Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
Runtime: 140 Minutes
In an age where the generational crossroads of Gen X and the millennial are uprooting deep divisions in regard to the commemoration and memorialisation of childhood, specifically regarding the stems of “geek” ephemera that wrapped themselves around western culture from the uncapped consumption and marketing practices of the 1980s (as well as the decades hence of culture as a whole), its easy to look at the conceptual array of imagery present in Ready Player One with cynicism regarding its intent as a product.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 science-fiction novel of the same name is a problematic work, from a position of repetitive prose and structure to its glorification of the self-insert empowerment fantasy of a young male harbouring an unhealthy obsession for popular culture artefacts of the 1980s. While an entertaining light read, it plays more as a string of familiar references and callbacks to films, video games, music, anime and toys of the past without much to say on it.
Although, not everything necessarily requires a purpose of intent behind its storytelling. Sometimes an adventure story set in a wildly fertile world for imagination basically playing out like The Running Man meets Willy Wonka could be more than enough given the right set of hands to handle it.
In that respect, thank god for Steven Spielberg. Who has not only bashed the heavy kinks of its source material into something more efficient and workable, but has delivered on the kind of mass entertainment popcorn cinema that he made his name with decades ago with enormous enthusiasm and a real sense of sincere wonder.
Spielberg has a good track record of knocking entertaining and elevating films out of adaptations of questionable potboiler material and this is no exception. Junking a lot of the deadweight and untranslatable material of the book, from a screenplay by Cline and Zak Penn, this streamlined and restructured adaptation stands as its own entity and frees itself up to try and make more of its premise and visual representation.
Spielberg’s vision of Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045 is washed out and dusty practical environment of trailers stacked upon one another to save space. While the OASIS is an enormous digital canvas that he and his artists can play with. It’s mostly photorealistic but carries that air of the uncanny to the character models of varying shapes and sizes that feels seemingly intentional, with knowing nods to the details and artificiality of video game animations, and the various dialogues and cultural voices of the medium (for better or worse).
But everything has a weight and danger, made apparent by the in-game currency as representative of real-world wealth, and to die in the game means to lose much of what you have. The action comes hard and fast in its many set-pieces, and Spielberg proves himself one of the best technicians in the digital field. From a multitiered street race of popular vehicles to a gunfight in a zero-gravity club, its shot with a brilliant degree of detail and light movement as opposed to the claustrophobia of the real-world settings.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a prototypical Spielberg character with a twist that the filmmaker feels immediately comfortable with; an introverted outcast living in near poverty, driving in races to skimp by with the currency he can collect from collisions. But inside the OASIS he’s the cocky and sure headed Parzival, in his element of fantasy where he shares banter with his friends, Lena Waithe as Orc avatar Aech, but fails to immediately impress Olivia Cooke as Samantha Evelyn Cook / Art3mis.
Their relationship has been reworked from the book and more centralised via a new narrative structure, and the film benefits greatly from it even if the background and depth that we do get is mostly minimum or expositional sequences. In fact, exposition is the films largest hindrance. Cline’s need to overexplain even basic details of nerd ephemera isn’t as prevalent, but the first 10 minutes and an overly explanatory voiceover narration from Wade setting up the rules of the world is a lot to take in from the moment it starts.
Thankfully, this is also where the film figuratively blows much of its load concerning the plethora of references and call-backs to cinema (including Spielberg's own work), video games and anime in one of the film’s loudest visual showcases. Once it's out in the open, the film gets on with its treasure hunt storyline and restricts the visual references mostly to background details unless required. Mostly.
The kind of job it does on visualizing characters like The Iron Giant will be topics of conversation, as it visually adheres to the transformation of everything recognisable into the 'badass' version of itself, but it seems to be coming from a place of reverence on Spielberg's part far more than one of detached nihilism. The final act battle sequence whereby an excess of famous characters converge on the “Planet Doom” is a lot of fun from a purely visceral perspective. There’s also an extended sequence entirely dedicated to sending up a beloved 80s film, the title of which won’t be revealed here, and it’s quite frankly astonishing that they were able to get away with it.
The story itself is actually well told with a valuable structure, likeable characters and a real sense of engagement and thrill as the kids at the heart of it must band together and unite the OASIS (the entire world) against the powers of the cold and calculating Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento. A stiff suit with intentions of winning the contest to slather the free space of the OASIS with paid restrictions and as adverts many adverts in the field of view as can be handled before seizures set in. It’s a comically basic but nonetheless relevant comment of Net Neutrality, but this is the field it's playing in.
The performances are uniformly good from much of the cast, working to make likeable presences of their stock character types. Cooke is wonderfully sharp, Sheridan sells his prototypical mould even if Wade isn't all that interesting, as does Mendelsohn even if he’s basically playing it the same as his many other blockbuster villains.
But the scene stealer is Mark Rylance as James Donovan Halliday, founder of the OASIS and the mystical Willy Wonka figure of the story, who plays Halliday with childlike shyness and offbeat enthusiasm and joy, with much of his backstory worked into the clues to find the Easter Egg. It becomes far more a story about him and his friendship with co-creator Ogden "Og" Morrow (Simon Pegg) than Wade by the end. The walk away from all the spectacle of the final act comes in the form an unexpectedly sweet and utterly sincere epitaph that feels like the ode to video games that cinema has been striving for to attain for decades, and yet the master of whimsy manages to bat it out of the park without even blinking.
Ready Player One is no great, but it’s considerably better than we had any right to expect; a light and exuberant action-adventure film that uses its set dressing in the right way, and manages to make its ultimate message about stepping out to appreciate the pleasures of communication in the real-world, but never decrying the mediums people use to express themselves and the fertile imaginations that can thrive there.