Ready Player One (2018)

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Review by Daniel Weber

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline

(based on the novel READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline)

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao & Win Morisaki

After the release of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in 2011 I’ve been lead to believe that as soon as readers turned through the pages of the first chapter of the book, many began champing at the bit to see the literary work on the big screen. Well, I was not one of the many. However, there is no reason to go into my clearly contrarian opinion of the novel because what I felt was wrong with the book is something that could literally (surprisingly no pun intended) not translate into film.

So while I was not constantly hitting refresh on movie news sites to see any information on the progress of the film release, I promise you I had no problem compartmentalizing the two mediums. I knew the film would be different than the novel. I knew the things that the novel excelled in had every chance to shine on the big screen and its failures would be all but erased. And what’s that? Steven Spielberg? The man with a resumé that is just a list of the best things about our childhoods? How could this possibly be anything BUT amazing with him in the director’s seat?

Oh… shit. Let’s just continue to pretend this doesn’t exist and move on.

I’m not lying when I say that I walked into that theater confident I would be walking out entertained, satisfied, and smiling. Maybe I’d have a skip in my step, glad to have enjoyed a few hours at the cinema. Hell, probably even glowing a little. It would be hard not to with all the warmth and giddiness flowing through my veins, side effects of that funny little drug known as nostalgia. That’s not to say I was overly confident about Ready Player One, only that I was genuinely ready to embrace it.

My fearless leader Derrick gave me a big break, wanted me to cover my first big new release which I was really excited about. More than that though I love film as an art form and really enjoy watching good movies. Like so many of my friends and so many of you readers, movies have had a huge impact on my life and played a large part in who I became, and who I am today. I honestly expected I’d be pleased in the end.

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Morgan Freeman is snickering at my last sentence. This is called foreshadowing.

Oh boy… well, let’s start with the factual stuff, what the film is about. I’ll attempt to keep this brief, because I’m sure you know the plot already, but still informational enough just in case for some reason I am your first exposure to the film – and if that’s the case, I can’t express how sorry I am for you. For so, so many reasons.

Ready Player One is set in an odd dystopia in the year 2045. Our “Hiro” Protagonist (don’t worry, I assure you that is a brilliant joke that makes sense) is one Wade Watts, portrayed by Tye Sheridan. Wade lives in an upward sprawling area of town that is appropriately known as The Stacks, which is basically a trailer park where the trailers tower upwards as high as skyscrapers. He lives with his aunt and her current stereotypical deadbeat beau. Wade is a bit of a tech wunderkind however, and he escapes to a nearby landfill, complete with his own private hideout that suspiciously looks just like an old hollowed-out VW Bus. Here he, as well as what seems to be the entire population of the world that is acknowledged in the film, spend all waking hours in what is essentially an immersive MMORPG world called OASIS, using a visor and bodysuit contraption.

Pro tip: Are you a good actor but have kind of a weird, if otherwise handsome, face? Audition for roles that require Visors™️! Yes Visors™️, from X-Men’s Cyclops, a different X-Men’s Cyclops… And I guess 80’s Ski movies, you too can become the star of – I guess – like, two movie franchises! (Full coverage face-masks and makeup available for uggos, stardom not guaranteed for uggos.) Do not use Visors™️ if you take MAO Inhibitors. Talk to your doctor about Visors™️ today.

Visors™️ are obviously the screen, your visual link to the online world. The bodysuits though, they’re the real magic. They control the user’s Avatar. Once logged in, the user can choose to take the form of anything or anyone they’d like to represent themselves digitally, what they call an Avatar.

The Avatars of OASIS.

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of the OASIS passes away he declares in the virtual world that he has left an insane Willy Wonka type quest for all users in the OASIS to compete in, instead of simply leaving a will like a normal person. The first to complete the quest gains sole control of the OASIS.

This causes the world, virtual and otherwise, to fall into utter day-glow neon madness as all clues to the quest have to do with everything Halliday loved, which was mainly 1980’s pop culture.

Wade knows his 80’s trivia, as do most people in OASIS. The difference is that Wade, we are to assume, has spent his young life since the quest began studying not only all the pop culture of and around the 1980s, but also Halliday himself very extensively. Apparently no one does their homework like Wade, granting him the edge in the competition as he, his friends, and the people he grows close to during the trials that are to come try to win Halliday’s chocolate factory – err I mean virtual utopia.

25 years from now everyone will love Van Halen. On the other hand, not one person will know what a meme or a “Sammy Hagar” is. Either way, they won’t be missing anything.

Nostalgia is wonderful. I myself can go down YouTube rabbit holes of 80’s and 90’s toy commercials for hours. The problem is that Ready Player One is the movie version of an MC at open mic night whose only shtick is continually asking you if you remember the cartoon “Pro Stars”. There’s no punchline, that’s the whole joke. Then he introduces a budding comedian that comes up and goes into the exact same bit, but about the film Bloodsport.

Yes, we all remember and miss oatmeal swirlers. And yeah we remember Herman’s Head. And those toys Monsters in my Pocket. And the Micro Machines commercial guy that spoke real fast. Uh-huh, I remember “Hey Vern, It’s Earnest!” Yep, remembered that Laurence Fishburne played Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse too. Carebears Movie – remembered. WWF Ice Cream Bars… Don’t Break The Ice… Fucking Tinker Toys… You see what I’m getting at? This overload and laser-like focus on all the awesome things from around 30 years ago, despite what many pop-culture fanatics will probably tell you, is what keeps the film from being a truly great experience.

To say the world of Ready Player One is steeped exclusively in the greatest hits of the 1980’s is a misnomer, and the way the film was promoted as an 8-bit blast from the New Wave, Aqua Net past was slightly misleading at best. The schmaltz is actually everything that’s near and dear to all of the people that create the best of everything media today; from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The greatest tragedy is that all these things were also responsible for the creation and success of The Big Bang Theory.

The overwhelming sea of geeky references, ranging from obscure to Captain America beginners-level obvious, show up in every shape and form possible, both literally and figuratively. The most prominent and easy to spot pieces of iconography are the Avatars, and the virtual items in players’ personal caches. In OASIS, nothing is impossible – you can be anyone and own anything.

A fully assembled, fully functional, all original DeLorean is more than enough to believe in the impossible. Having it drive like a Ferrari with a flawless Back to the Future body kit is just sickeningly redundant.

Ready Player One possesses an embarrassment of riches that could have, and most definitely should have, given a wide audience a stunning cinematic experience.

At this point in the review, I want to warn you that we are about to get a bit more spoiler-y. I promise to be as vague as possible but necessity warrants that some things will be revealed from here on out. I truly hope you continue reading, but if you want to be kept in the dark as much as possible, please read no further.

The film, above all else, is visually stunning. Both the live action scenes and the OASIS digital scenes are ravishing. The film basically completely departs from all but the very barebones basics of the novel after the first act, but the thing that may have stunned me more than anything was how perfect The Stacks looked. It almost exactly copied what I saw in my mind when reading the novel. My mouth honestly gaped open when the towering trailer park of The Stacks came to life on screen.

Before Marty lost the sports almanac, this used to be Lyon Estates.

Sheridan, whose Wade (Avatar alias Parzival, or Z for short) finds himself leading a pack of other like minded young people calling themselves High Five both in and out of the OASIS, is a promising young actor and capable as the lead. The interaction between the entirety of the High Five is fun and believable, at least in that “teenagers forced to save the world with the odds against them” way. The actors of the Five all make positive contributions and produce compelling scenes when interacting, however fleeting those moments may be in the entirety of the film.

He shall know your ways as if born to them.

Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki both light up the screen when they appear as brothers, even though it’s for a minuscule amount of time overall. This is unfortunately a recurring theme for Ready Player One. Character depth and performance, just like every thing else, is thrown on the back burner and given as little time as possible in a 2 hour 20 minute movie.

Lena Waithe plays Aech, Parzival’s best friend in OASIS. You will recognize Waithe as Denise from Netflix’s awesome Master of None, where she is indisputably the most magnetic actor whose last name isn’t Ansari on a show filled with magnetic actors. Waithe steals all focus on screen when either of her personalities appear. But again it’s all too brief. Waithe produces an effortlessly charming performance. Aech and Parzival’s friendship is delightful to watch, but to much chagrin no attempt is made to follow up on a very intriguing conflict that’s thrown in, so no payoff to what could have clearly been a highlight of the film.

Lena Waithe does get some extra time to shine however, as the character of Aech is directly involved in one of the more publicized pieces of nostalgia in the movie. Aech is building an Iron Giant Avatar, which fits with the character’s established tastes and interests. It also replaces a similar character in the novel that the film couldn’t get the rights to use after losing in court. But hey, that dumb character didn’t make you bawl your eyes out in 1999.

“Yo, Steven told me my goal is to be fast and furious.” 
“Uhh, no. What Mr. Spielberg said was your role is fast and frivolous.”

Olivia Cooke, portraying real world Samantha and OASIS Avatar Art3mis, is the second lead and the love interest of Sheridan’s Wade. Even though Cooke is given ample screen time, the film never gives the audience much to connect with. In fact, if not already made clear, almost all the characters are like this in the film. We get the general idea, but it seems no effort went into making anyone more than just surface area and tropes. The irony is that the characters are literally as substantial as the CGI Avatars in the movie.

Designers put every Final Fantasy hero in a digital blender for their inspiration of Parzival’s look. You can really see the whininess of Tidus.

And this is a shame, especially with characters like Aech. Instead of giving us real, interesting people the film is satisfied with the bare minimum. Unless you’re a somewhat nerdy white guy that’s had problems attracting girls, the movie does very little to try to reach anyone.

While I still maintain there is fun to be had in the film, and I’ll get to that a little later, real laughs are at a premium. Most attempts at comedy fall flat, and many of them were very much like the analogy I gave previously about the types of comedians that just ask if you remember things from your childhood. For example one big comedic moment comes when a character throws iconic murderer-turned-doll Chucky into an ongoing melee. That’s the entire joke. Seriously. Sorry for ruining that one for you.

The days when you could get a laugh just by sticking a man short of stature on camera have long since died, presumably from a crossbow bolt to the gut.

The villain of the film is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head old guy and head of operations for Innovative Online Industries, referred to as IOI. IOI boasts an elite OASIS bad guy group called the Sixers. Sorrento provides (or at the least is indirectly responsible for) the funniest moments of the film, few though they were.

Having gone far past our 26 letter alphabet, please allow me to present Exhibit 様 in my trial against the crimes of this script. Even the successful comedic beats are coupled with problems. One of the best jokes is simply a jab at the elderly. This gem is also unfortunately a horribly telegraphed plot point, again par for the course here, and another clear indication that the script prefers blatant and obvious to something as difficult as careful foreshadowing. Another rare joke that worked, though unoriginal, has Sorrento pulling a Cyrano de Bergerac.

Foe nose comedy

Sorrento, with IOI under his control, is a devious, ruthless and cruel antagonist with a horrible endgame in mind. Just kidding, he and his corporate no-faces are your standard ineffective cannon fodder. His evil plan? To make money. Truly inspiring stuff. Mendelsohn is still fun to watch and has great chemistry with his OASIS merc pal I-R0k, played by a woefully squandered TJ Miller. I-R0k, like Sorrento, steals the spotlight any time he’s on the screen, which like I said isn’t nearly enough. Both Sorrento and I-R0k are maybe the best parts of this film. They’re certainly the most entertaining characters to watch. Watching Miller’s griefer just going around smack talking is every bit as entertaining as it sounds… though again, like a broken record, there just could have easily been so much more. He just sort of disappears like almost all the promising characters in the film.

There are so many interesting paths not taken, so much talent left by the wayside, and so many moments that could have turned a really pretty picture into a legendary tale. There are many people to blame for completely dropping the ball on what was obviously a film destined for GOAT type territory. The only places you can’t point your finger toward are the cinematographer (obviously Janusz Kraminski), the CGI and art departments, Alan Silvestri and the music team (All of whom did a fantastic job – the soundtrack and score are both marvelous), and the actors.

Even though there were two separate times where Sheridan’s delivery of a line was unforgettable in the worst way possible, neither were his fault. The script and film completely failed Sheridan, just like it failed his co-stars. Just like it failed its audience.

So there are all those missed dramatic opportunities, the character developments that never developed, and omission of logical and needed exposition. In the beginning everything just… is. As the movie progresses, stuff just sort of happens. Yeah, it’s disappointingly lazy. The running time was long enough it could have delivered a lot of the missing pieces. Maybe not every character backstory, maybe not everyone deserving more screen time would have gotten it, but Simon Pegg – SIMON PEGG – is IN the movie. For like 30 seconds! Even though his character is incredibly important and plays a giant role in the only plot point that truly has something valuable to say.

I realize by now you may be thinking I accidentally watched a Mockbuster released by The Asylum called “Level One Ready” or something. But despite all I’ve said, despite the many disappointments, despite everything this movie is missing that it shouldn’t be… it is still an entertaining film. An incredibly good looking film. And I swear, a film you can’t help but find something to smile at every 5 minutes or so. I’ve already lauded over the film’s arresting visuals extensively, so I feel I don’t have to explain it any more than I have.

The entertainment, facile as it may be, comes from everywhere. Though sometimes to its own detriment, the pace is relentless and never do you feel as though you’re waiting to see something interesting. It doesn’t even try to foreshadow but you know that the next time the scene changes, there’s going to be something new there, probably something cool – and that creates an effect of excitement of its own.

You really do want to see what will be on screen next because many times it ends up being something that’ll catch your eye, at least somewhere in the scene. Wether it’s a new gizmo or Avatar in OASIS, spotting something you recognize from your childhood, or just something plain fun – it’s going to be there. It can’t not be. The film has such a sense of grandeur and scale, everything is just so big in every way possible. Yeah, that crushes the small things, eliminating things like nuance from the table – all the things I’ve spent so much time lamenting – in the end it’s undeniable that big is exciting.

These guys know what I’m talking about.

Ready Player One had the feel of tongue-in-cheek to me since the first scene, and I never stopped feeling that way after it ended. But tongue-in-cheek and Satire are different. I understand both, I enjoy the former and am a huge fan of the latter. So I refuse to let the movie and script off the hook as being satirical. Some films are one of those things, and sometimes a film can be both. Last Action Hero, for example, brilliantly makes a statement about stereotypical action movies, both while poking fun at itself for being a stereotypical action movie, and having lots of fun in the process it should be added.

Ready Player One could have been something akin to that, only so much better. So I won’t buy that it’s satire and that’s why it is the way it is. It may be paying homage to big silly adventure movies but it does so while barely trying to make any salient point about the impact of social media, the influence of pop-culture, or the double-edged sword of technology. And that’s not to mention all the other social issues it neglected that it easily could have taken the opportunity to address. With all this missed opportunity, it’s hard for me to get behind the sloppily executed message it did try to convey about friendship, love, avarice, and the courage to admit your mistakes in order to salvage the things that are the most important, yet intangible. No. What was most important to the creators of the film was nostalgia.

Nostalgia was promised by Ready Player One, and nostalgia was delivered. My god was it delivered. And delivered. And delivered. Again. And again. And again and again and again. So much so it drowns out everything else.

This defeats the entire purpose of nostalgia and why it exists. Instead of fond remembrance, we’re drowning in the past. Nostalgia is like a comfy blanket, but instead of tucking us in, Ready Player One shoves us onto a bed with wool sheets, throws a heavy duvet on us, insists we drink some hot tea, and cranks the central heating all the way up, in a bedroom that’s in a house smack-dab on the middle of the Equator. And I promise you, this is not a message, only excess for the sake of excess. The film clearly revels in it and expects the audience to do the same. It’s a cash grab, not a warning. That’s why there is so much of it, it’s like replay-ability in video games. How many things did you spot? How many things did you recognize? Okay, how many the 5th time you saw it? Got your checklist ready? Because it’s time to start the DVD for the 10th time.

This overabundance of… I don’t even want to say the fucking word again… the overabundance of it completely takes away all of those warm, fuzzy, happy feelings of a time we call “when” and instead leaves us gross, sweaty, and dehydrated. Needing an IV drip of saline so we can catch all those Easter eggs we missed the first 20 go arounds. It’s the embodiment of “too much of anything is a bad thing.”

Unfortunately there will be people that will be like that with this movie. Staring unblinkingly to spot every single reference or character, and it’s sad because I’m afraid those are the people this movie has been screen tested to appeal to. People that don’t really understand nostalgia or movies, two of the most wonderful things. Things that are supposed to bring joy, not frustration. Those people however probably don’t actually understand joy in any sense, only accomplishment. But what kind of an accomplishment is that?

Ready Player One is probably worth your time. It’s beautiful, fun, and entertaining. Ready Player One is not worth your effort however. If you just sit back and enjoy the ride, accepting it for what it is, a movie, entertainment, you may not walk out of the theater with a song in your heart and skip in your step, but there’s a possibility you’ll start your car with a smile on your face. As long as you don’t drive a DeLorean anyway, because the probability is high that it’s not going to start and you’ll have to pay at least $50 for a tow.

Grade: C+

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