Movie review: “Ready Player One” (2018)

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“People come to The Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.”

Having long since gracefully aged out of the demographic – and unwilling to do more than cursory supporting research – I have little knowledge or interest in whether Ernest Cline’s polarizing bestseller Ready Player One qualifies as a “Young Adult” novel along the lines of lucrative recent “plucky dystopian teens overturn the new world order” franchises The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and on past the horizon. In its broad strokes, Cline’s tome, with its laser focus on Eighties nostalgia, seems somehow even more cynically calculated than its fellows. This is arguably the property’s most noteworthy achievement, for all that implies, since broad strokes are what its filmed adaptation seems most keen to deliver. Cline’s initial conceit – that, in the not-too-distant future, mundane human interaction has been replaced wholesale by worldwide access to an all-consuming virtual reality utopia – is a fairly clever one, but also kind of benign. It’s really just an excuse to shamelessly pander to a boutique audience with a zen for video gaming and Pavlovian adoration of anything having to do with the 1980s. I remember hearing about Ready Player One upon its release, and, as a member of at least that target demographic, turning it over in my head a couple times before deciding against purchase. Ready Player One was made for the big screen much more than the nightside table anyway, though the version that’s finally emerged is riddled with shortcuts and compromises. It is uniquely successful in one respect: ensuring that I will now never read the source material. If Steven Spielberg can’t make this concept sing grand opera, no one can.

Ready Player One2018-11-17_1-42-48Such expectations and their fallout are, of course, inherently, and unfortunately, unfair, since Spielberg’s proven storytelling instincts, sure directorial hand, and blockbuster-abetting pyrotechnic imagination are the only reasons the movie ends up working on any level. I had legitimate expectations for Ready Player One going in, and, though I came away disappointed, can pretty easily envision a formula by which other moviegoers might conclude it is popcorn entertainment of the highest order, or maybe even something more. (It’s not.) This all comes down to a the question of what viewers are looking for: do they want fully immersive, hyperkinetic visuals on the revolutionary order of what the film’s characters routinely experience, the sort that have made Cline’s aforementioned virtual world “The Oasis” a resoundingly preferable alternative to the daily grind of 2045 America, or, however fantastic, do they want resonant characters, rich backstory, and relatable struggles with real stakes and suspense? Do you prefer being overwhelmed by a world whose entire hook is that anything is possible, or do you seek a reason deeper than nostalgic brand recognition to cheer? Spielberg’s film operates at such a fearsome level in the former category that that very overinvestment seems to preemptively short-circuit any good faith attempt at the latter. You may well have never seen anything quite like The Oasis on screen before, but I’ll bet you’ve witnessed distinct echoes in the likes of Tron and The Matrix, even Inception, high profile visual extravaganzas (for their times and all time) which dealt quite literally with the perils of becoming trapped in an artificial reality. Here, any attendant peril feels watered down.

But is it any fun? Well, sure. Kinda. In theory. Ready Player One is a movie proudly/brazenly cobbled together out of the spare parts of a hundred others, as if such mass appropriation into an ostensibly original property might serve to somehow make it all feel “new”. Art finds inspiration to one degree or other in what’s come before, of course, though most pieces try to hide that truth at least a little. Spielberg, having been granted the biggest sandbox possible in which to frolic and a bare minimum of connective tissue with which to partition or structure it, basically revels in the creative freedom. This is, indeed, initially thrilling, for a thrumming opening five to fifteen minutes, though returns inevitably diminish as the plot unfolds, exhales, and stagnates over the course of its full 140. The Columbus, Ohio of 2045* is a world in which both the present and future are basically on hold, the one sublimated to an extreme feelgood alternative (one montage participant accidentally sets her kitchen on fire while blissfully distracted by The Oasis) and the other irrelevant as a destination because, confronted with the real world, who in their right mind could imagine a future worth fighting for. Basically, once we are introduced to the principals – everyman manga reject “Parzival”/Wade (Tye Sheridan) and the mysterious femme fatale “Art3mis”/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) he falls for in-game, both of whom log more screen time in hyper-stylized avatar form than as their comparatively forgettable human selves – The Oasis, for all its volatility and potential, becomes just another colorful backdrop to rote plot mechanics and perfunctory interaction between bland actors.

*As “Ready Player One” takes place both in my hometown and in my theoretical lifetime, I’m already looking forward to spending my retirement as an overstimulated seventy-year-old zero gravity Formula One driver and part time exterminator, with extreme prejudice, of mutant alien arthropods. I expect to have lost my very last vestiges of hope for a better tomorrow by then, so the timing really couldn’t be better.

We were as much as promised, in intriguing/confusing rapid fire pre-release trailers saturated with pop culture references to the point of bursting, that it’d be the whole show. Peel away the dozens upon dozens of conceptually malleable, visually arresting, occasionally hallucinatory layers beneath which The Oasis exists, however, and the answer to whether Ready Player One follows the recent Young Adult identikit franchise success formula to the letter becomes painfully clear. The narrative, such as it is, may feel less overtly dire than some – again, I’m not a connoisseur – but it still features an ordinary teenager competing against entrenched and insidious powers that be in an elaborate game arena televised for the consumption of a browbeaten worldwide audience just starving for the emergence of a hero. Said budding hero leans on his friends and even falls in convenient, idealized love along the way, finding inner strength enough to overcome the odds just in time to cross the finish line. Sound familiar? Or 140 minutes’ worth of original? There’s also the tedium of filtering the overarching contest – a quest for three mystical keys envisioned by the Oasis’ eccentric, recently deceased genius creator as the proving ground for a new custodian to assume control, much like Willy Wonka gifted young Charlie his legendary chocolate factory – through vast acreage of video game cliche.** Ready Player One couches itself in affection for geek culture even as it delivers to an audience presumably teeming with them strangely familiar spectacle, plus not-quite lowest common denominator emotional return on their investment and enthusiasm.

**Parzival and Art3mis’ clan of in-game friends all conveniently live, without having ever met or given so doing a single thought, in the same city. What a fortunate and plot-friendly coincidence! Seriously, though, who wants to endure face to face conversation with an awkward teenager when you can hang instead and wreak eighty kinds of havoc with a couple of slick anime character model prototypes with elegantly textured virtual skin, plus a ninja, a samurai, and a steroidal RPG tank who is equal parts Marcus Fenix from “Gears of War” and Kratos from “God of War”? Get real.

Ready Player One’s special effects and production design speak for themselves in often breathtaking individual moments without ever quite contributing appreciably to the sort of larger whole that flows with urgency instead of just nervous energy. Wade lives in “The Stacks”, a squalid section of what I imagine is future-Columbus’ West Side, in which trailers containing poor people jacked into The Oasis are stacked vertically like the world’s most haphazard, aesthetically questionable treehouse colony. One understands intrinsically both Wade’s desire for momentary escape at any cost and underlying wariness of IOI, a nefarious tech giant intent on consolidating its already oppressive power through acquisition of The Oasis. All the nitpicking in the world can barely put a dent in the accumulated visual cache of The Oasis itself, a realm where physical laws have negligible impact, and users are free to fashion or otherwise indulge in custom VIP experiences, take part in hundred-car street races through a giant monster movie in progress, and assume any avatar – Robocop, Hello Kitty, and Jason Voorhees make for a random, illustrative three – in place of of their Sunday best. It’s an eye-popping backdrop, as I said before, but, in the end, it’s still just a backdrop. We have to care about what makes The Oasis not merely brilliantly novel but special, and crucial; we need to care about IOI’s sinister intentions made manifest***, about the human relationships between the people behind the pixels; we should also care greatly about James Halliday, the brilliant nerd who created The Oasis, and who reduced a life’s worth of personal hopes and regrets into obscure clues in what amounts to a world wide scavenger hunt. We should care about all these things in order for Ready Player One to really work. I didn’t. Not remotely.

***I’m also done pretending to be engaged watching rapt VR players inanely pantomiming their in-game action in clunky, embarrassing real life. Can we retire this visual trope? Beyond various visored proles jazzercising in their stacked hovels, IOI engages a whole room full of game-playing lackeys in an attempt to strong-arm its way to victory in Halliday’s epic quest for the keys, but only ever really succeeds in looking silly.

Its wealth of Easter Eggs alone ensures that Ready Player One has a solid half-life in living rooms and on streaming devices ahead of it, full of obsessive dissection and painstaking cataloging of its cavalcade of nods to the faithful. Since its bevy of surprise details, intertwined with its admittedly often stunning realization of The Oasis, is the only real reason to watch the movie, I’ll not spoil any of them here. Empty calories still technically provide fuel, but to what end? It’s hard to simultaneously turn your brain off and play “spot the reference”. Ready Player One indulges, repeatedly, obnoxiously, in a sustained level of fetishism for the 1980s – its movies, its music, its entertainment icons – that even I, as a grateful child of that decade and all its pop cultural largesse, am not particularly comfortable with. Steven Spielberg sat atop the world from that decade’s first day to its last, of course, the fountainhead of so much of the indelible entertainment that ended up paving the way for a movie like this to exist, some 30+ (no, sorry, Wade, 60+) years after the birth of E.T. and Indy. In seeking to impose balance on Ready Player One’s technological and human components, he has here undertaken something of a Sisyphean task, not just as the movie’s director but a combination of architect, game warden, magician, and midwife.

Some of the individual references are delightful in their way – especially a left field classic horror homage about halfway through – but they don’t add up to any greater sum, even – or, rather, especially – when Spielberg does unleash a hilariously full scale final battle between the forces of “kind of evil” and “equivalent good” that plays like the trailer expanded to feature strength overkill. In the end, we’re not talking about anything more consequential here than The Goonies meets Tron, inarguably a pleasure to look at, though it lacks both the easygoing, roller coaster fun of the former and the foreboding gravitas and unifying vision of the latter. If you’re geeked to go on a 140-minute Easter Egg hunt, have at it. Like I said, I will most likely give the film another viewing, if not necessarily another chance, somewhere down the line. I’ve just seen this story before, many times. I’ve honestly seen so many elements of this place before, and not just the ones I memorized as a kid. The trick is to make anything about it truly new, and, with few exceptions, I was left wanting. I wasn’t impressed by the mechanics of Parzival/Wade’s heroic journey, the odds he faced, the hurdles he overcame, or the depths of anyone’s character. Nor was I inspired by a tacked on “moral” to the story that you could hear today from a half-dozen cable news experts on any particularly slow news day. RP1 carries all the weight, spectacle, and acting firepower of a feature length, especially elaborate, latter-day Final Fantasy video game cutscene. Maybe that’s the entire point, and I’m missing it. I dunno. Spielberg is usually pretty great at applying dimension and discernible stakes to the extraordinary. Here, the task feels too titanic and simply gets away from him.

“Ready Player One” (2018) 2/4 stars                                                                                        dae2.0

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