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Tye Sheridan
Tye Sheridan
Warner Brothers
 140 Minutes
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke 
Ready Player One

Many times, when someone unsuccessfully attempts to describe a recent experience to a friend, the conversation will end with the raconteur exasperatedly telling the uncomprehending friend, “Well, you really had to be there.” I had much the same feeling when watching Steven Spielberg’s ode to virtual reality and 80’s pop culture, Ready Player One. Although I was “there” in the sense of being in the same theater and witnessing the same images and sounds and was also there in the 1980’s from the perspective of a thirty-something adult was not a big fan of video and computer games, I certainly wasn’t immersed in the culture in the same way that Ernest Cline, author of the novel on which Ready Player One was based, or Spielberg were. And that makes all the difference in the experience.


The movie is not set in those halcyon 1980’s, or in the present day either, but, rather, in 2045, in Columbus, OH, where the vast majority of the population live in trailer parks called “stacks,” so named because the trailers are stacked a dozen or more levels high in them. The only respite from a predictably dreary existence for most people is a giant virtual reality world called the Oasis. There, people create avatars of themselves and wander the cyber-universe engaging in whatever quests their heart desires. To make their experience more enjoyable, they can purchase all sort of enhancements from dazzling weaponry to, ahem, other enhancements. And, to top it off, the Oasis offers immortality and reincarnation; if an avatar dies, the player can start from scratch as a new entity.


The Oasis was the brainchild of visionary computer pioneers James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), who intended to keep it perpetually free and available for everyone. Toward that end, when Halliday died (after Morrow left the company for reasons eventually disclosed in the film), he devised a puzzle for players to complete in the Oasis and win control of his company and, with it, zillions of dollars. That challenge naturally attracts the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who has made a fortune monetizing everything about the Oasis that he can but, in true corporate film villain fashion, wants even more.


However, after years without anyone coming close to solving the puzzle (which involves completing three challenges to find three keys that lead to an Easter egg hidden somewhere in the Oasis), interest in solving Halliday’s puzzle has dwindled to Sorrento’s minions and a few remaining diehard fanboys and fangirls. Among these are Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who hopes to use the money to buy his way out of his dreary existence in the stacks. After Wade, competing as his avatar Parzifal, is able to find the first key, he becomes a huge Oasis celebrity and winds up teaming up with a fellow gamer, Samantha Cook aka Art3mis to find the remaining keys.


Naturally, Wade’s success attracts the attention of Sorrento, who has no qualms about trying to squash the competition by any means possible, both in the real world and in the Oasis and has plenty of both real and virtual goons at his disposal. Wade also attracts an army, in the persons of fellow Oasis gamers who try to help him literally storm the castle of Sorrento’s virtual fortress in the Oasis.


As speculative science fiction, Ready Player One peripherally raises some intriguing issues. The idea of keeping a downtrodden population happy by providing them with cheap entertainment dates all the way back to the Roman Coliseum, and one only has to look at a typical waiting room or subway train to see how prevalent internet-connected devices are today. Further, where there is a buck to be made, either by selling virtual reality gear in the real world or virtual gear in the Oasis, some business will likely leap on the opportunity. IOI has turned the Oasis into its own Dickensian horror story, ensnaring people deeply in their debt and then forcing them to work as indentured servants in a “loyalty center” in a neverending attempt to pay off that debt. Indeed, the loyalty centers were, for me, the most fascinating aspect of Ready Player One, a euphemistically named, future debtor’s prison where those being held worked long shifts virtually doing menial labor in the Oasis to earn virtual money there.


But for every good idea in Ready Player One, the script from novel author Cline and Zak Penn seems to add two bad ones, or at least two ideas that don’t work for anyone who isn’t already a fanboy or fangirl. The entire idea of the contest struck me as rather silly, and the film makers never really sold me on the idea that playing games in the Oasis would be so seductive that it would turn people into virtual, virtual junkies. As for the visuals, while the CGI work was often dazzling, the animated battle royal had the same weakness as similar live action CGI planet-threatening action scenes in superhero movies do. The first challenge proves to be quite underwhelming as well, a car race in which the winner seeming has to safely get past a giant King Kong that guards the entrance to the park where the first key is kept.  


The biggest thing that’s absent in Ready Player One is any sense of real world danger, or, for that matter, real world emotion. Wade and Sam spend most of their screen time as their avatar versions and, even though the movie’s message is a plea to stop and smell the real world roses for a change, that real world is never very involving. Mendelsohn, usually a terrific villain seems to be going through the motions here, and even being sentenced to a loyalty center doesn’t seem all that bad a fate. And if the real world stakes aren’t high, it goes without saying that the thought of losing all one’s virtual possessions upon virtually dying evokes about as much emotion as the thought of Wile E. Coyote getting blasted to bits in a cartoon.


Ironically, the best sequence in Ready Player One is the one in which director Spielberg directly calls upon his cinematic past. The second challenge Wade and company must face involves navigating a nightmarish scene directly out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as the characters must make their way through the Oasis version of the Overlook Hotel. The visuals here are the best in the entire movie, perhaps because they are grounded in Kubrick’s reality, but the scene plays out as quite a surreal experience and a glimpse into what Ready Player One might have been had it gone in a different direction.


Alas, the direction that Cline and Spielberg takes viewers on is one that by 2018 looks quite familiar. Instead of actually being a movie, Ready Player One at times resembles a giant video game inside a video game. It has plenty of Easter eggs, in the form of shoutouts to other pop culture references, but few that make an impression beyond an immediate brief moment of recognition. I’m as big a Steven Spielberg fan as there is and think he often gets a bum deal from critics (as with last year’s The Post) but he can’t do much with a central concept that I for one (and I suspect many others who aren’t already big fans of the book) could never accept on the level needed to craft a decent thriller. Instead, what I saw was an oddly bloodless and toothless video game on the big screen. Even so, the Spielberg magic produced a couple of good sequences, but, on the whole, Ready Player One is simply not ready for the big screen.

In this interview, Steven Spielberg and various cast members discuss the storyline of Ready Player One.

Read other reviews of Ready Player One: 

Ready Player One (2018) on IMDb