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READY PLAYER ONE (2018) review

April 10, 2018

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written by: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
produced by: Steven Spielberg, Donald De Line, Dan Farah & Kristie Macosko Krieger
directed by: Steven Spielberg
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language)
runtime: 140 min.
U.S. release date: March 30, 2018

 

Who better to helm a science fiction adventure that embraces decades of pop culture and deep cut fandom references than Steven Spielberg, the guy who made such an undeniable mark on pop culture by becoming the father of the blockbuster? After delivering films of importance that earned four Best Picture nominations from the Academy, Spielberg returns to movie-making for the masses. Based on the best-selling 2011 book by Ernest Cline, “Ready Player One” finds the legendary director paying homage to himself in many ways and having a blast in the process, delivering exhilarating entertainment with undeniably memorable visuals. It’s certainly not groundbreaking work, but it is an absolute delight to find the director making such an enjoyable movie.

In the year 2045, eighteen-year-old orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his aunt in a poverty-stricken district area known as “The Stacks” where trailer homes are vertically piled on top each other like LEGO bricks. Earth has suffered and changed due to an energy crisis, the depletion of fossil fuels and the effects of global warming and overpopulation – basically, our worst fears (or fake news) has become fully-realized. Stuck in economic stagnation, many escape to OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual reality landscape that simulates any environment and experience, where anyone can pick an avatar that can change them into anyone.

 

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Wade has done just that, going by the name of Parzival and joined by his best pal, a giant tinkerer named Aech, as well as sibling warriors Daito and Sho, all of them are known as “gunters”, aka hunters seeking Easter eggs. Their current game is called “Anorak’s Quest” – created five years ago by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the inventor of the OASIS – which has some huge real-life awards for the winner who finds a specific Easter egg. Before he died without an heir, Halliday offered this special quest in which three distinctive keys will lead them to the prize, giving them half-a-trillion dollars and total control over OASIS. During one attempt at the quest, Wade meets the mysterious Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who has her own agenda in OASIS, yet is won over by Wade’s determination and soon joins his gang, now dubbed the “High Five”, as the team combine forces to solve the three puzzles in order to make their real world a better place.

Of course, they aren’t the only users seeking the prize, and one of their more resourceful competitors is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of IOI (Innovative Online Industries) a nefarious corporation determined to stuff the OASIS with generated ads that will consume the virtual landscape and control users. The heroes nail-biting adventures soon bleed into the real world (played by Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao), where they meet in the flesh for the first time and are forced to contend with the stakes involved in their quest.

It becomes immediately evident while watching “Ready Player One” how impressive it is on an aesthetic level, proving that Spielberg is still able to tap into crowd-pleasing blockbuster mode, complete with some thrilling wow moments. I suppose it’s no surprise coming from Spielberg, but I’ll admit to arriving to the movie with some trepidation, wondering whether or not The Beard can retain the quality of science fiction from movies such as “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report”. The art and production design of the movie stands out and is first noticeable as we’re introduced to The Stacks, when cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who’s worked with Spielberg since “Schindler’s List”) follows Wade through this towering labyrinth, swooping downward and across, introducing us to life in this dystopian future where we find others plugged into OASIS for various reasons.

 

 

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Perhaps what’s most interesting about OASIS is that it’s not just a playground. Sure, you can visit a vacation planet where you can surf or climb Mount Everest, but it’s also a place to increase your education and actually make some coin while pursuing something you’re passionate about. Considering the established state of the real-world, it makes sense that a virtual reality (VR) world is the preferred form of escapism and it also makes sense then that someone would want to capitalize on that. You would think then, that Sorrento and IOI would want to have more of an influence on users, winning them over instead of appearing as this evil corporation.

I mention how the visuals stand out mainly because the characters and the overall story in this adaptation – again, I can’t speak to the book – aren’t offering anything all that new or original. Since its another young-hero-goes-on-a-quest-to-better-his-life-situation-and pursues-a-girl-in-the-process, it leaves viewers to focus on how the movie goes about what its doing. “Ready Player One” definitely has multiple images that wind up being more memorable than any characters in this nostalgia-heavy story. It’s no surprise that most of those images take place in OASIS, like the exhilarating vehicle race to win the first key – which finds Parzival behind the wheel of a certain DeLorean and Art3mis riding the high-tech motorcycle from “Akira”, maneuvering around obstacles such as a T-Rex and King Kong himself – to a zero-gravity dance sequence (to name a few examples), proving this material to be the perfect vehicle for Spielberg to return to big blockbuster movie-making.

While the inclusion of 80s nostalgia are cleverly injected throughout, there is definitely one sequence that is kind of mind-blowing and ingenuous in how it nods to those in-the-know and is much more involved in the story’s narrative more than any other reference in the movie. It incorporates “The Shining” (earning the movie’s PG-13 rating, leaving me to wonder if the horror aspect of this sequence may be too much for certain viewers or lost on those who have never seen the Stanley Kubrick classic) and finds Parzival and his crew stepping into a recognizable (to me, and some others) movie environment that would freak me out.  It’s something that would certainly pull me into such a virtual world and something I would’ve liked to have seen more of in this movie.

 

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Underneath all of its pop culture references and OASIS world-building there are some surprisingly (I suppose) interesting themes at play in “Ready Player One”. While the fast-paced story doesn’t necessarily allow for any in-depth look at these elements, they are nevertheless present beyond all the whiz-bang visual effects. There’s the prescient element of how a digital release from the real world has cut people off from any true connection to anything real. The movie also touches on the obsessions of fandom, from the gamer jargon and mentality to the guru worship Wade has for the Willy Wonka-esque Halliday. Eventually, Wade realizes that there’s more to life than the VR world and, in a way, I wound up wishing that Sorrento’s motives were the flip side of that. Instead of seeking total control of OASIS, it would’ve been interesting to see Sorrento (once a Halliday lackey) to be as enthusiastic about OASIS as anyone else and, in fact, sell others on the benefits of completely plugging into its world forever. Maybe that would’ve been too intense, but it could’ve been a little more original than “power and capitalism”.

The movie’s opening captures our attention visually, yet on a storytelling level, it sputters due to the antagonist’s narration and heavy exposition. Wade walks us through why the world is the way it is, overwhelming us with the rules, as if we’re watching a video game walkthrough on YouTube. In that sense, the movie doesn’t really allow us time to get into what its about. Instead, it grabs us in the hallway and pulls into class, sitting us down and explaining everything to us. Although there’s some memorable images to take in, what transpires is less fun than discovering all this on our own.

As with most movies that adapt books, I did not read the book before I saw the movie. Yet. I’ve started it and I intend to finish it, especially after those near me at the screening I attended who read it agreed that this is a very loose adaptation. While I have tried reading the book before the movie in the past, too often it winds up being a letdown since it feels like I’m seeing pages turn as I’m watching the story play out on the big-screen. When that happens, it unfortunately leaves very little to my imagination and I find myself more concerned with how the movie is going to adapt a story I already know. This is why reading the book after viewing the film adaptation is typically a better experience for me. I found myself coming to an even greater appreciation for films like “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Under the Skin”, when I’ve read their respective books after viewing and I’m hoping that will happen here.

 

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I thought that with Spielberg at the helm maybe there’d be a moment that would be similar to the scene when Elliott is introducing E.T. to certain Star Wars action figure characters. You know, that recognizable “Let me show you my toys” moment that connects two characters, which Spielberg did in such a touching way in that classic. We never really get that here. In “Ready Player One”, there’s no time for introductions of the things we watch, collect, consume or play with. The screenwriters and Spielberg are assuming you already know all the iconic characters they’re including, whether they’re from movies, TV, video games, etc.

Is it cool to see The Iron Giant take on Mechagodzilla after Gundam had its shot? Sure, but not many of the action scenes wind up being the best scenes of the movie. Come to think of it, the movie this resembles most is “The LEGO Movie“. The best scenes involve some creative images and rare moments of down time with the characters (not their avatars), like when Wade and Samantha (aka Art3mis) first meet in real life. But the most memorable sequence takes place in that sequence where our heroes inhabit the world of “The Shining” from 1980, something that was quite unexpected (even to those who’ve read the book) and wound up surprisingly working. It’s definitely a mind-blowing bit in a movie that’s overloaded with monsters, warriors and heroes from 80s and 90s pop culture, providing audiences-in-the-know with both a overflowing treasure chest and a fast-paced scavenger hunt.

What I found both interesting and somewhat annoying were the antagonists of the movie. I say plural since along with Mendelsohn’s Sorrento and the army of Sixers at his dispense, there’s this problematic character named I-ROk, voiced by T.J. Miller, who’s become increasingly annoying even when we only hear him. Mendelsohn delivers typically fine work, leaving full-on menace mode for his lantern-jawed villain in OASIS and becoming an atypically more nuanced character in person as the story unfolds, but Miller’s portrayal as bounty hunter I-ROk, who would look just as goofy even if he was an action figure on the shelf in the toy aisle. The efforts at humor interjected by the character, as he riffs into tangents here and there, just don’t work. The story would’ve benefitted from simply omitting that character, considering the obstacles and puzzles Wade and his crew find themselves in are enough of a challenge.

 

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The take away from “Ready Player One” is obvious – society spends way to much time disconnected from what is real. That’s relatable today, not just the near-future and it’s an interesting topic to tackle, especially in a movie loaded with CGI work. There’s no need to touch on it politically since digital time suck is something just about everyone can relate to. We all want to escape our situation, our world – but, at what cost? As humans, we deeply desire to be connected with someone else and be loved and doing that solely on a digital level is ultimately unfulfilling. But it happens. In fact, adding a sense of reality to the real life situations, by making some of the real life characters overweight or purely sedentary would’ve been much more realistic. After all, when you live online or through avatars, you’re not as physically active as you should be.

Maybe more time spent with Ogden Morrow/The Curator (played with whimsy charm by Simon Pegg), a co-creator of the OASIS, who left the company due to personal reasons,  concerned with the unhealthy dependance people have on the game, would’ve helped to give us a stronger real world perspective. A greater emphasis on a creator who has regrets about what was created would’ve been quite fitting here.

It’s hard to believe that “Ready Player One” has earned Spielberg’s first #1 opening weekend in ten years, but then again, who’s rewatching “The BFG” and “Lincoln” (Calm down, I liked those movies) and, more importantly, who cares? Spielberg has proven that he can go beyond blockbuster fare – delivering completely different types of movies in one year sometimes, just look at 1993 when he released “Jurassic Park” and then “Schindler’s List” – making movies that matter to him on some level. It’s just frustrating that some big character reveals in “Ready Player One” can be found in the movie’s marketing (just look at the posters). For example, it would’ve been a wiser move to be more discreet in the aesthetically clunky poster below, leaving viewers to find out for themselves the revelations connected to certain actors in the story. Ah well.

With all it’s whiz-bang slickness and inside baseball of the geek world mixed into the spectacle of the picture, there’s a tendency to feel like the movie is trying too hard to reach a level of Classic Spielberg. So be it. The movie is a load of fun, earnest and capable of inspiring cheers. It is undoubtedly a fine return to form for Spielberg, who takes a breather from potent dramas to offer the magic that he became known for. It’s a movie loaded with nostalgia and works best if viewers have a fond nostalgia for its director.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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