Ready Player One: Spielberg’s Ode To Pop Culture is Visually Stunning, But Overlong

3 out of 5 stars (average)

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Ready Player One is one of the most visually inventive movies I have ever seen.  Director Steven Spielberg has created some of the most gorgeous environments ever put to film, and should definitely gain some Oscar buzz next year.  Add in enough pop culture references to fill up 3 months of trivia nights, and you have a visually immersive experience so impressive that you might forgive its flaws on the first go-around.  Unfortunately, as many of the pop culture references and flashy visuals left a smile on my face, they couldn’t compensate for the lapses in logic, lack of character development, and a overlong running time.  Ready Player One is original, fun, and visually thrilling, but suffers from underdeveloped characters, serious plot holes, and a message more likely to insult its core audience than inspire it.  Spielberg could have verified and commented on people’s love for fandom the same way The Lego Movie did for people who adored Legos, but he instead made a film that knows about a ton of popular characters without understanding why they’re popular.

In the “distant” future of 2045, a virtual reality game called “The Oasis” exists where people can escape from the real world (which was apparently so ravaged by climate change that most people live in the slums and stopped trying to save it).  In The Oasis, you can be anyone or anything you want to be without judgment.  All that matters is an “Easter Egg” implanted by the game’s now-dead creator (Mark Rylance).  To obtain the egg, players must locate three keys by winning in-game challenges, with the victor gaining control over the company that created the game.  I have to wonder what would happen if a 5-year-old somehow won: Would they spend that nearly trillion dollars on lollipops?

Our main player is Wade/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), a teen on the search for these keys with his best game friend Aech (whose actor I cannot give without spoiling something) and other unimportant supporting characters.  His quest intensifies when he meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of TV’s Bates Motel), who informs him that evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is also after the keys so he can overload the game with pop-up ads (the most realistic part of the movie).  Now, the teens must fight to the finish to prevent Sorrento from beating the game and (gasp) forcing them to install Adblocker!

The strongest aspect of this movie is its visuals and action sequences.  The animation evokes the look and feel of a video game beautifully, essentially making Tron for this generation.  The characters move swiftly and the voice acting is surprisingly solid all around.  The action sequences are fast, well-shot, and unpredictable, with the standout being a graphic ode to The Shining and the awesome (yet regrettably overlong) climax.  These are some of Spielberg’s best action beats since Minority Report, immersing you in the way that Avatar did back in 2009.  Hopefully these effects will look better in 10 years than Avatar does now.

You read that right, The Shining.  Because of this, and the darker tone of the latter half, I was unsure as to who exactly the film was aimed at.  People who grew up in the 80’s will get it, but younger kids and those who aren’t connected to that era from will be lost and frightened by some of the imagery here.  My best defense is that Spielberg was trying to make an 80’s kids movie (you know, back when executives didn’t dumb down content because “it’s just for kids”) and I applaud him for his work.  Unfortunately, that argument is undone when a character yells out the F-bomb near the end (actually my favorite line).  I would not complain if the film had been a movie for grown-ups all the way through, but much of the first half plays like a high-budget family film before swerving into more sinister (and interesting) territory.

The characterizations are weaker than those in Pacific Rim Uprising (Which I didn’t know was even possible), and the real-world performances are serviceable at best.  The plot is more engaging than expected, but drags in the final 20 minutes.  Cooke and Sheridan have fantastic chemistry in the game, but their eventual romance feels rushed.  Mendelsohn is a fine but forgettable villain.  I give the movie points for making his company seem realistic in their goals, but the character himself isn’t as intimidating as he should be.

The dialogue is another mixed bag.  While the writing for the teen characters feels real enough, there are other areas where it is hilariously clunky and forced.  This is at its worst in scenes with Rylance’s character.  He comes off as cartoonishly awkward rather than mysterious or enigmatic, making it extremely difficult for me to buy him as the head of a multi-billion dollar game company.  His ending monologue is particularly insulting to the very audience this movie needs to impress to be properly remembered. Maybe it worked in the book, but as the supposed emotional climax of the film, it falls flat on its face.  My sister and I laughed at this in the theater, and no one shushed us.  I’m happy to see modern audiences wising up to this cheap emotional manipulation, and hope future filmmakers will rise above it.

Ready Player One is fun, visually gorgeous, and full of engaging action sequences, but is dangerously marred by its over-reliance on and misunderstanding of popular icons, shocking lack of character depth, and overlong final act that puts down its audience for being invested in said icons (despite having an appearance by one of my favorite film characters of all time).  Ironically, this movie is like most modern video games that I see reviews for: It’s all style and little substance.  However, if you just want to see a visually astounding action ride, then I still say See it.  Just don’t expect anything more than what’s on the cartridge.

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, Bloody Images, Some Suggestive Material, Partial Nudity, and Language

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