Ready Player One

Ready Player One ★★★½

Ranked: Steven Spielberg
2018 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

Ready Player One is an odd film. It has everything I hate about modern cinema - too many quips (here it is largely done via references), loud action instead of more restrained action so the film winds up being hunks of metal clashing against one another, and an unabashed love of pop culture to the point it distracts from whatever story the film is telling which was cliche and hokey anyways - yet it is also good. It is also a film in which an evil businessman wants to control a massive virtual reality game played by everyone on Earth in order to cover 80% of the screen with advertisements, all while the film itself is presented by blatant product placements bought by Pizza Hut, Doritos, and Twitch. In essence, a message of, “Ugh, all of these advertisements are the worst. Want to stream Twitch, order Pizza Hut, and snack on some Doritos instead?” Hell, even setting barely makes any sense. So there are “bandwidth riots” and some kind of war which have led to society living in “stacks” in 2045. That is fine, but then why do they have nostalgia for the 1980s? 1980s nostalgia films like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married worshipped at the altar of the 1950s. Even American Graffiti, from the 1970s, worshipped the same period. Modern nostalgia films like IT or the series Stranger Things worship 1980s films. Thus, would it not make sense for Ready Player One’s characters to worship 2000s/2010s movies like Avengers, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or something? There is one brief shot of Avatar, which makes sense, but perhaps the oddest bit of the film is how nostalgia did not change even though so much in society did change in the 30 years between now and the film’s setting. This perplexing film only comes together for a few reasons. Its ideas are quite well done, its adventure plot is greatly realized, its special effects are great, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke are great, and it is directed by Steven Spielberg who keeps the lid on author Ernest Cline’s nostalgia porn of a story.

Ready Player One is pretty much known for its references to the films and video games that Cline himself loved, so it is natural that the film itself is full of references. Whether it is Freddy Krueger, Chucky, The Iron Giant, Back to the Future, The Shining, Goldeneye, old Atari games, King Kong, Godzilla, or the films of John Hughes, Ready Player One is almost always distracting. The bits of old songs (especially in the climactic battle) are distracting due to the dialogue or attention dedicated to them, while the references to Hughes (as well as Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) hardly help as the film seems to just spend as much time possible mentioning as many facts as it can in order to pander to lovers of those films or any of the aforementioned referenced films/songs/games. However, the references are not necessarily all bad. As they are contained within the Oasis, they do make sense as people who loves these games and movies would likely reference and incorporate them into a game they created. That said, they are as distracting as one would expect, especially when they are shoehorned in as with Parzival / Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) telling someone that they are “like Rosebud”, in an overt reference to Citizen Kane. However, when it comes to The Shining or King Kong or the old Atari game at the end, Spielberg and Ready Player One are quite smart. The inclusion of King Kong as the final boss for the first key or with The Shining as the setting for the showdown for the second key, the film can be incredibly fun and beyond the typical “yeah I get these references” way as Spielberg does not go merely for the reference or the homage. Instead, he utilizes them and plays with the characters abilities or the Overlook Hotel setting in a way that not just fits the film, but is a fun twist on them. In particular, The Shining sequence is a real standout for the film as the characters come face-to-face with threats from the film while it is blended with a reference to a game made by the creator of the Oasis James Halliday (Mark Rylance), while being thrilling and emotional in all the right ways.

This is what ultimately saves and elevates the film as, throughout, Ready Player One is definitely quintessential Spielberg in terms of the sense of adventure and the thrills. It is almost like a futuristic Indiana Jones in which the hero must find keys/artifacts, fight against some wicked group who wants to control or destroy the world, and winds up having a young Asian sidekick. The end result is a film that, for all of its references, can often stand on its own two feet. Telling the story of a game creator named Halliday who left control of his Oasis game to whoever can find the three keys he has hidden throughout the game, the film details the efforts of multiple factions racing towards the keys. Though he starts solo, Parzival eventually brings along his friend Aech (Lena Waithe), who brings along two friends of their own Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Moriaski). While playing and trying to find the first key, Parzival falls into movie love with gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who luckily serves far more of a role than the cliche “love interest” character though she does slip into being a damsel in distress towards the end. Meanwhile, the comically evil bad guy is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who once interned for Halliday and now leads the biggest competitor to the Oasis. Thus, he desperately wants control of the Oasis in order to increase his power and profit. This is all, obviously, quite cliche. However, in the hands of Spielberg, it does work incredibly well. There are some inconsistencies such as the need for whoever wins to have all three keys in their possession, yet Nolan and his company continue to progress through the levels without any indication as to how they were able to get either the first or second keys. One could argue they learned how to complete the level from the “High Five” clan led by Parzival, but the film is also very clear that they told nobody but those in their close circle of friends about how to complete the levels. Thus, it makes very little sense that Sorrento’s company 101 could be in position to win. However, this issue is not particularly distracting as Ready Player One accomplishes its greatest goal: it is incredibly fun. This is a film that is fast-paced, moves through its 140 minutes with relative ease, and creates endearing and charming characters along the way that are anchored by terrific performances. This is not a film that will change the landscape of cinema for the next 40 years, but it will be a film that is fondly remembered and turn into nostalgia itself for those who do watch the film.

Spielberg’s direction of action has never been in question and that is certainly present here, as in the climactic battle sequence. Grand in scope and with brimming with brilliant special effects, the inventive additions of references and of advanced technology do bolster the scene considerably, making it both thrilling and wholly enjoyable. In this line, what the film further benefits from is not quite world building, rather it is world exploration as well as character development. For the former, as everyone tries to find the clues and keys, it brings the characters to consistently engaging and brilliantly designed areas of the Oasis that make the film consistently engaging to watch unfold. This is a world with considerable depth and creativity behind it and, luckily, the film’s plot brings the characters through this colorful and often quite bombastic world. This may be a film that possesses the problems of blockbuster cinema, but it also possesses what can make blockbusters so great to watch, which is creativity and an immense scale. Ready Player One possesses this in spades, making it a world that is fun to experience and will be fun to eventually return to on future rewatches. This world being brought to life with stunning visual effects and production design only further benefits the final product, as it is a film that uses modern technology to its great benefit as it is a film that demands to be seen on the big-screen, while utilizing that modern technology to help bring to life this futuristic world of Columbus.

What does hold back Ready Player One from being better, however, are its cliches, plot devices/contrivances, and Spielberg’s sentimentality. For the plot issues, beyond the logic issue that 101 is able to continue without ever getting the keys, Ready Player One tips its hand early on when Parzival is walking through a store and is told the “Cataclysm” would destroy the game and everything, so no one should ever buy it to prevent the destruction of the Oasis. This Chekov’s gun, naturally, comes back right at the climax, only to not actually do as promised. This is explained as being due to a plot convenience in which, despite not wanting it, Parzival accidentally had an “extra life” coin given to him by the curator of Halliday’s life records. These plot conveniences also show up when Art3mis/Samantha Cook is able to escape from 101 after her capture. Using the 101 war room to play in the Oasis and help Parzival/Wade, she winds up narrowly missing Nolan Sorrento who has been going through all of his employees and ripping off their masks to find Samantha. Not only is the timing perfect, but a commander comes over and tells her to go to the “re-spawn” room after she gets kicked out of the game, though the film has shown 101 gamers being kicked out of the game throughout the film with the commander never approaching any of them. Ready Player One also heavily relies upon foreshadowing, such as the password for Nolan’s rig (which is also convenient) being captured in a close-up while it just sits on the armrest, waiting for it to be stolen. Plot devices/contrivances further show up for the final key as Parzival plays an old Atari game. A 101 gamer had tried that game, but failed the challenge as he won the game instead of looking for the noted Easter Egg in the game. A girl working at 101 had suggested the game as a likely answer to the final clue, but was cut off before being able to explain that winning the game will not help them. Finally, Spielberg’s usage of the aforementioned cliches is only outdone by his typically tacky sentimentalism at the end of the film. As Parzival urges everyone in the game to come help him fight Nolan, nobody comes at first so Nolan smugly smirks and walks off before literally everyone in the game shows up to fight Nolan in a moment intended to be emotional and show the support that Parzival has in the game. Later, as the group celebrates their victory, Nolan is conveniently arrested while Wade declares he will not miss the chance on love like Halliday did as he wraps up Samantha for a kiss the film had been building up to throughout. This sentimental finale with the already cliche bad guy getting his “just desserts” in the most cliche and hokey way possible really takes the air out of the film right as it is set to end.

Thematically, as with many modern films, Ready Player One is definitively anti-corporation. This is, as per usual, quite ironic given the film’s own celebration of consumerism, its status as the product of a corporation, and its own aforementioned product placements. Nonetheless, Ready Player One is smart in how it is not necessarily fully anti-corporation, but rather it is pro-creative. The Oasis itself is a tool to be used by people in order to showcase their creativity and to create a world they find interesting. This is exactly what Halliday did in creating the game, hence the film loves him and celebrates all those who do create things. What it decries are the corporations who see the game or product and seek only to monetize it and help their bottom line even if it means ruining what people love about the game. This is a major problem with video games now and even with film as those in control of them seek to do whatever they can to maximize their pay-off with little concern for the product itself or the work put into it by the creatives. These same corporations also ignore that the game, such as the Oasis, is popular as is while being incredibly profitable for Halliday as it stood. Thus, why would one ruin it rather than just sit back and rake in the cash? This is the type of corporate strategy that Ready Player One takes full issue with, decrying the meddling of those who do not understand the product or consumer just because they think they can squeeze out a few more cents from a consumer. In this, as expected, Spielberg hails those who stand up and defend creativity or are creative in their own right. They are the ones who bring joy to millions and, as such, should be celebrated for being a benefit to society.

However, Ready Player One also urges limits. This is an especially important message given the target audience of a film styled like a video games with nostalgic references to games and films strewn throughout. One can love entertainment, but not at the expense of life. Halliday loved his games at the expense of living his life, winding up alone and watching the woman he loved marry his business partner and die of cancer from afar. His life was in the game he created and the movies he watched. His refusal to lead an actual existence beyond media proves to be his greatest regret and it plays a major role in the search for the keys, while Parzival eventually changes the Oasis so that it turns off for two days a week so that people will actually live life. Not only had Wade/Parzival cast aside his own life in favor of the Oasis, but he saw how his Aunt’s abusive boyfriend had done the same and even bet all of his savings on the game. The people in the “stacks” all play during the day, rather than finding a way to get out of their poverty. Thus, by focusing some effort on the real world, Wade is able to find love with Samantha and hopes that those who play his game will be able to do the same with the added emphasis on a life/play balance.

A thrilling, adventure-filled, and wholly entertaining romp through the nostalgia of Ernest Cline as directed by Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One is a better film than it has right to be in large part due to Spielberg and his leads. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke continue to prove that they are two of the brightest young stars in Hollywood with their turns in this film, while also being a dynamite romantic pairing with great chemistry between them. Though the film is brought down by cliches, sentimentalism, and shoehorned references, Ready Player One nonetheless manages to be one of the better blockbusters in recent memory and serves as further proof that Spielberg knows how to entertain an audience unlike any other filmmaker.

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