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?
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.