Ready Player One

Ready Player One ★★★½

"Ready Player One" is a thermonuclear nostalgia bomb that references everything you loved as a kid or maybe never grew out of. But the thing is, those references don't really deepen the experience and are, overall, fairly tired. If a sudden cameo appearance by Chucky will make your day, then you'll have a lot more fun at "Ready Player One" than I did. I love "The Iron Giant", but seeing him onscreen here did almost nothing for me. The same with virtually every other onscreen reference. They make sense within the narrative, I'll give them that, but the thrill of recognition that I'm sure other viewers experienced didn't occur to me at all.

Okay, "The Shining" thing was badass. But that's about it.

I am not a gamer. I suspect my enjoyment of "Ready Player One" would have increased had I played video games with any degree of regularity. I attended this movie with two friends who play video games extensively and they laughed a lot more than I did. Also, one of the villains is such a tired gamer stereotype than I grew actively irritated whenever he was onscreen.

The plot is nothing new. It is borrowed wholesale from an earlier film that most of this movie's target audience adore. And, actually, that makes sense from a story perspective because the man who created this online world and then left clues to an ultimate prize that will reward its finder complete control of this online world was a socially awkward misfit genius who surrounded himself with the pop culture of his childhood and adolescence to make himself comfortable, and created a place where others could do the same. Of course he would borrow this contest from a beloved film to award control of it to a like-minded individual.

But despite these things, I enjoyed this film. I found enough invention and interesting subtext to overcome the non-stop barrage of references. There are some truly inspired moments here and a real sense of experimentation, of a master filmmaker (perhaps THE master filmmaker) stepping outside his comfort zone and creating something that pushes the envelope. It feels more like a Zemeckis film, really, than a Spielberg one. Zemeckis is a great storyteller as well, and this movie has so much motion capture and CGI that it was hard not to think of Zemeckis's forays into Uncanny Valley during the early 2000s. There's also the Alan Silvestri score (who has been Zemeckis's go-to guy for his entire career) and a certain sense of play and willingness to go silly and weird that feels more like Zemeckis than Spielberg.

This movie never really feels like a Spielberg movie, and I can't really place why that is any better than this. It's pretty fun sometimes, and very clever at others, and the social commentary in it is pretty strong. But it never gave me that Spielberg feeling...whatever that is. The action was never quite as focused or viscerally compelling as most of the action that Spielberg has ever put onscreen, for one thing. It's too busy, and it never has any weight to it, even the sequences unfolding in the Real World. The sequences within the Oasis too often felt like watching someone play a video game. This actually works, to be honest, because we essentially ARE watching people play a video game, but that doesn't make it inherently compelling. The characters didn't engage me much either. I found Mark Rylance's Halliday to be the most interesting one, and he's dead before the movie starts. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke do what they can, but their characters never mattered to me as much as they should. And, as in "Rogue One", Ben Mendelsohn plays a realistic douchebag, but he's never all that threatening. The corporation under him is fairly insidious and creepy, however, especially when they're imprisoning people for debt and forcing them to slave away online. This was easily the most captivating aspect of the film for me, maybe because, unlike most of this film, I had never seen anything like it before.

Nothing in the Oasis really grabbed me. Some of it is clever (there's a moment where we are watching people play a video game inside of a video game, which was frankly ingenious) and it's all technically proficient, but it still feels like watching cut scenes from a video game. The visuals there never impressed. I was much more awestruck by the sight of the trailer homes stacked to the sky in the Real World. In fact, as the movie moves from the Oasis to Reality, I found it a hell of a lot more interesting. It has more weight, was more creatively imagined, and was generally just more engaging.

I liked this movie, though. Honestly, I did. It's a fun ride and maybe, just maybe, it is using the iconography of the past in the future to show that, if we all ever do is reboot things from the past, we won't have anything new to look forward to, and the thrill of recognition will be the only thrill available to us. That's honestly a pretty bleak outlook, and I wouldn't be surprised if that hook is what Spielberg is trying to emphasize here (it certainly feels like that's where his heart is). If so, this movie will only get more relevant and prescient and depressing as the years go by, and as that thrill of recognition wears off, leaving us with a desert of artifacts that have lost much of their shine rather than a landscape peppered with promising new thrills.

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