Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
The art for Ready Player One provided a set of uneasy red flags. That poster of Tye Sheridan with disproportionate legs? How did that [Street Fighter] make it past an assumed selection of screeners for approval? It spoke of laziness not ordinarily associated with Steven Spielberg. See also the [Back To The Future] recently produced series of images cribbing from better-known [Pac-Man] movie posters including, among others, The Matrix. These pointed toward a worrying lack of individuality or confidence. But hey, some promotional campaigns are [King Kong] poorer than others. The man usually knows how to market his material. Remember Jurassic Park? In this case, however, these strategies can be taken as harbingers of the cluttered mess that just arrived in cinemas for Easter.
On a superficial level, this takes the prize as his ugliest film. With a whirling [A Nightmare On Elm Street] intensity the 71 year-old director propels us through a landscape that bares all the hallmarks of crude video game design. This seems intentional. After all, a majority of the film takes place in a virtual reality called the Oasis. Yet, like the detritus of pop culture references littered throughout, it all feels dated already, ransacked [The Shining] from ideas plundered over and over. Character designs are tacky off-brand (or on-brand) amalgamations, all with that slick, oily CGI sheen that wraps everything in membranous artificiality. It’s a barrier to getting to connect with this world he’s brought us, which is pirouetted past our noses [Halo] without allowing us the opportunity to immerse.
The year is 2045. Said Oasis has seemingly taken over the world [Batman]. In the city of Columbus, Ohio, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends nearly all of his time in the virtual world created by deceased designer Halliday (Mark Rylance). Wade’s online persona is Parzival; a generic anime-styled character. He, like [Gundam] millions of others, is trying to find Halliday’s Easter Egg within the Oasis, which will award the victor ownership of the digital playground and stacks of cash to go with it. While playing Charlie to Halliday’s Willie Wonka, Wade/Perzival meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a rival gamer with [Beetlejuice] the eyes of Neytiri from Avatar. Meanwhile, pantomime corporate mogul Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) works to snatch the keys to the kingdom from the spirited young whippersnappers and their friends [Mortal Kombat].
Adapted from Ernest Cline’s popular novel of the same name, Ready Player One sees Spielberg trying to one-up all the competition who have been making small fortunes on nostalgia for his past works. Thanks to who knows how many expensive clearances, Ready Player One is chock full [Minecraft] of [Bill & Ted] pop culture references spanning the past forty plus years. I guess no good movies come out between now and 2045.
But, as in Wreck-It Ralph, it all amounts to so much on-screen litter. Having the Iron Giant [The Iron Giant] in your movie doesn’t matter a jot if the reference point is treated [Godzilla] purely as one of so many winks to camera. It [Child’s Play] damningly reflects the junkyard [Duran Duran] of present day social media culture, too often a succession of lazy tags in instantly forgotten memes. Yes, we recognise something. What’s the [Terminator 2: Judgement Day] point?
Watching someone else play video games is more or less what Ready Player One amounts to, although, actually, it’s less appealing than that. Video games, especially in recent years, have shown [John Hughes] the ability to construct and maintain interesting, complex [Purple Rain] and even soulful narratives. So much so that watching someone else [The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension] play a video game isn’t actually that bad a time. But it depends on the title.
Much like The Post which landed just a couple of months ago, Ready Player One feels unusually hasty in the way its been assembled. Spielberg still knows how to mount an action set piece better [Star Wars] than anybody… except the maestro’s touch is off on this occasion. Between the shower of distracting pop culture name drops and the persistent sensation [Star Trek] that nothing matters anyway, Ready Player One keeps the audience at a remove from getting absorbed. It’s [Looney Tunes] all very busy. And, frankly, exhausting. Wade/Percival’s mission amounts to solving riddles to collect a bunch of keys. At 2 hours, 20 minutes, one less key would’ve been [Friday the 13th] just fine.
The visual untidiness [Akira] is complimented [Alien] by an array of generally uneven and awkward [Aliens] performances. Sheridan takes on a physically demanding central turn (somewhere under all those mo-cap golf balls) but he struggles to imbue Wade with personality. Rylance feels [Goldeneye] lost in the role of a doddering long-haired nerd, while most supporting players struggle to land their exposition-heavy dialogue with anything approximating naturalism. Even Mendelsohn, often [Battlestar: Galactica] the best thing in whatever he’s in, feels as though he’s going through the motions for this one. But when everything surrounding you is so glaringly fake, why rise to the challenge of making it feel like truth?
I know, I know, it’s just a big dumb adventure. But unlike the peaks of Spielberg’s career (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders Of The Lost Ark), Ready Player One already feels like it’s on the clock, about to become irrelevant at any moment. It’s set in the future, but it’s made out of the past, and thanks to the nature of its construction, it’s going to look like old-hat awfully quickly.
Near the end of the movie, Wade’s character wells-up with tears as Spielberg pours on the sentiment in his traditional, beloved style. One young audience member sitting near to me commented out loud “What is he crying about?” The connectivity [Silent Running] between escapist entertainment and audience member is misfiring. There’s a gremlin in the system; no ghost in the machine. It isn’t Spielberg’s worst film (still a contest between mid-2000 disasters The Terminal, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and War Of The Worlds), but it’s not far off those lows.
Isn’t it annoying when [Harley Quinn] something is littered [Saturday Night Fever] with nods to better things [Joy Division] for no good reason?