Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s novel, places the Director back at what he does best: orchestrating an escapist visually-orgasmic future that pulls at the sentimental: creating a wide canvas of kinetic characters infiltrating the unconscious psyches of our pop culture.
Yes, most of the film is an excuse to slap CGI like a splash painting from a toddler. And when the film is at its weakest, it relies too heavily on this mishmash of playroom amulets. But if you’re entering Ready Player One, you’re going because you’ve already popped the spring on the nerd pinball machine that Spielberg wants to bumper you through, lights, sounds, and all.
The story follows Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), a poor gamer living in Ohio in 2045 who dedicates his life to the OASIS. The game, created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), is played by anyone with a pulse. However, Halliday has died. Leaving control of the OASIS to anyone who can find the Easter Egg in his game.
Thankfully, the film (or “movie” as Spielberg wants you to call it) doesn’t solely rely on cheap thrills. Instead, it pits corporations vs. poor escapists and real-world concerns vs. gaming achievements.
Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of IOI (another gaming company), matches a real-world hunt with the virtual. As he chases Wade and his team: Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Shoto (Philip Zhao) with drones and bounty hunters. Mendelsohn does the most with the least, as Nolan is nothing more than a typical corporate duouchebag. Then again, Nolan does call himself “just another corporate douchebag,” so can’t completely blame Spielberg and co. for the lack of character development (though, I thought Simon Pegg was wasted as the Wozniack to Rylance’s Jobs).
Thankfully, the same can’t be said of Cooke’s Art3mis and Waithe’s Aech. And while learning their real identities assists in that regard, we are privy to two women who carry the film. In fact, Art3mis by far has the best action sequences and is the closest to the person Halliday wanted to be (connected to reality), while Aech not only has the funniest moments, but the coolest too, as she awakens the Iron Giant.
Nevertheless, the most serious charge that should be levied against Spielberg is his reliance on T.J. Miller, who played bounty hunter: i-R0K. After multiple sexual assault allegations, rather than drop Miller completely, it was decided to erase his physical appearance from the film, but leave his voice present. If they were capable of dropping his face from the film, then why not his voice? As if there weren’t a million voice actors lined up to take his place. It smacks of laziness, and worst yet, callousness. That’s a mark against Spielberg as a director, no matter the amount of childhood references.
Additionally, one of the challenges (the second to be precise) is sexually grotesque. The idea of capturing a woman for a kiss in a game smacks of the type of sexism and rapey vibes that have dogged gamers. And while I understand the film is based on the book, and Spielberg and co. may have needed permission to change segments, it makes me wonder how anyone with an iota of social awareness would think that scene would work in 2018.
It’s unfortunate, because the “woman challenge” doesn’t come until the conclusion of that segment. Everything before it is so playfully intelligent. As of now, I can’t name the reference this scene depends on, but it’s the equivalent of seeing a Hip Hop artist sample a beat. Not pure robbery, but a reinvention. As Spielberg bends and adds vibrato to a past film that we know and love.
The scene values “insider” knowledge, which is a a precarious sentiment for Ready Player One to occupy, as it decries those who revel in a compendium that allows them to name what dump Halliday took on July 7th, while creating a film dependent on those same individuals (note: no one names Halliday’s dumps, but they could have).
And really, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without the need to evangelize the morally unanointed. Because Ready Player One is also a criticism of today’s culture and business practices. One of Nolan’s pitches to his board is to create a game with 80% ad space, or the limit just below causing seizures. Because in the end, Nolan wants to monetize passion, and where have we not seen that? The Internet and video games used to be the wild west, they’ve now been invaded by the entrepreneurial and corporate spirit, which slowly siphons its users’ money for the latest upgrade.
And if we’re being real, while games like Ready Player One invite camaraderie, they also take us from reality. To the point of forgetting to relinquish the controller. Causing us to omit that we’re more than the attributes of an avatar, if we’d only allow ourselves to be.
Is Ready Player One perfect? Not really. When it tries to sit atop a moral high ground, it often falls. The film also falls into lapses of pointing to the next reference rather than the next plot point. And the final act and battle is anti-climactic, as how many pop culture symbols can you throw out before it becomes old hat?
Nevertheless, the movie invites Spielberg back to the realm he dominated with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s pure entertainment, and gives him an easel to prop his sentimental painting on, and all the colors on his palette to do so. Because as the film lightly dances between technicolor clubs, gold-leafed parks, and frozen tundras, there’s enough whisper in Spielberg’s magic to make us believe the OASIS is real, and the best place in the world other than the real world. While reminding us that even if our tactile nature is not what we want, it’s what we have. And we shouldn’t negate that we are human, if only in a limited existence, nor look back in anger at that fact.