'Ready Player One' Review


WORDS: Alex Welch

There’s a very good reason why director Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has earned an unofficial reputation as being nothing more than a TWO-hour-long string of references to various '80s movies, video games, and music. After all, that’s almost exactly what Ernest Cline’s original 2011 novel of the same name is. And while a fair amount of enjoyment can be derived from engaging with the film in that way, only with the goal of catching as many of its references as possible, it also makes the film out to be a rather substanceless exercise.

But it’s to the credit of Steven Spielberg and the film’s screenplay—which was co-written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline himself—that the Ready Player One film strives for much more significant depth and emotion than its source material. And with a premise centered around a group of misfits fighting to protect their beloved virtual reality world, called the OASIS, creating some level of authenticity can be considered a tricky thing.

courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Set in the year 2045, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphan living on an overpopulated Earth, where he and everyone else have chosen to spend their time escaping to the OASIS, rather than facing the reality of their Earth lives. An opportunity that becomes all the more alluring, when the OASIS’s founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies and leaves behind three different in-game easter eggs/keys, which when collected will grant their owner not only access to Halliday’s entire sizable fortune but also complete control of the OASIS.

Understandably, Wade isn’t the only OASIS player interested in beating Halliday’s post-mortem challenges, as he is joined by a multitude of other OASIS fanatics just like him, obsessed with being the first to piece together Halliday’s easter eggs. But there’s also another faction present in the competitions: a legion of gamers known in the film as “sixers,” hired and monitored by the film’s villain, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a rival company called IOI, who are hellbent on absorbing the OASIS in the wake of Halliday’s death, so that they may profit off its popularity.

courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But while Sheridan’s Wade is mostly focused on the monetary prizes that come with winning the competition, it’s Olivia Cooke’s Art3mis/Samantha that opens his eyes to how negative it would be for the entire world, should Sorrento and his company ever obtain ownership of the OASIS. A famous player in the game by the time he meets her, Art3mis starts out as nothing more than the confident, cliched female character for Wade to project his own dreams onto. But once she is forced to bring Wade into the rebellion movement against IOI, which means crossing paths with him in real life, her character’s motivations and backstory become much more complex than they initially appear to be.

But it’s the three easter egg challenges that end up providing Ready Player One with the kind of emotional depth that its otherwise straightforward, cliched video game-inspired premise would have lacked. The way that the screenplay reveals how Halliday’s puzzles connect back to the personal mistakes that the actual OASIS creator made in his life, ring with an unexpected level of melancholic heartbreak. Mark Rylance’s performance as Halliday is largely to thank for that, and where most might have taken Halliday’s final scenes in the film too far into schmaltzy or tongue-in-cheek territory, he plays it with an understatedness that brings the poignancy of his character to the forefront.

That Ready Player One then feels less like a mindless nostalgia trip and more like a story about the merits of learning from our heroes’ mistakes, is a testament to both Rylance’s performance and Steven Spielberg’s ability to connect even his most bombastic of blockbusters back to the most basic of human emotions. Even among the film’s endless array of digital landscapes, characters, and setpieces, he always allows time for the quiet moment and human touches that most of his imitators sadly forget about.

courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Spielberg’s ability to do that is even more impressive when it comes to Ready Player One, which has the burden of sorting through and organizing an exorbitant amount of exposition, a result of Cline’s extensive world-building techniques and attention to detail in the original novel. Because of this, the film not only has a handful of blatantly clunky moments, but struggles to find the time to grow characters like Wade or Sorrento past their surface-level archetypes. 

But even despite these flaws, Ready Player One proves to be a much more substantial and thrilling experience than its pre-release reputation may make you think. It is an intoxicatingly exuberant and surprisingly stirring sci-fi adventure treat. One that doesn’t forget to keep its characters at the center of all its many thrills. So that, in the end, the film feels less like Spielberg just lazily referencing his own creations from the '70s and '80s, but rather, a musician still at the top of his game, delighted by the chance to remix, revisit, and sample from some of his old hits all over again. 

SCORE: 4 Zemeckis cubes out of 5