UK Release Date: 29th March 2018
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, TJ Miller
Synopsis: In a dystopian future, idealist youngsters clash with a limitlessly wealthy tech company for control of an expansive AI world in which almost everybody spends most of their day.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is one of those books that somehow became a bestseller for no conceivable reason. Despite an entertaining opening, it soon devolves into a nostalgic list of Things The Author Likes. In our current, nostalgia-driven culture, where Stranger Things is one of the most popular TV shows and the Star Wars franchise is gradually eating itself, a movie adaptation of the story was inevitable. Thankfully for us all, it’s Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair, though worrying initial trailers were packed with references and nods and a widely derided poster campaign transported the protagonist into classic movie images. Against all odds, the film is a rollercoaster of delight.
Somehow, the movie adaptation of Ready Player One has stripped all of the fat away from the bloated body of the book. The basic story remains in place, with a dystopian future in which “people stopped trying to fix problems and just started trying to outlive them” by spending all of their time in an immersive virtual reality world called the OASIS. The game’s founder Halliday (Mark Rylance) left behind an enticing quest when he died, with three keys hidden within the expansive universe, providing clues to locate the ultimate ‘Easter Egg’, giving the finder full control of the OASIS.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), via his avatar Parzival, is a ‘Gunter’ devoted to finding the Egg before the corporate-supported ‘Sixers’, who work for the unhinged tech company boss Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to turn the OASIS into something more commercially-minded. His central evil plot is to sell 80% of the player’s field of vision to advertisers, and he’s prepared to kill for those ad dollars, like Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Jack the Ripper. Parzival joins forces with fellow Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) to work out the clues, starting with a maddeningly difficult road race.
That race is one of the first of several enormous achievements Spielberg is able to pull off with Ready Player One. It’s a spectacle made up of pure invention, with the camera whirling around, inside and through Parzival’s DeLorean as he zooms through the streets of a virtual Manhattan, squaring off against King Kong and, in a neat nod to Spielberg’s past, a rampaging T-Rex. The race is very much a metaphor for the rest of the movie, which distils the fun, nostalgic essence of Cline’s novel into an adrenaline shot of a cinematic adventure, packed with spectacle and achieved through seamless visual effects that succeed in creating an OASIS that is clearly a video game, but also plausible and real enough that you can buy the world’s obsession with it.
Cline deserves some of the credit for this as it is he, along with superhero specialist Zak Penn, who wrote the script for the movie. The story requires reams of exposition, but it’s mostly delivered alongside kinetic visuals and never causes the movie to lose its propulsive momentum. Spielberg only pauses for breath for brief scenes in which Sheridan and Cooke bond and it’s here that Ready Player One stumbles, as its reality is never as well-defined or as interesting as the fantasy world into which the characters escape. Crucial concepts are left unexplained and the film is perpetually in a rush to disappear into the OASIS again.
When it does vanish into the OASIS, though, Spielberg delivers earnest joy in the way that has become the trademark of his blockbuster efforts. He balances the nods and winks to popular culture with straightforward cinema, conjuring a levitated dance sequence and a Lord of the Rings scale fantasy battle scene, as well as silly gags about Chucky and the chestburster from Alien. The references never weigh down the film in the same way that they turn the book into a slog, with one centrepiece scene taking place within a classic movie that is both an affectionate homage and perhaps the most memorable set piece in any film this year.
All of this madness leaves little room for performance, with Sheridan somewhat lost in the shuffle, while Cooke falls short of the terrific performances she has given in films like The Limehouse Golem and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. Ben Mendelsohn’s villainy is as memorable as always and there’s a memorable comedy turn from scriptwriter-turned-actor Lena Waithe, but it’s Mark Rylance who makes the most impact. Much like his take on The BFG, Rylance imbues the mischievous Halliday with an avuncular twinkle that separates him from his slicker business partner, deliberately underplayed by Simon Pegg.
The performances are permanently secondary to the immersive joy of the action and spectacle. This is Spielberg at his most popcorn-friendly and entertaining, delivering a perpetual motion machine of an adventure with oodles of energy and a pocket full of pop culture nostalgia that is played at just the right level to enrich without being a distraction. As a love letter to the last 30 years of pop culture, and as a straightforward action blockbuster, Ready Player One is an uncomplicated delight that never loses its ability to please the crowd.
Pop or Poop?
Ready Player One was always going to make a blockbuster movie, but it’s questionable whether anyone but Steven Spielberg could have pulled it off with this level of invention and visual panache. It’s a stripped-down take on the book’s reference-heavy storytelling, but one that feels like pure cinematic spectacle, injected with bursts of cathartic nostalgia.
The performances come up a little short and the characters aren’t quite as interesting as they could and should be but, in a film about fantasy escapism, it’s a thrill to be taken along for the ride.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.