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The year is 2045. The world has been reduced to a hot pile of garbage, with its inhabitants living on stacked trailers, and little-to-no hope for the future. Rather than try and solve the world’s problems, they instead escape them until they leaving, leaving the problems for future generations. Enter the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online simulation game where users can do pretty much everything and be pretty much anyone. As our protagonist in the film, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), states, “People come to the OASIS because of all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be.” This is the world that director Steven Spielberg brings to life in the new film Ready Player One, which is based on the novel of the same name from author Ernest Cline.
When The OASIS’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), passes away, he leaves behind three keys and a series of clues and challenges. Whoever solves those clues and defeats the challenges will inherit the whole of the OASIS. Needless to say, the entire world tried their hand at these challenges, and even rival company Innovative Online Industries sacrifices an ungodly amount of resources to find these keys and beat these challenges. After five years of fruitless labor, the first challenge is won by the little known Parzival (Wade’s online handle), and the hunt begins! What follows is a mad dash between and across worlds, a deep dive into the world of pop culture, and pure sensory overload (Seriously, I saw this in IMAX 3D and ended up bit nauseous by the end).
This is a film that has a lot going against it, and I blame the marketing. Up until recently, they’ve relied heavily on the pop culture references to carry the marketing campaign, and all that’s resulted is an overabundance of jaded online opinions, with audiences pushing back against what seems to be blatant pandering. So how does Spielberg’s latest hold up against scrutiny?
I’d say that while it’s a bloated, imperfect, and somewhat cheeseball of a movie, there’s a whole lot here to love, and a lot of fun to be had. The story itself is a fun scavenger hunt, with a few great mysteries and even more action. The riddles given by Halliday are rewarding to chew on, and the ways in which they get solved, more often than not, are incredibly satisfying. Perhaps one of the coolest things about this movie is just how different it is from the source material. Yes, they share the same springboard premise, but other than that, they’re pretty much completely different — with the three challenges not even resembling their book counterparts (the same goes with some characters). The funny part about this is that author Ernest Cline is a co-writer on this project, so it feels almost like he had a chance at a rewrite of the story, and decided, “hell, let’s try this version out.” While I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better, fans can enjoy the fact that we now have two fundamentally different stories that spring from the same premise. I’ll take it.
Now, let’s take a step back from the story for a bit and look at the world. After all, the world is the main draw of the film, and could very well break it.
I think Spielberg, along with his many talented VFX artists, absolutely nail the OASIS. Throughout the film’s runtime, I found myself increasingly attached to the world of the OASIS, wanting to see more and more of this boundless game that had been created. So much so that I found myself a bit annoyed whenever we made a trip back to reality, which I think is a good sign that they nailed this artificial world, an aspect that was undoubtedly one of the harder things to tackle.
If I have one complaint about the OASIS and the VR, it has to do with stuff I’ve complained about in the trailers. In the trailers, we see people running around the streets with their gear on…why would they do that? Sadly, I was left just as baffled by the logic as I was walking in. It’s not really explained, and it still makes no sense. Luckily for us, it doesn’t make up a good chunk of the movie, and for the most part, our heroes set up sensible rigs for themselves in which to engage this world. But of course, a world is nothing without its characters. So how did Ready Player One handle things on that front?
Unsurprisingly, all of the actors are pretty serviceable in their roles. Tye Sheridan is decent as Wade Watts, but in my opinion, he’s out-shown by actress Olivia Cooke, who plays Art3mis, and Mark Rylance, who plays James Halliday. Art3mis is quicker, funnier, and more engaging of a character than Wade, and Cooke plays her almost perfectly (though I’d say her character takes a bit of a nosedive later on, which I’ll get into later). Halliday is a revelation. While the dude plays a minor role in the novel, in the film he lives on through video simulation, and Rylance portrays a pitch-perfect awkward nerd who you can sympathize with infinitely. At the end of the film, I found myself feeling incredibly sorry for the man, wishing he had more of a connection to the real world, and for those around him. It’s an aspect that didn’t come across in the book, but between the shifting of the narrative and the stellar performance, it really came through in a strong way.
I touched a bit on the negatives with Art3mis, so let’s continue with that thread for a bit. Perhaps the weakest element of the film is the love story. When Wade and Art3mis first meet and interact, their relationship doesn’t seem half-bad. They have a nice fun banter between the two, and it feels all fun and natural. It’s only when they actually start to express their feelings for each other that things go south for me. All of a sudden, that fun banter is gone, and both characters are reduced to lovesick puppies. It was a problem I had with a novel, and it’s one they replicate in the movie. It all comes across as a broadly-told love story that doesn’t do much for me and ultimately eats away at the bloated runtime (and don’t even get me started on Art3mis’ whole, “I have a birthmark, I’m hideous” deal).
And speaking of that, Ready Player One runs about 15 minutes long, in my opinion, and while I had a lot of fun throughout the film, by the end, it was a ride I was ready to exit. It likely didn’t help that the third act, while ultimately fulfilling, is full of long, dramatic moments that take up a lot of screen time but don’t necessarily pay off in a big way. There’s also one other aspect that irked me, that I’ll try to write around, for fear of spoiling. With an online world like the OASIS, you think they’d spread things out a bit in terms of geographic location. It’s online, so you think that our leads, the villains, and everyone else in the world at least lived in different cities. But no. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) takes place in Columbus, Ohio. It’s not a dealbreaker, but at certain parts of the film, I had a hard time buying some of the stuff going on — but only if I thought about it for too long.
One last comment I want to make is in how the story was told. This is something I can see people rubbing people the wrong way, but there is a LOT of voice-over. Because of its dystopian nature, the game itself, the villains, and the scavenger hunt, there are a lot of things to set in place before we could move forward. What we end up with is a film that, to me, feels an awful lot like a shonen anime — and I mean that in the best way possible. Things are shown and, dare I say, over-explained? Because of the broad nature of the film, Spielberg leaves few elements unexplained, leaving little up for interpretation, and little to the imagination, for better or worse. But it does go a long way in making this movie feel a lot more different than most American films, and between the tech and pop culture elements and storytelling style, I could have sworn I was watching something that felt a lot closer to a solid anime film.
Finally, I’ll answer a question I’m sure you’re all wondering. Do the pop culture reference suck? No, they do not. Luckily, with one big exception, they are there to add color to the world, not carry the story.
All in all, Ready Player One was an amazing thrill ride that I can see a whole lot of people enjoying greatly. Had Black Panther not absolutely dominated in the theater, this would have been my most enjoyable blockbuster of the year so far, but as it stands, it’ll have to come in at a solid second place.
Grade: B (B+ if you’re willing to just go with things and not overthink it)
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