film & game reviews, the retro way.
READY PLAYER ONE
Based on the pop culture reference-heavy novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is a Steven Spielberg blockbuster in which a VR simulation has somehow become more real to people who connect to it than reality itself with an Easter Egg hunt in the digital world promising full control of the so-called "OASIS" to the player who wins.
On paper, Ready Player One is an appealing, relevant big-budget sci-fi epic with an attractive scenario: a dystopian near future seeking refuge in a virtual utopia. Here we have an adventure told through a video game, a whole array of pop culture icons thrown in just for fun and a master like Spielberg himself at the helm. Whether you enjoyed Cline's novel or not, it's hard to not be at least a little curious about how the film would handle all these promising aspects.
We follow Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he discovers a clue that would bring him closer to finding the much-coveted Easter Egg put there by the late inventor of the OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Along the way, he befriends another player called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and, together with a few others, they go through Halliday's files and search for more clues. Meanwhile, the shady CEO of a company (played by Ben Mendelsohn) seeks to take over the OASIS by any means necessary so the heroes have to deal with him too.
You can easily imagine a cult sci-fi film akin to Death Race 2000 or Tron in which the hero drives his DeLorean through various familiar movie or game-themed locations taking down bad guys in the virtual world. Indeed, an early racing scene in which we see Wade (aka Parzival) drive past a T-Rex and King Kong, among other obstacles, had all it needed to hook us into the adventure for good.
Unfortunately, some of the film's main issues come to light right there and then.
The over-abundance of CGI, which admittedly makes sense in an all-virtual setting, turns a potentially exciting sequence into a fast-paced Speed Racer-style mess of pixels and digital fog. The action should be simple and fun but it's all so poorly choreographed that it becomes impossible to care about what's going on. The characters are just not developed or likeable enough to offset that visual clutter with some humanity and it doesn't help that the solution to winning the race turns out to be so insultingly obvious.
The film constantly fails to capture why games are fun, how they can be genuinely challenging, why the famous characters we're shown constantly are so cool, plus we're told the real world is a nightmare but, aside from a bunch of trailers stacked one on top of the other and the aforementioned villainous organization, we never really get to understand how the world got like this, why it's actually all that bad and how people feel about what it's become. All the interesting questions are either ignored or vaguely implied and, while it's one thing to throw in a bunch of Easter Eggs in a movie, making the plot itself and all character development Easter Eggs too really doesn't make for a particularly immersive or clever experience.
Keeping the plot simple was a good move on Spielberg's part but broad strokes can only get you so far when your script is so underwritten that everything in the movie just comes off as shallow and mostly uninteresting. More fleshed-out characters, less busy visuals and an actually interested approach to the real world we're introduced to would have improved this one quite a bit but, as it stands, it's a rare misstep from one of the best directors around.
Ready Player One is certainly a slick blockbuster on the surface and its premise should be appealing enough in itself to draw people in. However, this is a disappointingly bare excuse for an adventure that tries desperately to make its visuals the star but fails to impress even in that department. It's mostly obnoxious, criminally unfunny and about as entertaining as a broken Sega Master System.
See, I can do references too.