Ready Player One

Ready Player One ★★★★

Sure, this is bloated, misguided, maybe conceptually incoherent, and takes a preposterous position on the economy of a technologically-ensconced future. But mostly ignorable flaws aside, this is irresistible. I felt like an 11-year-old for 140 minutes. Spielberg shows a total commitment to fantasy (perhaps to a fault; I desired a little more exploration of the Oasis’ real world consequences), and though the movie’s not exactly groundbreaking either conceptually or technically, I enjoyed every single minute of the ride.

As a pretty unavoidable analogue for virtual reality too, 3D actually augments this (insert smartphones, computers, or any other sort of immersive technological experience and the analogy still works as a cautionary message [that, in honesty, I didn’t find entirely toothless as others might have you believe], but I’m just pointing out the visual realization of VR in a theatrical setting), making Spielberg the only director since Scorsese to use the extra-dimension effectively. (Here, though, it isn’t so much a tool for storytelling à la Hugo as it is just an instrument of complete immersion.) (Also, go see this in IMAX 3D, not its cheap alternative; RealD 3D makes the visual palette murkier, which is a serious blow to the visual spectacle.) Though I’m of the opinion Spielberg generally excels more with action sequences involving real sets and practical effects than he does with digital technology, the action here is mostly solid, and in the places that it slightly falters, the imagination that goes into the setpieces compensates. Save one extraordinary sequence that certainly no one will be able Overlook (hehe), the action-adventure setpieces here are less terrifying or thrilling than they are exercises in blockbuster fun, cleaving closer to Raiders than Jurassic Park and seeking to elicit more grins than gasps.

The characters are one of the areas in which I desired more development. By the end of the movie, we’ve spent about ten cumulative minutes with our real world heroes, and their only personality traits are those directly related to the plot points that require them. Repurpose ten minutes from the grandiose final battle to allow us to spend time with our characters, and the story becomes moving instead of merely exciting. (This way, we don’t have to resort to a prologue of voiceover narration.) This issue, admittedly, is one that won’t occur to you until after the credits have rolled; during the movie, as you’re being swept from setpiece to setpiece, there’s just no time.

That said, the performances here are essentially more voice acting than anything, and unlike a lot of big-budget crowd-pleasers in this vein, everyone reasonably holds their own weight. Sheridan gives a performance earnest enough to be effective as the audience stand-in, and to my surprise, I was actually invested in the romantic subplot with Art3mis. After having seen Cooke’s astonishing work in Thoroughbreds so recently, I was led to suspect that Helen’s hilarious warning to Wade (“…and his name is Chuck.”) might come true. I’m ultimately glad it didn’t, but while we’re on the topic—and I understand this may be logistically difficult—can we get Olivia Cooke in every movie? I’m to the point where I’m happy to see her any time she’s on screen. Anyway, rounding out the main cast is Ben Mendelsohn, who does fine work in his apparently now inescapable role as “snarling, corporate/Imperial bad guy”, and Mark Rylance gives a moving, idiosyncratic performance as the mind behind the madness, James Halliday.

Finally, and this aspect hits hardest in the final act, I interpreted Halliday as a stand-in for Spielberg himself; just as Halliday built a world that would be inhabited by the youth and those still trying to retain it, has any single director used the medium of film—the 20th and 21st centuries’ own escapist Oasis—been more influential on pop culture, created more stories and experiences equally accessible to the young and the old, or inspired a sense of wonder in more children (either in age or at heart) than Steven Spielberg? The answer, obviously, is a resounding no, and though I know (and am certainly grateful) that his career isn’t yet over, Spielberg’s simultaneously self-referential and self-critical approach to this story feels like a culmination of his entire body of work. That genuinely got to me. And this is all in a lighthearted, crowd-pleasing fantasy adventure movie! There really is no one else in the world that could’ve made this movie but Steven Spielberg.

Most of all, the thing just moves, and while it won’t ever be regarded as an addition to his catalogue’s upper echelon, you’ll be sorry if you miss this in its theatrical run. It’s a whole lot of movie, and a good one too. I’m tempted to call this a return to form or some kind of comeback, but that would imply that Spielberg ever left.

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