Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance
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In a strange way, Steven Spielberg may be one of the most underrated directors in modern cinema. The three-time Oscar winner has become so influential and so prolific over his career that it’s easy to forget just how talented he is at crafting exhilarating amazement, heartfelt adventure and kinetic action. Ironically, the uneven and flawed Ready Player One turns out to be the best reminder.
The film is based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, a book that turned every pop culture reference conceivable from the 1980s into a plot themed around, well, pop culture references. The movie keeps that essential premise in tact, as we’re introduced to 2045, a time when humans escape from the inequality of the real world through the Oasis, a virtual reality universe experienced not only through headsets but through haptic suits that provide physical sensations to match the eye-popping visuals. When its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies, he leaves the key to controlling the whole thing to the one lucky user who can discover three Easter Eggs hidden throughout the world, and Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is determined to find them.
It’s a plot device that explicitly celebrates the kind of exhaustive knowledge that already defines fandom among many nostalgic nerds. But rather than examine the dystopia that forms the basis of this world, or explore the gatekeeping that exists in online culture, Zak Penn and Cline’s script straps itself into the Oasis and runs through it with sugar-rush excitement. That makes for a disappointingly shallow experience, given the weighty issues lurking beneath the surface of this fascinating world.
The lack of depth extends to Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a redhead gamer who is also racing to find the Easter Eggs and whom Wade falls for; in one romantic central scene, she calls him out for projecting on to her, rather than actually getting to know her, but the script never goes further than that in defining her own motivations, preferring instead to focus on the shiny, sparkling nightclub around them. Even the real world of “The Stacks”, where Wade’s impoverished family lives, despite being filmed in Birmingham’s Digbeth, never gets the screentime to become more than a sideshow to the main, CGI attraction – the ever-brilliant Ben Mendelsohn has great fun as the villainous Nolan Sorrento, who is spending millions on armies of gamers to compete with Wade and Art3mis, but what the actual consequences of him winning would be are never really made clear.
Push those frustrations to one side, though, and plug straight into the spectacle and you’ll be rewarded by some of the most dazzling set pieces in recent memory. While the screenplay is busy reeling off a checklist of characters, games, movies and objects, Spielberg is making sure we never get bored: he’s like a child in a toy box, trying out every gadget, gizmo and plaything with an infectious imagination. The opening race makes his one-take sequence in Tintin look like a warm-up act, while an assault on Planet Doom cements the production design’s achievement in world-building, opening up a canvas of dizzying potential that hits every nerdish nerve with remarkable precision and jaw-dropping scale. At several points in the movie, you find yourself agape at things you’ve never seen done before, an experience that’s all too rare in Hollywood blockbusters – what a pleasure it is to see one of its oldest veterans reinventing the form he helped define.
While there’s pure magic to be found here, though, it’s a shame that it’s not accompanied by some cynicism elsewhere; the overriding theme of the movie seems to be that living through technology can lead to loneliness and regrets, but at the same time, the movie celebrates virtual reality without question; you get the sense that the movie never quite decided its message beyond fist-pumping at recognisable pixels. (Rylance and Simon Pegg do well to bring some heart to their roles as Halliday and his former tech partner.)
It’s telling, perhaps, that the best passage in the film comes in the middle, when Spielberg assembles a tribute to another movie that takes us away from Cline’s source material. As the director expresses his own pop culture passions in those moments (accompanied by a self-quoting score by Alan Silvestri), it’s hard not to be won over by the shared joy of revisiting favourite things from the past. How fitting, then, that Ready Player One will encourage Spielberg fans new and old to do exactly the same with his own hits.