Ready Player One (2018) – dir. Steven Spielberg

Though I’m not quite a silver screen fiend, I have a deep love for film. As I was discussing with a friend, what our peers are to copious purchases of vinyl records, I am to movie subscriptions and Criterion Blu-rays. I’m always devouring essays on craft, and have gone on to try to practice the techniques I admire in the filmmakers I like in my own work. That is how sure I am of my adoration for the medium. I’m hardly alone in this, but as every cineaste will attest, one’s love and affection for any form of escapism is deeply personal. Equally challenging is surpassing urges of ownership and elitism. After all, who else could possibly be devoting so much passion to cinema as me?

Such curiosities on pop culture sit at the heart of Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly heartfelt adaptation of (co-writer) Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name. Departing considerably from, and greatly improving upon, Cline’s profoundly flawed, but loving ode to 80’s nostalgia, Spielberg weaves an Easter-egg-packed adventure story, making for his best blockbuster in over a decade. Spielberg digs beneath the references, tapping into the characters at the core of the narrative, and offers a poignant commentary on popular culture and the stories that stay with us.

Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan) is lonely and poor, and from the opening shots of the film, so is everyone else in the towered trailers, known as “the stacks,” where Wade is stuck. He’s carved out a sanctuary of old cars, shielding himself in the relics of others—because the lavish production design of Ready Player One is anything but subtle. Wade has hitched his wagon to H (Lena Waithe). The two have a mutually beneficial, affectionate, yet anonymous friendship, by way of the online utopia known as the OASIS, a platform created by the enigmatic and late James Halliday (a uniformly terrific Mark Rylance). They, like a fledgling group of scavengers—known as “gunters”—are after a prize placed within the Oasis by Halladay. The Easter Egg. Whoever decodes the three specific challenges will inherit Halladay’s vast fortune, which includes control over the OASIS.

While most OASIS users have long given up on the arcane task of finding the Easter Egg, Wade and H—as well as trans-Pacific cohorts Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki)—persist in the hunt, soon acquiring an ally in Art3mus (Olivia Cooke). Of course, corporate rival IOI, led by Halliday-intern-cum-capitalist-caricature Sorrento (go-to-weasel-of-evil Ben Mendelsohn), is also on the prowl, looking to monetize the OASIS and create a user caste system. The catch is that no one has been able to crack so much as the first challenge, until Wade—ever the Halliday groupie—happens upon a specific hint that steers him to the first key, thereby opening the floodgates, and reigniting international interest in the Egg hunt. The ensuing chain of events is as riveting and engrossing as can be—including a phenomenal centerpiece homaging The Shining—all culminating in an Inception-esque climax that manages to be a thrilling capper to a film firing on all cylinders. Visually, this is Spielberg’s finest CGI/motion-capture outing yet. Spielberg veteran Janusz Kamiński’s gliding, lively frame is as clever and affecting as ever, and frequent collaborator Michael Kahn and newcomer Sarah Broshar blend the vibrant joyride of the OASIS with the crumbling and sterile real world seamlessly.

Ready Player One—both as a film and as a novel—is nostalgia porn, harping on aged and beloved properties from the 80’s and 90’s. Spielberg leans into this into such an overwhelming degree that he’s able to earn a moral that might otherwise come off as entirely saccharine. One can only imagine the amount of money sunk into attaining the rights to so many movies and games. In fact, the film is designed top-to-bottom with familiar faces to the point of sensory overload. Ready Player One is intentionally full of too many references. Moreover, the users of Halliday’s playground of beloved pop culture entities has become hazardous for the outside world. Again, Spielberg is wholly aware of the consequences of a world where people are sucked into virtual reality.

As the film progresses, we learn that the OASIS, and the effects experienced by users, are a clear reflection of Halliday, as well as the male-dominated nerd culture that allows the OASIS to thrive. After all, gaming and film culture are often havens for boys and men who aren’t good enough at impressing women, or at playing sports, or at just basic human interaction. Certainly, this is what spurs Halliday into creating the OASIS. He’s a gawky, unkempt, and achingly timid genius who could never take a risk with the one person that made him feel vaguely romantic. Once again, Mark Rylance gives such a sympathetic and unforgettable life to James Halliday, a man with millions of admirers, but whose idolatry means nothing to him. At the end of his life, Halliday, the fanboy to end all fanboys, becomes inclusive. Contrary to the possessive culture that allows something like Gamergate–or just fanatic gatekeepers like Sorento, who will accept not substitutes for his own vision of what the OASIS should be–Halliday knows that what makes him happy can only matter if they’re shared. Ready Player One is acutely aware of this, as Wade tries to connect, in futility, with Halliday. Of course, Halliday is dead. When Wade asks a composite of Halliday who he’s supposed to be, and his question is ignored. That part doesn’t matter, because that’s not the lesson Halliday is trying to teach.

This thread comes off as a point of self-examination for Spielberg. After all, Spielberg is credited with inventing the modern blockbuster, and then perfecting populist filmmaking over the better part of two decades. As fun and enthralling as Spielberg’s work could be, he, like any artist, was trying to make something meaningful. His films were often riffs on old serials and adventure stories from his childhood. Now, Spielberg’s movies are what fill the imaginations of kids all over the world. As much as they came from him, Spielberg makes movies that are meant for everyone, just as Halliday made the OASIS for everyone, letting everyone in on his world when he couldn’t in the real world.

What Ready Player One does lack is serious character variety. While the film has solid representation, any character outside of Halliday is fairly flat. The romance between Wade and Art3mis only works because of the poignancy with which Spielberg handles the material; Sheridan and Cooke, while perfectly serviceable in their respective roles, have no real chemistry. Moreover, several of the beats within the film are decidedly hackneyed, trying and failing to be moving or funny—though, as for the latter, T.J. Miller’s i-R0k is as reliable a joke machine as they come. And though the set pieces are often decadent—not to mention a stunning dance sequence around the midpoint—some of the action is messy enough to lose track of character geography. Ready Player One has so much ground to cover that the film ends up being pretty clumsy in spots. Still, these are broad quibbles of an otherwise functional film.

For as imperfect as Ready Player One is, Spielberg has crafted a sleek, handsomely-made rollercoaster with an honest-to-goodness heart, and one of his best films this decade. Though this may offer a temporary rush with the barrage of shout-outs and references, the film has a lot to say about what makes any community work, and what makes a phenomenon special. As scared as one might be to the point of keeping others out from something they care about, something they’re vulnerable towards, something that makes them feel home, Ready Player One makes a compelling case for letting others in, allowing that part of ourselves to be shared with others who know the same loneliness, and that same sense of sanctuary.

Rating – 8.1/10

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