It’s almost a cliché to love Steven Spielberg, but what isn’t to love? He’s brought us some of the most magical films we’ve ever seen in the span of a 40+ year career. The wonderful thing about Spielberg is that in his magic, he finds a way to always diversify his cinematic repertoire. For every “Jurassic Park,” there is a “Schindler’s List.” He balances the serious with the whimsy quite well, and this ability to hit upon so many different forms of film for so many different age points shows just how much of a grasp he has on the craft of film and how to master it with the slightest of ease. With his deliciously on brand “The Post” hitting this past winter, his turnaround on the mega-blockbuster “Ready Player One” is surprisingly impressive, especially given that “The Post” was shot after “Ready Player One.” The more interesting thing about the latter is just how off brand this film is for Spielberg, which has come under fire in the film world. Some applaud his ability to go outside the box after so long in the industry, others were turned off by the trailer, expressing disinterest in the work. I fell somewhere in the middle, the trailer didn’t wow me, but it didn’t turn me off, and I certainly have a ton of respect for Spielberg doing something so different after all these years.
I just wish it had paid off in the end.
The year is 2045, and Columbus, Ohio is the fastest growing metropolis in America, which has become an overpopulated world of vertical tenant housing called “The Stacks,” where everyone spends their time in a virtual reality world called “The Oasis,” made by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a young man living in The Stacks with his aunt, who spends most of his time in The Oasis under the name Parzival with his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe). Wade and Aech are persistently trying to win challenges within The Oasis to win a sum of three keys set in place by Halliday before his death. After five years, no one has yet been able to acquire a single key due to the challenges’ difficulties, including that of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a billionaire tech executive who employs an army of professional gamers to win the keys for him, to no avail. Teaming up with popular gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade begins to unlock the secrets of the Oasis, and the unrequited attention of Sorrento and his army.
“Ready Player One” is a pretty big misstep for Spielberg, but it certainly isn’t for lack of trying, as this film is pretty gorgeous, for the most part. Much of the film is visually enthralling and quite beautiful to look at. When you see the film in full IMAX 3D, it’s even more impressive, opening up the scale of this entire world into something pretty damn cool. The visual issues come in many characterizations that go in between that of video game characters and reality, which creates a very awkward dynamic between the motion capture characters. When the characters are fantasy characters, it works, as there’s no point of real contact to tie it to, and many of the recognizable characters of pop culture spread throughout the film are fine too, as they often take their more cartoonish counterparts, but characters like Parzival, and especially that of Sorrento’s Oasis avatar, look super strange and often times laughable in how awkward the execution is.
Then we get to the story, which is one of the most irritating parts about “Ready Player One.” The film rests on nostalgia, and for people born in the 1980s (specifically white male critics born in the ’80s and were geeks as a child), that’s fine to rest on, but for anyone else out there, the amount that the film hammers in this “The ’80s were the best” rhetoric, the more tiring and repetitive it becomes. For a film that focuses so heavily on pop culture as a whole, its inability to look at it in the grand scheme of modern human history is not only a huge waste, but kind of a slap in the face to people who weren’t born in this specific time period.
The film also reiterates this weird, and frankly stupid idea of “Nerds are cool because we like things like pop culture,” that for some reason is still being put out today. News flash Brenda: it’s popular culture for a reason, because everyone likes things like that. There’s this air of exclusivity that comes with the characters in “Ready Player One,” that being the stereotypical nerd will get you further in life than the “popular” kids, when the end goal of the literally is to become rich, famous and powerful. The messages that “Ready Player One” spins are pretty regressive to the development of modern geek culture that has become a lot more mainstream in how much people are open about their legitimate interests without fear of persecution. I can only imagine that in 2045, this idea is one of the past that only really becomes more irritating when it’s repeated so much more here. With the film also set in 2045, the idea that everyone is obsessed with culture from 30+ years earlier is simply too lazy of a concept to accurately enjoy in execution.
“Hunter, did you like anything in ‘Ready Player One’?” Contrary to popular belief, yes. The performances in the film, despite disliking most of the characters, were quite good all around. Sheridan is a very commanding presence in a hero role that I think should be explored in possibly darker territory. He has this power about him that could work really well in a classic, yet reformed hero sense, and that’s rare to find in such a young talent. Cooke is also an incredibly underrated talent in film today, with none of her films really taking off in the way that many of them should. She had a rough start with “The Signal” and “Ouija,” but her subsequent work in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Thoroughbreds” really place her as one of the more versatile actresses of her generation.
The only person I wasn’t really impressed with in the film was Mendelsohn, but really only because his villainous role is practically tame compared to that of the roles he’s played in the past, particularly that of Orson Krennic in “Rogue One,” who was a deliciously evil fascist. Tie on top that his avatar in The Oasis was laughably unintimidating and it really amounts to a waste in the end.
As for Spielberg’s direction, there is a good deal to be commended here, and not just because he went outside of his comfort zone. Directing a film such as this is difficult, even for someone like Spielberg, and while I don’t think much of it paid off in the end, there are brief moments of goodness to be found. Many of the racing and battle sequences, specifically that of the final battle, were well directed, even if they seemed to be versions of other films’ great battles. And the balance between the real world and The Oasis, particularly when it came to the film’s varying degree of 3D usage, was quite well done. I just wish the consistency came throughout the film, rather than it feeling more like a series of unconnected vignettes paired off to connect with each other in some way to create a semi-cohesive story.
“Ready Player One” did not do it for me at all. I also don’t believe that I am the target audience for a film such as this, as its too nostalgic for someone my age to reminisce over and far too rudimentarily written for someone as old as me to ignore. I fall into a strange age group that “Ready Player One” does not cater to, ironic seeing that the protagonists of the film exist in that exact same demographic, but are just too “special” to be affected by it. Perhaps I’m a bit bitter about it, as a Spielberg spectacle such as this doesn’t come around often, so when it does, I expect it to deliver. Still, there’s a lot of visual splendor to be found in “Ready Player One,” and if this is a film that’s up your alley, seek it out on the biggest screen possible in 3D, as it’s simply made for the format. Still, Spielberg misses the mark here in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen Spielberg do in my lifetime, and that is a blow that is pretty hard to swallow.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, with Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance as James Halliday.
Runtime: 140 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
Also available in Dolby Cinema, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D.
Warner Bros. Pictures and Amblin Entertainment present, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, an Amblin production, a De Line Pictures production, a Steven Spielberg film, “Ready Player One”