Summary: A recently diseased video game programmer unveils a contest to win billions of dollars and majority control over the greatest video game of all time.
Ready Player One went from being one of my most anticipated films of 2018 to my least. This was mostly because I had the bright idea to actually read the book the film was adapting. I won’t sugar coat it, the book is pretty bad. That isn’t to say the book isn’t without its charms. At its least, it is incredibly self-indulgent with its long drawn out explanations of pop culture to the point of annoyance. At worst the way it presents its core message comes off as pretty irresponsible to me. However, I’ll go in depth about the book some other time soon (future plug!!). After reading the book, I was hoping the film would trim away the more problematic elements and double down on some of the more engaging themes.
Despite my issues with the novel’s characters and plot, I figured if this movie was going to succeed at all, it would be solely on making it as fun as humanly possible. The film achieves this in the first five minutes. My favorite kind of Spielberg is the guy who brings the sheer joy of moviegoing, and this film gives him ALL OF THE TOYS to do it. All of the main action beats in the Oasis are basically akin to a kid shoving his action figures against each other times a million. I’m actually glad that they did not aim for the Oasis to be photorealistic. The CGI gives the film a very cartoony feel in the best possible way. The cinematography especially adds to the excitement and video game-feel. Visually speaking, there are certainly moments where I felt the color palette could have been more vibrant and colorful to differentiate between the real world. When we are first introduced to the Oasis’ world they do this effectively, but the film decides to stick with monotone blues, oranges, and grays for most of its scenes. Despite that, the film, for the most part, looked great and excelled creating fun and exciting action.
A point of contention I had for the book was it’s long and drawn out explanations and upright snobbery about pop culture. To be fair, I assume this is for non-nerdy people who would pick up the book. I would assume the core demographic would be familiar with most of what Ernie Cline was referencing so it felt excessive. What I can’t forgive is the level of fanboy elitism regarding trivia in the books. I understand it serves a narrative purpose with the contest and all, but I can’t stand it in real life or on paper. Nobody likes the guy who says, “YOU AREN’T A REAL FAN UNLESS YOU CAN TELL ME WHAT A/C UNIT IS ON THE MILLENIUM FALCON.” Thankfully the film keeps this to a minimum. The Easter eggs and cameos are all there but they don’t halt the story unless they are integral to what is happening. I appreciate how the audience can appreciate it, but not be bombarded and distracted by the references. I imagine this movie will be a huge hit when it’s released to home video. The challenges for the magic keys have become less about understanding pop culture references and more about understanding James Halliday’s life and his personality. Obviously, the tasks nerdy aspect are still tied to it, but they felt much more personal.
Despite that, I felt some of the challenges solutions were far too simple to solve. Perhaps they were going for simple solutions for elaborate problems but it felt way too easy. That isn’t to say they are bad looking or no fun. The second challenge especially was a really great surprise which I will let you see for yourself.
I would have to say characters are improved from the book but some are still a bit weak. Wade Watts/Parzival is a vast improvement over his book counterpart. For one thing, he actually shows concern and compassion when certain folks are murdered. The film also does away with some of the more creepy parts of his story regarding his love interest. Aside from not being a creepy sociopath, he works fine as your standard hero archetype but really isn’t super engaging. His character arc never comes from anything but wanting to be with his love interest or not wanting his favorite video game to suck so it feels incredibly shallow. As for Art3mis/Sam, she still feels like a fanboy pixie dream girl but her character is given more of her own agenda that takes priority over love. They also add more to her backstory that explains why she is so adamant about winning the contest, which is definitely appreciated. The real MVP is Aech. They are a total pal and lend the film a lot of funny moments. Their added trait of being a sort of Oasis mechanic is also a fun addition to the story and leads to a great part of the final battle. Unfortunately, Sho and Daito are relegated to sidekicks on the quest… keeping in mind that in the books they were basically Japanese stereotypes, and it’s still there in the film. With that said, Daito’s final moments is the final battle were certainly a huge highlight.
The rest of the cast suits their roles well. Ben Mendelsohn and TJ Miller make for some fun bad guys. Simon Pegg is a welcome presence, and my god- his American accent is fantastic. Of course, Steven Spielberg’s newest weapon, Mark Rylance gives a wonderful performance as James Halliday. He chooses to double down on the character’s social incapabilities, and really comes to life when he is playing the alter ego, Anorak.
My real issue with the film is the themes and how they were executed. I said before that Wade’s arc for the story was incredibly shallow, and the film itself doesn’t help with this. I can appreciate the message of turning off the electronics and going outside to meet with real people. I just feel the fact that when outside is a late capitalism dystopian nightmare complete with debt slavery should be addressed further. Instead, the film doubles down on focusing on the “fun stuff”..We don’t want the big bad corporation to get the Oasis because of ADS and MICROTRANSACTIONS. Plus, they aren’t even REAL NERDS, guys. Let’s just barely focus on how if they win, IOI will have a monopoly and stronger grip on society as a whole seeing as how the Oasis has replaced the internet. I feel Art3mis is certainly driven by the need to fix society but by the end of the film, it’s merely a footnote in the epilogue. These askew priorities show up most when Parzival is giving his huge speech at the end, triumphantly stating that they need to fight to save their favorite tool for escapism. Honestly, I know that a family friendly big-budget Spielberg vehicle isn’t gonna get really deep into the evils of late capitalism and escapism but I was hoping for something. Keep in mind, that these issues are solely my own personal standard for speculative fiction, and they don’t take away any of my enjoyment I had with the film. By the end, I was hoping Wade and company would do more for humanity at large but I guess what they do is a decent baby step in the right direction. I guess it’s also pretty realistic that gamers would be more up in arms about their favorite game than society at large.
What this film offers is a more streamlined, fun, and slightly more thoughtful version than what the book gave me. The action is fun and engaging, the cavalcade of references is fun, and the Oasis itself leads to some amazing set pieces. The characters get the job done but are certainly nothing to write home about. I wouldn’t go in expecting something as deep as saying the Matrix but it’s definitely a good time. If I were to judge it as a family film then it is certainly better than most. If I had to rank it among the Spielberg canon, I would say it belongs with his other imperfect yet fun blockbusters like Hook, BFG, and The Lost World. I had a lot of fun with this movie, but definitely, have some unresolved l issues with it.
Also. THIS IS MECHA-GODZILLA!!! That is all. . .