By Andrews Jenck
From its announcement, Ready Player One, the latest directorial film from Stephen Spielberg, has received a great deal of skepticism from the internet. Not only was the original novel by Ernest Cline criticized for overtly celebrating “nerd culture,” despite being a best seller, but it’s heavy emphasis on pop culture icons in its marketing campaign had it looking to be a nostalgia fest and nothing more. I have not read the book, but judging from its premise and reputation, I doubt a faithful adaption would be for me. Still, Spielberg has been known to create films greater than the sum of their parts, so was he able to do the same here? Yes, but said parts themselves were ill-manufactured, so the end result is a film that functions well-enough thanks to Spielberg’s touches but hindered by a weak script.
Ready Player One lacks a fair amount of depth and character, most notably in its lead protagonist, Wade Watts. Tye Sheridan does what he’s told but never seems to elevate the material beyond the wide-eyed kid who’s down on his luck, only to go on a journey of self-discovery. His other friends are given more personality and charisma, though still feel underdeveloped, especially two others who are mostly glorified. The story is also pretty stock, unfortunately, as most of the twists and turns are predictable and you can guess what points the film is trying to make long before they come across. That is not to say, however, that the film isn’t entertaining. Spielberg does maintain a good pace overall, and lets the audience take in the setting of the Oasis, the VR simulator only limited by the player’s imagination. Whenever the film does focus on its themes of embracing reality, the film does actually become genuinely heartfelt thanks to the direction and commitment of some of the actors.
Unfortunately, that clunky script always comes in to diminish what could be another Spielberg winner. The opening scene especially shows what players do in the Oasis with their virtual reality gear on, only to dump exposition for a good chunk of the opening, despite already establishing the setting and feeling of the film. There are also some underdeveloped themes and characterizations, particularly Wade’s home life where we hardly get many scenes with his aunt, so there’s no emotional connection at a certain spoilery point. For a film that advocates why engaging in the real world is important, it spends little time there to distinct between the positive aspects of it and the Oasis. Another theme about not being too trustworthy of people online seems relevant but bends over backwards when as Wade meets online friends in person who turn out to be perfectly fine people. Again, good intentions but not allowed to be executed the best.
One of my biggest concerns was the overabundance of pop culture references, feeling they would overtake the film, but in actuality, it’s reversed. While they can be in-your-face at points, the film never dwells on them for too long to the point where they take away from the attempted emotional moments. The references are handled well but not well enough; as the film doesn’t take advantage of having so many pop culture icons share one screen, for the most part. Particularly the DeLorean from Back to the Future; heavily featured in the marketing campaign but only amounts to being a car (they don’t even reference the 88 MPH). There are some exceptions, such as one scene that essentially recreates a scene from a completely different film but gives a creative spin that’s really well-handled. However, the icons and references could’ve revealed more characterization, something this film would’ve benefited from.
I know I’m sounding harsh on this film, but I did find myself fairly enjoying it. The action set pieces are impressive, the reliance on CGI never feels over-reliant, and the occasional clustered climax has some creative moments. There is clear effort from the people involved; I just wish its brain was as strong as its heart.
Overall, Ready Player One may not be the nostalgia cash in that it could’ve been, but it’s not the Spielberg masterpiece it could’ve been either. It’s a strange mix of a nice surprise and a disappointment. Casual moviegoers will get their money’s worth as there is just enough to be engaged for most of its runtime, and fans of the book, according to my brother, will be pleased. Heck, if it’s ever on TV, I might even put it on; which is more than what I can say for other films of this quality.