Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Producer: Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Dan Farah
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
The hunt for an Easter egg inside a pop culture paradise pits players against a powerful corporation for control of the virtual reality world.
Twitter user @LyleRath earned a TV cynic’s chef’s kiss with a viral tweet in 2016 captioned “This perfectly encapsulates why I hate ‘The Big Bang Theory’.” In a quick clip from the unstoppably popular CBS sitcom, Simon Helberg’s character introduces some sort of ping pong showdown with the following proclamation: “So it’s settled. The fate of Doctor Who’s TARDIS will be decided by a ‘Game of Thrones’ inspired deathmatch on the battlefield of Thundercats versus Transformers.” From a place of genuine frustration, Rath then chastises the thunderous laugh track by shouting, “where was the joke? He just f*cking named a bunch of sh*t! How is this comedy? Why are you laughing? WHY?!?”
Rath’s spot-on verbal assault, universally transferable to any piece of puff reliant on empty name-drops, spit apprehension in my ear in anticipation of “Ready Player One.” The dominant criticism of the film both before and after its release accused its bottomless pit of 1980s-1990s multimedia mentions of being a cheap tactic to distract from pedestrian plotting, offering an illusion of entertainment based on overloading viewers with “me too!” moments of energetic eye candy.
This created cause to wonder if “Ready Player One” might inspire cynical sneering. I appreciate a “Battlestar Galactica” shoutout, even a throwaway one, as much as anybody. But did the movie have a story? Did that story have substance? Would I fall on the side of the audience split that sees the live-action listicle as enjoyably endearing, or the side bothered by purposefully pandering pointlessness? Both, it turns out.
Partly for the benefit of the one reader who may not know the movie or novel’s basic premise, more so for the posterity of contextualizing this review, let’s summarize the story’s broad strokes. Although, the film will also oblige with an exposition-thick first 15 minutes where everything below is recounted with wordy narration, a.k.a. a screenwriter’s quickest storytelling shortcut.
It’s 2045. Teenager Wade Watts (Luke Skywalker) lives like most poverty-plagued citizens do, regularly escaping his hopeless existence in a slum-like stack of converted shipping containers (Tatooine) through the virtual reality world of The OASIS. Anything is possible in The OASIS, yet the limitations of imagination apparently restrict players to assuming avatars based heavily on old Warner Brothers properties.
Upon his death, OASIS creator James Halliday (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Force form) set up a contest whereby anyone who could solve a series of challenges and collect three keys would inherit all-powerful proprietorship of The OASIS. The challenges have gone unsolved for a full five years but Wade, as his digital alter ego Parzival, embarks on an adventure that will have him knocking over the quest’s dominoes tout suite.
Standing in Wade’s way is oppressive corporation IOI (The Empire), whose simultaneously sniveling and sneering CEO Nolan Sorrento (Grand Moff Tarkin) aims to overtake The OASIS so that IOI’s boot can crush the commoner’s neck further. Meanwhile, resistors are rising up against the regime with Art3mis (Princess Leia), rogue rebel and object of Parzival/Wade’s affection, leading the charge. Parzival also earns assistance from his brutish buddy and ace mechanic Aech (Chewbacca), and two other inconsequential pals only cursorily acknowledged.
Essentially, “Ready Player One” puts standard Joseph Campbell formula in a 21stcentury frame. Additional beats include infiltrating the enemy base to conduct a rescue (stormtrooper disguises), a mistaken identity murder providing motivation (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru), and climactic difficulty inserting objects into a device that will be evil’s undoing (Death Star trench run).
Snarkiness aside, formulas are formulas because they are proven to work successfully, and “Ready Player One” is Exhibit A. Themes of finding friendship and love to overcome adversity provide feel good emotional basics while nonstop digital spectacle satiates appetites for action. How much harder “Ready Player One” hits comes down to whether its wrapping works to keep you from caring about how routine it really is.
“Ready Player One” concurrently chokes on and pukes up more retro references than a Texas Instruments calculator can count. It would take the Micro Machines motormouth to call out every cameo on a commentary track, and even he couldn’t keep current with the onscreen hurricane of hullabaloo.
A fanboy’s dream and a licensing lawyer’s nightmare, the movie’s omissions are as noticeable as its inclusions. There’s Marvin the Martian, Chun-Li, He-Man, Batgirl, Jason Voorhees, and Perseus’ “Clash of the Titans” shield. Where’s Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, and Spider-Man? The greatest nemesis to The OASIS’ virtual fantasy isn’t IOI; it’s the fourth wall reality of third party payments and contractual obligations.
Despite the digs, “Ready Player One” isn’t all pop culture pomp and circumstance. Poking at more traditional talking points, several standout performances add oomph that isn’t based on childhood commercial consumption. Ben Mendehlson chews on a Scott Glenn speech pattern in the skin of a Wall Street scumbag to create a villain equal in stature to “Rogue One’s” Krennic, yet distinctly different in swagger. As Halliday, Mark Rylance continues his unbroken streak of being the MVP in every movie that casts him. Both actors benefit from predominantly appearing as their human selves. Everyone else spends more time in their computer-generated incarnations, and their audio-only portions don’t provide the same characterization connections.
Assuming I understood the callbacks, I probably would get more out of the movie if I were 12, or if “Ready Player One” compelled me to take that mindset for two hours. That’s not a knock on those who can connect to the film’s mass-market charm. On the contrary, I envy anyone with the ability to embrace an inner child and temporarily disengage adult analytics. I also can’t help but laugh at the imaginary scenario of showing my senior citizen father this film just so I can hear him exasperatingly wonder aloud, “what is all this sh*t?”
“Ready Player One” is the entertainment equivalent of cotton candy: a light, fluffy, brightly colored treat of sugary sweetness consumed more for the nostalgic flavor of fondly remembered carnival midways than for its actual taste or nutritional value. It’s certainly fun in the moment. However, a regretful mind might realize five cents of content was stuffed in a $6 bag and wish for a caramel-covered apple instead.
Review scores and personal opinions are largely arbitrary anyway. “Ready Player One” is a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, i.e. its appeal is unassailable. It also contains metric tons of heroes, villains, and “I recognize that!” references that put smiles on faces. Why be critical of that? Nevertheless, I’ll open my calibration at a tick over three stars out of five.
I’d simply caution that whatever the movie’s half-life is, I’ll confidently wager any rating assigned will only degrade over time. Imagine how quaint a contemporary black-and-white counterpart with numerous 1958 nods, like a Bobby Darin and Little Richard soundtrack accompanying appearances by Perry Mason and Beaver Cleaver, would seem to us. Now imagine a 2048 audience watching “Ready Player One’s” CGI maelstrom of bygone bit heroes and four-color champions. No doubt their collectively confused reaction would echo my annoyed father’s with, “what is all this sh*t?”
Review Score: 65