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Josh Reviews Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular novel of the same name.  (Full disclosure: I have not read the novel, and so I will be judging Ready Player One fully on its strengths and weaknesses as a movie.)  The story is set in 2045, in which much of the United States has devolved into slums called the “stacks” (because cars and trailers are stacked one atop another, with people living inside).  The world stinks, and much of the population has retreated into the virtual reality world called “the Oasis,” in which they can be anything and do anything.  (Though even within the Oasis, some of what you can do remains limited by your finances.)  Following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday, almost the entire world has become caught up in a competition to attain three keys that Halliday has hidden in the Oasis.  Whoever can win the game and obtain all three keys will become the new owner of the Oasis.  Seventeen year-old Wade Watts, who calls himself Parzival inside the Oasis, is one of the millions of people searching for the keys.  Wade and his friends, who include Aech and Art3mis, are trying to beat the corporation IOI, which is throwing all of its money and employees towards the cause of capturing ownership of the Oasis.

I wasn’t that impressed by the trailers for Ready Player One, but a new Steven Spielberg film always demands my attention.  I’m glad to have seen it, but this isn’t top-tier Spielberg in my opinion.  Mr. Spielberg has assembled a talented cast and the film boasts some visually pleasing sequences.  But I wasn’t as captivated by the world (of the movie or of the Oasis) as I’d hoped to be, and over-all I found the story and the characters to be rather superficial.

I really liked all three of the main young leads.  Tye Sheriden was good but underused as Scott Summers/Cyclops in the last X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse.  He’s better utilized here, and I can start to see why he’s being tapped as a leading man.  Mr. Sheriden has a good-natured, easy charisma that is endearing.  It’s easy and automatic for the audience to root for this character, even though by the time I got to the end of the film I realized that I hadn’t really gotten to know Wade at all.  He seems like a good kid, but why does he deserve to win the contest for the Oasis more than others?  Ready Player One is a sci-fi version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while that is an idea that has potential, it’s also a fairly simplistic notion and none of the characters are developed too deeply beyond that.  I’d have liked to have known more why Charlie/Wade truly deserved to win.

Wade’s good friend Aech is played by Lena Waithe, who was magnificent on Aziz Ansari’s series Master of None but doesn’t have much to do here.  I enjoyed her vocal work for the CGI version of Aech who we see in the Oasis, but once we meet the real Aech, the film doesn’t do anything with the “shock” of that reveal.  Early in the film, Wade meets and develops a crush on Art3mis, a lovely-looking female heroine in the Oasis.  Rather than exploring what would have happened if the “real” Art3mis didn’t resemble the CGI pixie on whom Wade was crushing, when we meet the real girl she turns out to be the lovely Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).  The film tries to sell us on the idea that this girl, Samantha, considers herself ugly because of a birth-mark/discoloration around her eye, but it’s pretty silly stuff considering she is movie-star pretty every time we see her onscreen.  Samantha turns out to be exactly the nerd dream girl that Wade imagines her to be, and that feels like a huge cheat for the movie to take.  Maybe cheat is too harsh a word, but it’s certainly an easy and simplistic path for the movie.

I think for this movie to work the way it was supposed to, I needed to care a lot more about the world of the Oasis than I actually did.  Sure, the pop-culture references were fun to see.  The idea of a world in which the Delorian from Back to the Future races the bike from Tron, where the Iron Giant and a Gundam and Godzilla and King Kong all live together and interact, is fun.  But I found myself far more interested in these characters and their situations back in the real world, and kept wishing we’d see more of who and what these Oasis avatars really were as people, and how they actually lived.  This is a grim, Black Mirror type setup, in which the real world is so horrible that most of humanity has retreated into a virtual reality simulation in which to spend most of their lives.  But the film never seemed interested in exploring that aspect of its premise.  This was a bit of a disappointment to me.  (And is also part of why I was a bit let down by the film’s finale.  Spoiler alert: our plucky heroes defeat the evil corporation to win control of the Oasis.  But the idea that they and most of the rest of the world were continuing to live most of their lives in the Oasis didn’t really feel like the happy ending the movie tried to convince us it was!)

And while the pop culture references were fun, for the most part they were fairly obvious stuff.  Here’s an example: it was fun seeing Parzival driving a Delorian.  Then, soon after, the film goes back to that Back to the Future well with the reference to a Zemeckis Bomb that briefly stops time.  That’s not a very deep cut there, if you know what I mean.  I mean, most of us know that Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future, right?  It seems pretty obvious to me.  However, when Parzival uses the Zemeckis Bomb, and the soundtrack briefly quotes from Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future score?  THAT was clever!  I wish there was more of that sort of cleverness in the film.

I was also a little frustrated that so many of the CGI shots in the Oasis are so busy and frantic that it’s hard to focus on anything that’s going on in order to actually catch or enjoy all of the pop culture references.  I get the sense from reading about this movie that most of those shots were packed with Easter Eggs and references.  I wish the CGI camera would stop spinning and swooping so I could have actually seen and enjoyed them!  The movie careens from obvious references to references too hidden for me to see.  A satisfying movie, I think, would have been somewhere in between.

As I noted above, the cast is strong and this ensemble is often able to carry the movie even when its storytelling bones are shaky.  Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) is smarmy, arrogant perfection as Nolan Sorrento, the head of the soulless corporation seeking to control the Oasis.  Mark Rylance (who seems to have become one of Mr. Spielberg’s favorite actors after Bridge of Spies and The BFG) is fun as James Halliday, the recently-deceased creator of the OASIS, and I loved seeing Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow, who co-created the OASIS with Halliday.  (Like so many of the characters in the film, I wish we got to know Halliday and Morrow better.  The film hints that there is something ugly Halliday’s his past, and in his break with Morrow, though in the end the film skirts over all of that.)  T.J. Miller is somewhat amusing as i-R0k, Sorrento’s main henchman in the Oasis, though this film is the victim of timing as, in the significant time between when the movie was filmed and its release, Mr. Miller’s star has fallen precipitously.  While I have enjoyed Mr. Miller’s work in the past, I cannot ignore all of the disturbing allegations made recently about his behavior.

I had a pleasant time watching Ready Player One on a nice big screen, popcorn in hand.  But the movie is surprisingly surface-level.  I can’t imagine this is one I will revisit soon.

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