly, so satisfaction must be found in the details and the execution. Spielberg has remained a proficient craftsman his entire career, so even though Ready Player One’s separation between right and wrong might be a little too stark, it still pulls off some genuine wonder.
The film keeps the same basic outline at the novel, save for switching out some of the homages, both because Spielberg wanted to limit references to his own past work and presumably because of rights issues. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time as his avatar Parzival in the VR world known as the OASIS, partly because his real life is situated in a ugly heap of metal, literally, as his home, like many in 2045, exists within one of many trailers stacked on top of each other. He hangs out with his crew of fellow gamers, whom he only knows virtually, which frankly isn’t all that different than how it is for some folks already in 2018. Wade of course falls in love with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a bit of a legend in the OASIS, who feels like she is specifically engineered to be the perfect girl for him, which is a bit of a pain, but at least Sheridan and Cooke keep it charming.
This crew’s quest finds them at odds with Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the brazenly stereotypical asshole CEO of a global conglomerate who employs an army of corporate drones to win the inheritance because he wants to turn the second biggest company in the world into the biggest company in the world, and he’s not averse to killing to get his way. He is plenty scary, but RPO could have benefited greatly from actually exploring what makes him tick.
It is appreciated that Wade is not a chosen one archetype so typical of the genre. The reason he succeeds is because he puts in the relentless work to understand the parameters and intricacies of the journey. That we get to see his process makes his racing a DeLorean around King Kong actually thrilling instead of just a prompt for ticking boxes off the reference checklist.
It is well worth noting that while the references draw from decades of pop culture, they are primarily based around the touchstones of the 1980s. That decade was partly defined by Spielberg, and it consisted of Cline’s formative years, but they are very much not the formative years of RPO’s main characters, nor much of the target audience. But within the narrative, they are the formative years for James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS co-creator who designed the game and bequeathed his fortune. Thus, the hours of study that Wade and his crew put in resonate in the way of culture being a way in to understand one’s fellow human beings.
With wizardly blond locks and profound diffidence, Rylance plays Halliday a lot like Garth Algar, but if Dana Carvey had envisioned the Aurora metalhead as the greatest tragic figure of all time. Ready Player One works best as an exploration into this one man’s psyche. His social awkwardness goes beyond any simple diagnosis, and Rylance does not shy away from the discomfort. Creating an all-encompassing VR world may be a bit of an overcorrection to his loneliness, but it is heartwarming that Halliday finds a way to make a genuine connection with the world, though it is more than a tad bittersweet how he accomplishes it.
Bottom line: with so much of Ready Player One rendered as virtual reality, it is frequently an off-putting eyesore. But it has moments of beauty, like Parzival and Art3mis’ free-floating dance; as well as strokes of demented remix genius, as when zombies overrun a rendering of Kubrick’s The Shining. Weirdly enough, the references actually end up having more soul and thoughtfulness than the characters (with the exception of Halliday).
Ready Player One is Recommended If You Like: Heavy referentiality whether justified or shameless, Mark Rylance getting deep into character work, The dance scene from WALL·E
Grade: 3 out of 5 Omnidirectional Treadmills