Ready Player One serves up a deep-fried, pop-culture candy bar and not much else.
This post originally appeared on DEVISE Magazine.
Considering its source material, it’s probably pretty impressive that Ready Player One only devolves outright into characters listing off beloved retro-culture ephemera two or three times throughout the movie’s generous runtime. In fact, for the most part, Spielberg’s latest remains outright charming, despite the readiness with which it falls apart as soon as you start to think back on it after leaving the theater. Still, its massive piles of CGI spectacle are more fun than they have any right to be, and if nothing else, Ready Player One serves up a pretty interesting (albeit definitely unintentional) conversation about pop culture as semiotics underneath its system-standard, good-guy-versus-bad-guy fare.
Set in a dystopic future where everybody on Earth spends all their time playing the coolest video game ever because real life sucks that much, Ready Player One follows the exploits of Wade Watts both in and out of the virtual reality world of the OASIS as he competes with other players and corporate entities alike to locate a hidden treasure that grants its finder complete control over the OASIS. Everybody in the world of Ready Player One has their own reason for wanting to win the competition, but none are as unforgivably shallow as Wade’s “I just want a better life!” Cinderella Story drive. Secondary and tertiary characters have motivations like, “Money!” and “Something shitty happened to my dad!” and “Hey, because why not?” but this is a function of barely spending enough time with them to actually learn what makes them tick. Wade, on the other hand, remains the focus of the majority of the movie’s runtime, but never winds up learning anything or ultimately changing as a result of his experience: the stuff he wants at the end is as dumb as the stuff he wants at the beginning (because it’s the same dumb stuff).
In a bizarre choice, the late James Halliday (Mark Raylance) winds up becoming Ready Player One‘s emotional core, with the majority of the thematic resonance delivered vis-à-vis the unspooling of his backstory and his relationship with OASIS co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). The gradual reveal of Halliday’s story and reasons behind creating the quest to give away the OASIS, Wonka-style, in the first place turn out to be the film’s beating heart while Wade’s story is relegated to “good guy kills bad guy, gets girl” territory.
Elsewhere in Ohio, villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) commands an entire corporations’ worth of resources to find the easter egg and gain control over the OASIS for himself. His reasons are similarly thinly-sketched, his connection to the rest of the story is membrane-thin, and his actions grow less and less easy to track as the script barrels towards its final act and necessitates that he behave in increasingly illogical ways. But hey, if you’ve already bought that every single character in this story and the world headquarters of the villain’s massive corporation are all located within the same small part of Ohio, why wouldn’t you buy Sorrento’s escalating succession of clearly-murderous and easily-traceable actions?
Turns out, it’s that exact barreling that ultimately winds up being Ready Player One‘s saving grace. Beyond a couple groan-worthy moments wherein characters play dialogue tennis with obnoxious pop culture credentials, the movie remains surprisingly engaging, and is so briskly-paced that none of its problems have the time to present themselves until you’ve actually walked out of the theater and start to consider them in retrospect.
Granted, in a film as lousy with setpieces as this one is, it’s perhaps telling that only one of them remains truly memorable (two, if you count one of them for being memorably bad), with an extended second-act trip into the stunningly-recreated world of — you guessed it — a classic ’80s horror film being the only true standout moment that Ready Player One has to offer. The rest is an exciting flurry of CGI and hair metal, Spielberg’s camera (no doubt with the help of a horde of previz artists and a bushelful of second ADs) slinging itself through giant battles and between the combatants of batshit crazy races as though Spider-Man had been hired on as camera operator.
For every moment that doesn’t work (a zero-gravity dance sequence is as much a nonsensical series of meaningless flips and twists as it sounds like it is, and stops the movie dead in its tracks), there’s one that does (like an alt-angle run through a massive setpiece we’ve already seen), and Ready Player One definitely manages to thunder along on the steam of the ones that do. There’s not much to say about Tye Sheridan because he could have been replaced with literally any other actor of a similar or different age and I wouldn’t have noticed…and maybe the same goes for almost every other character in this hypercolor Saturday morning cartoon of a movie. But when the end result is this much fun to watch, maybe that doesn’t matter?