With the help of Van Halen’s Jump, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One launches its video game adventure story at full speed. The year is 2045; the place is Columbus, Ohio. Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), fills in the details while climbing past his grungy homes of his town, “the stacks,” where trailer parks are piled on top of each other sky-high. Things are so miserable in Wade’s world, everyone escapes to play in an immersive virtual reality game known as the Oasis. Its Steve Jobs-like founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is worshipped like a god until his death some years before. However, before he left the mortal world, the benevolent creator left behind a series of games that would reward the winner with the Willie Wonka-like prize of the keys to his virtual kingdom.
That’s a lot of story to race through in two hours and 20 minutes, but Spielberg paces his movie to fly past the film’s explanations of events as quickly as possible. The conflict is straightforward and simple: our hero and his friends must outplay the corporate bad guys led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and beat him to the three keys that would control the game. Some scenes are just too bloated with with trivia to have any real weight. The information isn’t given in a casual, conversational way, but in a pretentious manner, as if they’re trying to impress you with minutiae.
The Ernest Cline novel on which its based on is perhaps best known for its many pop culture references. The film follows suit with a soundtrack filled with an upbeat selection of greatest hits from the 80s, with a few interlopers from the 70s. The deepest cut is perhaps Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover, but the rest are songs you likely know the lyrics to. It’s tragic that all history of pop culture post-1989 seems to have been lost, but anyone who remembers the 80s may feel nostalgic spotting artifacts from their past. A DeLorean! There’s Batman! That’s the … Holy Hand Grenade? There’s even a few nods to Spielberg’s movies, like when a T-Rex chases a car in Jurassic Park. It’s easy to get distracted by these cameos on the edge of the story.
The film mimics video games’ weightless camera, creating a floating point of view around fight scenes and chase scenes. While thrilling to watch, it’s a style that left me queasy from motion sickness. The spinning is sometimes so fast, it’s tough to figure out which player is winning or who is fighting who. With too much movement, momentum is lost. The audience has to regain its footing in the story before running off towards the finish line.
While the movie is visually whimsical with its design and neon colors, the weakness of the source material still pokes out. Plot holes remain, despite screenwriter Zak Penn and Spielberg’s efforts to liven up the visuals and punch up the dialogue. I’m not sure I have a great understanding of how the game mechanics are supposed to work. If movement is required to move an avatar in the game, how do people play in the Oasis while standing in their living rooms?
For a movie about the hero’s journey, there’s no arc for any of the characters. They’re all already heroes, the big bad is evil from start to finish. Sheridan isn’t given enough to act on. Wade and his team-mates are almost interchangeable, save for a few differences in height and race. The grown-ups seem to enjoy their roles a bit more than the very serious group of young gamers. Mendelsohn has some fun playing a slippery villain, and Rylance is reliably childish as the Wonka/Jobs hybrid.
Unfortunately, Ready Player One has a noticeable girl problem: it can’t see female characters as just other people. For as skilled and resourceful as Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) is, her avatar is that of an impossible pixie dream girl – a creature with a svelte body, anime-inspired big eyes, weapons training and the person who knows and loves almost every reference Wade makes. Of course, she’s damaged with a birthmark on her face, and he’s the only nice guy who can see that she’s truly beautiful. Samantha is the artificially programed Eve to Wade’s Adam, but worse because she never gets the chance to sin.
Those who come away cheering for Ready Player One will likely have enjoyed the film’s many references, the story’s breakneck speed and playful visual design. Others may want to unplug from the paint-by-number characters and shallow plot. The film has much to say about our present-day fixation on nostalgia. So many characters pine to go back to their 80s future, but some of us want to see what’s next. There’s no leveling up or cheat codes that can help with that.
- Ready Player One is released in the UK and US on 29 March