9/10 Ready Player One is a blue-blooded blockbuster, a brass bonanza of nostalgia, special effects and action.
In 2045, overpopulation has turned Earth’s major cities into desperate slums. Most of the population regularly escapes to the OASIS, a massive multiplayer virtual reality simulation consisting of entire worlds of entertainment and possibility. The game’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) died and left the rights to control the game hidden in an Easter egg somewhere in the game, but in five years, no one has found it. After intense, beyond religious study of Halliday’s life, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) finally finds what he needs to progress. He, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) end up in a race against the corporate slaves of Innovative Online Industries and CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want to ruin the OASIS by putting up a ton of ads all over the place and implementing pay-to-win systems.
I’ve had a lot of complaints about director/producer Steven Spielberg’s work over the past few years, but that was mostly boring talkie stuff. With Ready Player One, Spielberg proves he’s still the king of blockbusters. The film is held up primarily by two massive set pieces, each of which are masterfully shot — both have thousands of moving parts, but it’s still always completely clear what’s going on. Everything is framed beautifully, and all the shots last just a tick longer than you expect so you’ve got plenty of time to take it in.
In an era when most fight scenes, let alone battle scenes, are shot in order to confuse the viewer into thinking it’s entertaining, this film is a master class in how to do it right. Outside of that, Spielberg’s penchant for longer shots is a big help for a movie in which almost every scene is visually dazzling by necessity, since it takes place in an idealized reality within the heightened reality inherent to filmmaking.
One of the most remarkable things about Ready Player One is how effectively it uses its own Easter eggs. The book both satirizes and draws from the nostalgia-driven media of the 2010’s, as well as gaming culture — two things that have only gotten worse since it was published in 2011 — by using characters that are uniformly obsessed with ‘80s media. Egg hunters must develop a second obsession with Halliday himself, as the clues to find the egg are hidden in his life story which has been meticulously preserved. He is compared to a god at several points in the text.
Many movies have devolved to the point of substituting cultural namedrops for actual drama, but Ready Player One takes key steps to make sure it doesn’t fall into that trap. Most viscerally, it completely nails the details of its source material. In an extended sequence set in the Overlook Hotel, it feels like they used actual footage from The Shining, and definitely used the actual music from the film — Ready Player One lifts famous notes at several different points, most prominently in the announcement trailer that hums the tune of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Its rotation of ’80s tunes are also key to its joy.
But most importantly, the cultural touchstones it uses aren’t merely copied and pasted in, they’re functional. When Sorrento deploys his Mechagodzilla suit in the final battle — and Godzilla’s theme crashes the party for a moment — it’s a reference, and it’s definitely more enjoyable for someone familiar with the source material, but it’s also a dynamic shift in the narrative. A gigantic monster, maybe you recognize him and maybe you don’t, has entered the battlefield and must be dealt with. Where problematically nostalgic movies exclude by requiring viewers to know what’s happened in other texts, Ready Player One’s references draw the uninitiated in, and make you want to learn more. Instead of being used as a dramatic substitute, they’re participants and tools in a fully formed narrative.
There are a handful of mistakes that do drag Ready Player One down, the first being Rylance and his awful wig. I don’t understand Spielberg’s obsession with him lately, he’s just not a good actor.
The second two are connected — the meaningless, ill-fitting love story between Watts and Art3mis and the similarly cliched gamers-can’t-talk-to-girls narrative that was so important to Halliday he thought it constituted the story of his own life. I’m fine with dedicated love stories, but action heroes, particularly ones who are developing out of socially awkward phases, falling “in love” with the first pretty lady they have the chance to talk to is an absolutely archaic device.
The first generation of geeks are parents now. They got laid. The ideas of nerdom as a turnoff and of gamers as socially inept are as outdated as the ’80s movies Ready Player One is so in love with, but ones that are still harmful and have coalesced into a specific fresh wound since the book’s publication. These ideas simply have no place in modern storytelling.
I get that these were inherent to the adaptation, but something should have been done to de-emphasize the harmful and boring tropes they represent.
Ready Player One is a $175 million blockbuster that’s meticulously staged and shot and completely nails the details. For everyone tired of Transformers sequels or the same superhero movie repeated over and over again, this is the rare event movie that gets things right. It’s once in a blue moon that a movie knocks my jaw to the floor and keeps it there for an entire sequence, let alone multiple entire sequences. Go see it, go home and rewatch The Shining, and go see it again.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.