Ready Player One ★★

Returning mere months after the release of The Post (a movie produced in its entirety while post-production for this one was going on) Steven Spielberg finds himself operating at the total opposite end of the cinematic spectrum. While in said previous effort the heavy lifting, the glitz and the glamour, the Spielberg scale was injected via its pair of mammoth movie stars, in Ready Player One, Spielberg has cast generally lesser known names, relying instead on sheer bombastic spectacle, and as anyone who has seen the trailer can attest, heavy doses of pop culture nostalgia.

Based on the novel by Ernest Cline (a man who grew up in the 80s) and penned by him in collaboration with Zak Penn (also a child of the 80s) the movie is steeped in the music and the video game worshipping glory of the 20th century’s penultimate decade. It’s that which lends proceedings their aesthetic, blending them with the equally 80s Tron-like merging of reality and fantasy. It’s not a new approach, if you’ve seen the aforementioned Jeff Bridges starrer, its sequel, Netflix’s Stranger Things or even things like Wreck It Ralph (Wreck It Ralph meets Tron would be a good way to describe this movie) or The Matrix you’ll spot this movies tonal touchstones. It’s hardly Spielberg at his trailblazing best, watchable as it generally all is.

Indeed, the most awe inspiring thing about it is not in the visuals, nor the thoughts on its mind, but the sheer amount of popular references that permeate the movie. Only someone with Spielberg’s clout and bank account could afford to reference everything (some very major, some very minor) from Back to the Future to Godzilla, Gundam Wing, The Shining, The Iron Giant, Battlestar Galactica, Alien, Mortal Kombat, Doom, etc, etc. If you’re into any or all of these things then there is certainly plenty to enjoy here, but for anyone that thought there must be something more in the material to have enticed someone like Spielberg, now 71 years old, to have spent so much time on such a project… It ends up feeling sort of Insubstantial.

The movie is at its most interesting early on when it is most content to explore the idea of how someone in the middle of nowhere with nothing can get sucked so totally into virtual realities and touch on the risks and harms of such obsessions without massively belabouring the point or taking sides too obviously one way or the other. The cases for and against are made not through monologue, but two characters with different, equally well founded opinions based on their backgrounds arguing. It feels less like exposition, and more like theme explored via character.

Sadly, the longer that it goes the more focused it becomes on the intricacies of the resolution of its video game influenced plot (where earlier on said plot felt more like a tool through which the movie could explore its ideas/characters). That issue coupled with the fact that not one of the numerous characters on display ends up being anything more than the most run of the mill archetype means that there is just far less to really get invested in or interested by as proceedings reach their conclusion.

It is frankly hard to believe that something so by the numbers could be produced by a man whose movies even at their worst very rarely lack some sort of heft or inspiration, whether creatively, technologically, thematically, or… thespian-ingly. To appreciate that here you would have to watch a making of documentary, because none of it applies to the film itself. Indeed, Ready Player One’s greatest fault for me is how vanilla it ends up being. Its length too, the movie is about two hours long, but to me at least felt longer still, there is definitely not enough on display here to justify the run time.

The longer it goes the muddier it also seems to become with regards to its ideas. It’s defenders may feel it’s less a thematic mess, and more an attempt at balancing the scales, refusing to take sides between the physical world and the alternate one, but past its opening act it never quite felt like it truly gets under the skin or into the heart of any of the points of view. That same clash applies to the movie on a larger scale. It’s tough to watch a movie so infatuated with simpler times, with the good old days, going back to basics, back to the beginning, while playing in IMAX, in 3D, and being 85 to 90% reliant upon computer generated imagery. It’s a conflict at the fundamental level between the feelings of the movie, and the feelings (at least with regards to what ends up on screen) of the people that made it.

Attempts at profundity towards the end are not entirely unsuccessful, but a little of the ol’ Spielberg corniness certainly creeps in to take some of the edge off, and were it not for the strength of performers like Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, and to a lesser extent Tye Sheridan (less good use is made of the likes of Ralph Ineson, and Simon Pegg) I feel it may have been a struggle to take this particularly seriously. To me it is ultimately a movie that bombards you with spectacle, via its artificial imagery and pop reverence and whose final scorecard ultimately depends on whether or not you feel that stuff sort of successfully masks the fact that its heart and brain are only half working.