Steven Spielberg’s fun (and funny) adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel.
This is a spoiler-free advance review of Ready Player One from its premiere at SXSW.
Though its pop culture Easter egg-filled trailers might have suggested otherwise, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel Ready Player One is far more than just a reference-fest. It’s an action film first, both in the relatively bland real world and in the colorful, over-the-top virtual one, and carries Steven Spielberg’s affinity for thoughtful timing and some genuinely thrilling sequences.
Taking place half in Columbus, Ohio and half in a virtual playground known as the Oasis, Ready Player One follows the story of Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) as he searches for an Easter egg hidden by the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance). VR-obsessed humans in the real world are on the hunt for the Egg, and should they find it they’d be granted control of the Oasis and a significant amount of riches. It’s an appealing challenge, set in a VR world that feels like it absolutely could be real in a decade or three.
For Wade and the corporate villains pursuing him, ‘winning’ the hunt for the Easter Egg is a fairly basic goal that could have been fleshed out with some much more interesting commentary (especially by giving more than a mention to a ‘resistance’ fighting for freedom in the Oasis), but the fast-paced action keeps it exciting regardless. The bad guys, led by Noal Sorrento (played wonderfully by Ben Mendelsohn) are part of a competing tech company and are out to control the Oasis for the money, while Wade, at least initially, is simply in it for the love of the game and his admiration for Halliday. Wade’s knowledge of Halliday is his biggest asset in finding the keys, and this leads to Halliday becoming one of the most interesting characters in Ready Player One, even if he’s already dead.
Performances are strong across the board, with the exception of a couple of awkward emotional close-ups on Sheridan, and Hannah John-Kamen (who plays F’Nale Zandor and does Sorrento’s dirty work) being so overly stiff that she seems more like a robot than a human. When it comes to the Oasis, though, character animations and voice acting are spot on, only hurt by some occasionally muddled audio mixing that causes some lines to get lost in the fantastic, nostalgia-inducing score.
Including things like explosive car chases and enormous shootouts, some of Ready Player One’s big action moments already seem unforgettable, and they’re some of the best excuses to go crazy with visual effects that I’ve seen. It plays with scale, movement, gravity, and time seamlessly; Spielberg uses the full extent of the unmatched creativity only available in a largely animated movie. Environments twist and shift around characters with careful thought put into camera placement, and every part of the Oasis that you need to understand for story purposes (like inventories, or what happens when players ‘die’) is clearly and effectively communicated – so much so that the Oasis feels like a fully-realized character of its own.
Without spoiling anything, there’s a single horror-based sequence alone that sells the movie brilliantly. It takes an iconic movie setting you’re almost definitely familiar with and puts a character who’s never seen it at all right in the middle of it. Watching that character fumble and fail over things I’ve been aware of my entire life was a delight, and it was even better when it flipped that knowledge on me, too. This is where the glut of pop-culture Easter eggs in Ready Player One works to its benefit – the movie took something I know and melded it with its own uncertain world of creative action, and it was both satisfying and exciting to watch. A weapon is thrown and grows to be the size of a skyscraper in mid-flight as the environment changes, and the terrified character running away from it doubles back to the rest of the heroes without the need for sets or structure. It’s all so fast, smooth, and satisfying, in a way that’s reminiscent of some of Spielberg’s earlier works like Jaws or Jurassic Park, just without the building sense of dread.
Of course, that horror segment is built on a cameo that’s particularly successful because it’s actually important to the plot, as opposed to a one-off gag. Most of the others serve no purpose other than to get some easy laughs, or perhaps a proud nod from someone who might recognize them when others don’t. Sometimes it’s Batman’s Harley Quinn acting as someone’s player avatar, or a fictional weapon being used during a fight, or just a throwaway line of dialogue. While I’ll admit to personally being charmed by plenty of Ready Player One’s pop-culture references and even having a few moments of pseudo-pride at growing up with nerdy interests that are celebrated in Spielberg’s movie, it does seem like he forgot to properly establish the ‘real world’.
Ready Player One is so enamored with the world of Oasis that it doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out the dystopian Ohio of 2045. How did everyone get so addicted to the Oasis, and when? Do they make real money inside the Oasis that can help them pay rent or pay for groceries? Are people happy with this way of life, and what are the effects of this extreme tech obsession? I could write another 50 questions here that, sure, might be answered in the book, but are unfortunately neglected in the movie. Every time the plot returned to the real world I was curious, especially because the set design and art direction are both notably impressive, but almost always left me underwhelmed.
Characters’ backstories may as well be ignored, too, since they’re mostly background decorations that are stuffed into 30 seconds before being completely forgotten. Wade Watts is an orphan, and while that’s mentioned once, it ultimately serves no purpose to him as a character and doesn’t contribute to any arc. There’s not a remarkable amount of character development overall, outside of valuing teamwork and people for who they are in the real world, not just in the Oasis. That said, almost every character’s story seems to be simple, sweet, and ultimately positive, so I don’t consider any of that to be a deal-breaker – it’s just lacking in depth and development.
What surprised me the most is that Ready Player One is a genuinely funny movie, from start to finish. From a hellish, scary-looking Oasis avatar unexpectedly talking about his real-world neck strain to a presumed genius openly leaving a very childish password visible, it’s cheeky, witty, and never lingers too long on a single joke. In fact, one of Ready Player One’s biggest successes is that it very rarely takes itself too seriously. It does hit cheesy territory a couple of times, like with a character seriously and unironically saying the line “a fanboy knows a hater,” but, for the majority of the time it knows how to make fun of things the book has been criticized for taking much too seriously.
For example, some of the best jokes are cuts between what’s happening in the real world and how it influences the game world. If someone is being attacked in the Oasis, watching their physical response in the real world is a satisfying punchline. There’s smart use of physical comedy, even when it’s completely animated, and it ties neatly into the action-packed hero’s journey that keeps Ready Player One moving along at such a thrilling pace.