First, a little background about me: I’m 35 years old. I grew up in a household that had an Intellivision, rented Blockbuster tapes every Tuesday night, had a subscription to Nintendo Power, endlessly re-watched 80’s sci-fi adventure classics, and absorbed every superhero comic my family would let into my sight. The truth is, my bike riding childhood wasn’t totally too far afield of the surroundings of those kids in Stranger Things – just replace suburbia with a military barracks.

All that to say: Ready Player One was tailor made for me to love it.

So why didn’t I?

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There’s an overriding tendency in director Steven Spielberg’s work to really play to the heart, a sort of power-chord emotionality that is present in just about everything he does. Sometimes that works to great effect, and helped enshrine the classics that bear his name. Other times it just gets in the way. See last year’s terribly overwrought The Post, a film where one fellow critic described it as being “shot like Robert Zemeckis on a ton of blow”. While the storytelling was succinct and clear, every moment was punctuated with a weight that made the whole affair come across as downright silly. Ready Player One, at the outset, carried an aura of Spielberg breaking free of his need to make “cinema with a capital C” and returning to his roots.

The material itself is pretty weightless, a beloved book that I once had to read in a book club and absolutely hated (it’s the sort of drivel that was crafted with fans of Wil Wheaton in mind), but I still went in with the hope that perhaps Spielberg could find some of that old Amblin magic and produce one more four-quadrant classic for old time’s sake. He seemed game enough, even making a rare SDCC appearance last year in promotion of it. But getting shackled to a pair of knuckleheads like Zak Penn and Ernest Cline on scripting duties can fell even the grandest of masters.

The big screen adaptation of Cline’s popular novel picks up the basic spine of that material. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt in the slums of Ohio, a part of a civilization that uses a virtual reality module called OASIS to escape their mundane and impoverished existence. For Wade’s purposes, the force that drives his every day is competing in what is basically a living version of World of Warcraft – along with the same level of addiction. People spend their entire lives in OASIS collecting coins and trying not to “zero out,” aka get killed, or they risk losing everything they have. Wade is also involved in an ongoing competition side-by-side with his pal Aech (who he has never met in real life) questing for the three hidden keys/easter eggs planted within OASIS by its late founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever finds these keys are promised ownership of OASIS and a whole lot of money. Wade has some powerful competition for this prize though, including the nefarious Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries and Art3mis (Oliva Cooke), a spunky young woman who has some pretty sweet moves on an Akira bike.

The fetch questing forms what is basically the whole of Ready Player One, and while I was clearly nothing close to a fan of the source text, I do recall some rather strong elements of world building – such as Wade’s life in school and the more interpersonal aspects of OASIS and how it plays into day to day society than is present here. With this adaptation, the goal of finding the keys is really the only thing that matters. And while that helps pare down some of the novel’s flab, it also excises its most thoughtful elements, leaving just the barest hints of the world that Wade actually lives in. If the film had left the viewer with an exciting and intriguing look at the VR elements of OASIS and how its users interact in that world, the exclusion might be forgiven. But the technology on display isn’t particularly innovative or interesting so much as just a bland looking animated film covered in referential window dressing. That fetch quest narrative unravels the story into just a few key set pieces, some more successful than others, the best of the trio being a full recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. That this film is at its best only when adapting other material is telling.

The other area where Ready Player One is way too lean is in character development. Wade is a one-dimensional nothing sort of character at the center of the story, but we have no reason to care about him, his motivations, or why he’s involved – he’s just randomly good at everything and that’s apparently all that matters. When he meets Art3mis, this is intended to be his first deep romantic connection, but that connection is based on almost nothing, with him dropping an “I Love You” maybe 15 or 20 minutes into the movie. Art3mis wisely counters that Wade doesn’t even know the real her or what she looks like. Don’t worry though – as luck would have it she’s a beautiful young Hollywood actress type with a small birthmark on her face that she treats as a shocking imperfection. Suffice it to say it’s a relationship based on nothing between characters built on nothing.

Lastly, the entire premise of the movie is kind of absurd, particularly given the current social climate around tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg.  Founder James Halliday is treated as a Jobs/Zuckerberg prototype, and when he dies and embeds the key to his fortune in the game as an easter egg, the entire world becomes obsessed with learning every detail about his life and his work. Halliday essentially memorializes himself through this action, doing so under the pretense of needing to find the right successor, but in reality just causing a ton of social strife for no purpose other than feeding his ego. It’s hard to feel that Halliday really cared about his technological achievements when he worked so hard to obscure the path to using it. Instead he just really wanted you to know about his love life and what a bad friend he could be. In a way, he’s the story’s villain if you really think about it.

In the end, Spielberg was probably not the best choice for this film. It brought out the worst in his own tendencies, and he was burdened by the Herculean task of improving on a story that is simply unworkable. The director makes a narrative that is competent, but never truly engages or thrills in the way it’s intended. Big moments of victory feel flattened by terrible dialogue, narrative tropes, and plastic characters. It’s a movie with a storytelling approach that feels as old and cliched as some of the inspirations it’s trying to evoke.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m about 10 years older than Kyle. I’ve never been a gamer beyond futzing around with an Atari 2600 when I was a kid. Nothing that I’ve seen of this film looks remotely appealing to me. Seems like nostalgia porn. It’s also possible I’m simply not the target audience, so probably no big deal that I’m not going to see it.

  2. I enjoyed it, but I went in with low expectations.

    It made just as much sense as the old ’80s films it was nostalgic for, so it felt very “vintage” in that regard.

  3. The target audience seems to be aging Gen X’ers who are obsessed with ’80s pop culture. “Nostalgia porn” is a good description.

    NPR’s Glenn Weldon, who sort of liked the movie (with reservations), likened it to a “Sad Dad” forcing the pop culture of his youth on his kids. In his view, Spielberg regards this ’80s fixation as a waste of time. I’ll have to see the movie to know if that comes across. (I understand it doesn’t in the more straightforward book.)

  4. Daniel said: “I’m about 10 years older than Kyle. I’ve never been a gamer beyond futzing around with an Atari 2600 when I was a kid.”

    I’m older than both of you. The only video games I played were things like Space Invaders and Donkey King, which I played with friends in bars as we guzzled beer. Ah, the early ’80s!

    After SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (which I loved), do we need another movie-as-video game? What’s the point?

  5. That Kubrick bit in the middle is the one point where Spielberg suddenly wakes up and is really interested in what he’s doing. I liken that as his own version of playing with one of the toys that populates this film.

  6. The book is great. The film is not the book. Moonlight didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Picture because it was crap. Wil Wheaton for President. To each their own.

  7. Saw it yesterday. Like all Spielberg movies, it’s very well made on a technical level, and seldom boring (until the last act). It is pretty shallow and silly, much like the ’80s nerd culture it celebrates. But I’ve heard that the book is even more shallow.

    The young actors are bland ciphers, and I wonder if that was intentional. The only impressive acting comes from Mark Rylance and — to a lesser extent — Simon Pegg. The movie is also too long by about 20 minutes. I was ready for it to be over when Mecha-Godzilla was destroyed, but it went on and on. I felt like critics of the ’80s who complained that the Indiana Jones movies were more exhausting than exhilarating.

    Despite its flaws, I had a fairly good time watching it. But, like Kate, I went with low expectations.

    “That Kubrick bit in the middle is the one point where Spielberg suddenly wakes up and is really interested in what he’s doing.”

    Yes, that is the best part of the movie. And it comes from another, better movie!

  8. Biased Review – Beware:

    So I’m in my 20’s. My parents had me at a very late age. Dad is currently 70 and Mom is 61. I grew up with a dad who was in the T.V. business for the first 30-40 years of his (career) life and though he was most fond of the 1960’s, he introduced me to everything that saturated the decades he’d lived through. He is not the slightest bit interested in today’s culture (valid opinion) but that’s besides the point. Upon showing me movies like American Graffiti, I got into my Dad’s frame of mind and loved it…. Until he introduced me to Star Wars. Upon seeing Star Wars: Episode IV – “A New Hope”, you may as well have introduced me to Heroin because from that point on, I ate, slept, and breathed in the Nerd&Geek realm and it was apart of my life (and still is). Shamelessly I bear the title of Nerd/Geek (depending on the circumstances) and for me, I feel like this movie was aimed directly at me. So where does that leave us? As being apart of the supposed target audience, I went in to the movie with surprisingly low expectations. I’d read the book and loved it. Very captivating novel for someone like me. But I was concerned that Hollywood would destroy the book by making the movie an action filled extravaganza with no real relation to the story at all. Despite it being Spielberg, I had my reservations. The author of the novel was involved in the movie though so there is hope yet. My main concern however was the accuracy in relation to the book and already I saw hurdles when seeing the trailer. So.Many.References. How could you possibly get all the copyrights you’d need for something like that? Spielberg has strings he can pull but even a mogul like him can’t get everything he wants. The legal measures taken must’ve been extensive to get all the 80’s glory they got. That said, the movie and book when compared in all aspects is wildly different because there are important parts that were left out and changed in order to make the movie a relevant success. Nevertheless, everyone involved did their absolute best and it showed. Could it have been better? No doubt, it could’ve have been unfathomably better… But what we have is what we have and though I’m already a fan of the cultural nostalgia I can admit that there is room for improvement. I say all this to say that the people bashing this movie are likely not apart of the target audience and that goes a long way to invalidate their opinions because it would be one thing to comment on the directing, perse, but, for example, how can you comprehensively comment on how to fix a car if you never drive one anyways? Points are valid but mixed up and often times not as relevant as the creators deserve. The book is well known for it’s pop culture references and action and that’s basically what you get when you see the movie. Anyways, #endrant. My Rating: 9/10 – I would’ve liked more immersion and accuracy but I had a great time and loved what I got.

    TL;DR: If you love the genre you will love the movie and even moreso, the book. Room for improvement but worth seeing regardless. “Ready Player Two” is in the works and Ernest Cline is working tirelessly to fill in the errors resulting from the media production so as to make the next book and movie even better. Keep an eye on this one.

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