Film Review | Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a Tribute to Self-Obsessed Pop Culture, and Not Much More
I don’t mind admitting I went into Ready Player One a little biased. By which I mean I’d read that stained-Japanese-love-pillow of a source novel. Knives were out and sharpened, arm-rests gripped and teeth preemptively gritted. Alas humble readers, for better or worse – ha! who are we kidding, it’s for better – this film is quite different from the book and as such is both a vastly less egregious experience but also a much less interesting one, even while being fleetingly visually spectacular.
Story-wise it’s a pretty by the numbers hero’s journey. Think The LEGO Movie but played straight, with even more references, and 80s nostalgia being key to success. Although that’s the first vast improvement over the book; the solutions to and structures of the puzzles are far more rooted in Mark Rylance’s Halliday character rather than just the disposable junk that made up his adolescence. Our hero is Wade, he’s just a poor boy from a poor family who wants to find Halliday’s three keys to win the egg and get access to riches beyond his wildest dreams. But along the way he’ll learn that teamwork and kissing actual girls were the real egg. And that ultimately when it comes to controlling one of the world’s most powerful digital and economic resources, maybe a corporate dictatorship is like, totally not cool and an oligarchy of teenagers is the utopian ideal.
The film is by no means anything approaching great but even what meagre pleasures it does hold are threatened to be undone immediately. The film makes it about forty seconds into it’s opening scene before some truly galling product placement, which is really saying something in a film almost entirely made up of the stuff. Then there’s the seemingly never-ending expository voice-over which drones on during the first third of the film. Admittedly there’s a lot of world building to cover but given how little regard the film has for some of the physical “rules” this world works by in the book or, erm, logic (how can a hologram “see”??), it would have been no great loss if they’d scrapped explaining half of this nonsense. Young Tye Sheridan doesn’t have *the* most annoying voice in the world but he Just. Doesn’t. Stop. Talking.
As to those meagre pleasures though; it is absolutely worth watching that opening car race and in IMAX if you can. If you’ve ever watched a video of what the online races from Just Cause 2’s multiplayer looked like, you’ve some idea of the unbridled carnage this film opens with. However, as directed by Steven Spielberg – and with the addition of a T-rex, King Kong and almost all the vehicles involved being recognisable from something – it is truly a breath-taking spectacle. In fact the Oasis-set scenes in general are quite strong visually. There’s an effortless fluidity to the direction that makes the over-stuffed miasma of it all just about watchable, while the heightened character design neatly bypasses the uncanny-valley.
The film was always going to be superior to the book mainly because having a character list page after page of references is one of the single most irritating concepts imaginable, while merely dog-pilling every square inch of the frame with them is an annoyance you can for the most part work through by focusing on the main characters and not the several dozen franchise advertisements milling around behind them. But make no mistake, almost every scene set in the Oasis is just the central station scene from Wreck-It Ralph taken to an absurd extreme.
The film also benefits from having significantly more likeable characters, albeit significantly less interesting and more simplified ones. They’ve removed everyones faults and rendered them perfectly neat, clean versions of themselves. Wade, on paper, is every toxic neckbeard stereotype personified, and being trapped in his head for a whole book was a nightmare. Here he’s every schlubby, mediocre white male validation-fantasy. Perfectly unmemorable.
Artemis is a bit more frustrating. She’s perfectly likeable but her fierce, almost self destructive independence is slightly neutered here due to sudden onset hero worship of Wade which the book largely sidestepped. However they get all the props in the world for casting the effortlessly watchable Olivia Cooke who I’ve been desperate to see make it big ever since watching Bates Motel. She’s a genuine talent who’s largely wasted here but this will, with any luck, be a stepping stone for her. The rest of the supporting cast are fine; Mendo is kind of wasted and his villain pulls a baffling move at the end, but whatever, because there’s something more important to discuss.
*Mild Spoiler Alert for the Next Paragraph*
The Shining. The entire second puzzle is set inside the film / Overlook Hotel with the iconic score playing throughout. Credit where it’s due, the compositing is near seamless when actual shots from the film are used and given that this isn’t an 18 rated film, they manage to go surprisingly far with the concept – especially once Room 237 is entered. But… Watching these ridiculous looking characters limply joke their way through infamous locations and sequences has that same nails-on-chalkboard effect of seeing rowdy teens piss about in a museum. And then they commit what is tantamount to cultural vandalism and turn The Shining into a cheap, stupid videogame.
In the end, there is simply no avoiding the fact that this was created and marketed as a giant game of ‘spot the reference’. It’s a ‘Where’s Wally’ for the myopic, self-obsessed pop-culture of late capitalism. And as a spectacle it’s hard not to be occasionally won over by that; as is the case with the opening race and moments in the big final battle – before it turns into visual and aural white noise. Yet as an overall experience it’s just so painfully perfunctory, its characters so archetypal and its attractions so mindless that despite being perfectly watchable – look who’s directing – there’s simply nothing here bar flashing lights and the minimal amount of focus-group tested schmaltz . It’s fitting that it opens with a drone-delivered Pizza Hut ad rammed into your face because that’s what it is; it’s junk food aided by cutting-edge tech, and not even the nicest kind of junk food because absolutely no one picks Pizza Hut as a first choice…
But I can’t forgive that Shining bullshit. And don’t get me started on the tone deafness of that joke about committing suicide after losing the game (using exclusively Asian extras) or the suspect, calculated optics of having the sole African-American character giving a police statement and cooperating with the predominantly white cops (see everyone, we can all get along!)
Go to hell, movie.