Hailed as one of the most inventive and exciting sci-fi novels of the decade, Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” was a best-selling novel and became a cultural phenomenon. So exciting was its premise that Warner Bros. snatched up the film rights a year before the book was even published. Then, Jurassic Park and E.T. director Steven Spielberg came on-board to direct the adaptation. This leads us here, to the film having just made its world premiere at SXSW. If only I could say it was a journey that has a happy ending…
Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Sheridan), a young man who has basically dedicated his life to searching for a hidden Easter egg in the OASIS, a massive virtual reality world where everyone can be who they want and do whatever comes to their imagination. The egg was left by the creator of the game and was announced after his passing. The first person to find the egg will gain control of OASIS as well as become quite rich. Of course, the nefarious company IOI wants to get this egg for their own purposes, all of which is linked to earning higher profits (a not-so-subtle jab at EA and their recent microtransaction controversies). It’s up to Watts and his pals, including Samantha (Cooke), to solve the riddles and save OASIS.
Anyone who’s watched the trailers or has read the book knows that one of the biggest draws here is the nostalgia factor. Packed to the brim with famous characters from pop culture, Ready Player One is a fanboy/fangirl’s wet dream come to life on the big screen. However, it doesn’t go any deeper than that. Every cameo is used to make people feel all warm and fuzzy but, aside from the Iron Giant, none of them serve any real purpose. They are not tools to push the story forward and every one of them could be swapped out with something equally recognizable to the same effect.
The OASIS is the setting for the vast majority of the film, resulting in one of the prettiest video games I’ve seen but removing nearly all traces of the futuristic world that the movie is set in. This becomes a problem as there are too many questions that go unanswered which should be addressed. Is playing in OASIS a job? Does in-game currency provide basic necessities, such as groceries? What led society to become so obsessed with OASIS in the first place? Ready Player One‘s avoidance of tackling these topics directly makes for a world that is oddly enough more unbelievable than OASIS itself.
The character development is basically nonexistent. Watts’ story about his upbringing is blandly delivered, Cooke’s sob story about her father’s demise is forgettable, and Mendolsohn, as the CEO of IOI, is so inept and ineffective that one has to wonder how he even got to his position. That we also barely see the characters outside of the OASIS detaches them all the more from my concern.
The greatest moment in the movie comes during the search for the second key, in which Watts and Co. go into Kubrick’s The Shining. What follows is one of the most exhilarating sequences I’ve seen in a blockbuster film in a long time. Interestingly, this is the one scene in which the source material is used as a foundation upon which to create something fresh. Jack’s axe through the door quickly becomes a giant weapon that sheers through row after row of the hedge maze while the woman in the bathtub, after decomposing into a zombie-like vision, leaps through the air while letting loose her haunting laugh. Horror fans should see this movie for this scene alone.
It’s obvious that Spielberg was trying to recreate the charm and wonder of his films from the 80’s and early 90’s. However, there is a soullessness and emptiness pervading throughout Ready Player One that makes it a forgettable and dull experience.