REVIEW – ‘Ready Player One’

I’m a kid of the 1980s. I grew up devouring pop culture of any kind. Movies, TV, video games, comic books. You name it. I ate it up. And I always held a special place in my heart for the work of the master director that is Steven Spielberg. He’s a big part of how I became the film buff I am today. Jaws is the first film I remember having a genuine impact on me as a child. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of my favourite films of all time and still makes me sob like few other films. Jurassic Park blew my damn mind. I was even one of a minority of people who really, really liked The Post last year.

So, when heading into Ready Player One, a film directed by Spielberg, marketed as a dazzling ode to the pop culture of my youth, it seemed like this could be the film of my lifetime. Clearly, I am this film’s target audience. It’s made for someone like me. Or at least I think it is. It’s one of the biggest tragedies of the year to declare this film an over-bloated, exhausting, and disappointing mess that I couldn’t wait to be over. A film so overloaded with pop culture references, it feels more like a desperate attempt to force interest with its Where’s Wally? (or Waldo, for my American readers) cameo-fest, rather than actually earn it.

The year is 2045. After the so-called “bandwidth riots” (no, it’s never explained what they actually were) and a corn syrup drought (egads! Not the corn syrup!) left civilisation in chaos, humanity seeks an escape from the drudgery of life in the virtual world of The Oasis. An endless virtual world where anyone can be anything, the video game provides the perfect haven for those seeking adventure, excitement, and thrills-a-minute. One such player is our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenage orphan, stuck living with his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in the dystopian wasteland that is Columbus, Ohio.

It seems Columbus circa 2045 has become the biggest metropolis on the planet, with a neverending maze of rusty shipping containers and trailer homes piled on top of each other, creating the bleak shantytown known as The Stacks. Populating this clustertown are thousands of lonely souls, all popping on their headsets and heading into The Oasis, which has become somewhat of an addiction to most. Awaiting them in this virtual wonderland are their personalised avatars, who can hang out in exotic locations, experience reality-bending adventures (like climbing Mt. Everest with Batman), and battle each other in daring challenges to win coins to upgrade their player.

But the biggest challenge of all has been set by the game’s deceased designer, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who, before his death, devised a complicated Easter egg hunt (as in the hidden pop culture kind) to locate a trio of keys, hidden somewhere in the game’s vast colossus of lands and locales. Whoever finds the three keys will inherit ownership of IOI, the company behind The Oasis, plus Halliday’s enormous fortune. Yes, he’s basically Willy Wonka and he’s giving away the chocolate factory. Despite the video game being populated with literally thousands of people, not a single key has been located in the five years since Halliday’s death.

Wade, known in The Oasis as Parzival, is desperate to be the chosen one to complete Halliday’s quest, and save The Oasis from the clutches of IOI’s menacing chairman, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, the film’s saving grace). Sorrento, with his neverending band of hired-goons known as Sixers, is out to find the keys and take control of the company, thus turning The Oasis into a pay-to-play exclusive club for the rich, as opposed to the utopia-for-all it has long been.

Still with me? Okay. Helping Parzival on his daring mission are his fellow “gunters” (the nickname given to egg hunters, for some inexplicable reason) – best pal and orc-type creature Aech (Lena Waithe, another highlight), the badass, mysterious motorcycle babe Art3mis (an underused Olivia Cooke), and slick fighters Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). But it’s not just the Sixers our High Five (yes, that’s what they call themselves) have to contend with. They’ll need to navigate a neverending wave of film, television, and video game characters appearing throughout Halliday’s three key quests, all out to make these challenges as difficult as possible.

And, making matters worse for the High Five, hot on their trail is Sorrento’s hired bounty hunter i-R0k (voiced by a horribly miscast T.J. Miller), who’s out to end their mission for good. Well, not really. If you die in the game, you don’t die in real life. You just lose all your progress…I think? Honestly, I’m not even sure, but he’s coming to get them, and they should all be terrified. Who will manage to locate Halliday’s keys first? Will the High Five all make it to the end? Can Wade save The Oasis from the evil Sorrento? And just how many 1980s references can an audience stomach in one single piece of cinema? Game on, players!

1980s nostalgia has been riding high ever since Stranger Things created a new wave of reference-filled period pieces. There’s always a dry smirk elicited from an audience when you cleverly insert a pop culture reference into a film. This was the case with last year’s It, where 80s reminders were seen in the backgrounds of shots or subtly referenced by characters. That was a light touch. Ready Player One goes the opposite direction, with wave after wave after wave after wave of constant nostalgic reminders. At first, sure, it’s kinda cute. Early on, the film becomes a playful game of “was that just *insert 80s character* in the background?” However, after the 50th reference, you really just want to tell Spielberg to stop.

Who these references are really for is anyone’s guess. If Ready Player One is aimed at the younger demographic (and, let’s be honest, they are really the only ones excited by the VR technology seen in The Oasis), characters like Beetlejuice, Freddy Krueger, Pac-Man, and Marvin the Martian will likely fly right over their heads. They’ve probably never heard of Tron and aren’t going to realise Parzival’s car is actually the DeLorean from Back to the Future. For those of us who do recognise this nostalgia explosion, the entire experiment ultimately falls rather flat, getting progressively more tiresome as the film drags on. No, I don’t need to see a virtual reality tour of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, but thanks for forcing me to experience it anyway. You can call this Spielberg paying homage to one of his idols, but would Stanley Kubrick really enjoy seeing his masterpiece bastardised by a video game? Or by this film?

Spielberg seems so incessantly focused on filling Ready Player One with hundreds of existing characters that he forgot to properly develop the original characters of the film, most notably our disappointing protagonist. There is nothing remotely interesting about Wade Watts. At all. Yes, he’s meant to represent the “every boy” character, but that never once changes. Wade doesn’t evolve or grow. He’s as dull at the end of the film as he is at the start. A big part of that is Sheridan’s flat performance, which never really reaches anything other than monotone boredom. Spielberg once had the innate knack of producing terrific performances from young actors, but even he can’t work his magic on Sheridan.

What makes Wade being our hero that much more frustrating is how infinitely more interesting the characters surrounding him are. Pick literally any of them to be at the centre of this narrative, and Ready Player One instantly becomes a better piece of cinema. They all have far greater abilities, more unique character traits, and more charisma than Wade, even when he becomes his avatar Parzival. And they are really the heroes here, consistently battling swarms of enemies and solving the game’s intricate problems, while Wade just kind of plods around in his search for each key.

Ready Player One suffers terribly from the age-old “white man saviour” problem. This is the film’s truest tragedy and fatal flaw. The hero is the bland white dude who just so happens to emerge the victor, despite never really earning his heroic status. It’s not the intelligent and fearless female. Nor the androgynous, fierce black woman. Or the two kick-ass Asian guys. The boring white kid has to be the one to win Halliday’s quest. Why? How is this still happening in cinema in 2018? No, not every film has to have a member of a minority group as its protagonist. But if you’re going to insist on placing the white male as the hero of your film, give us one who is worthy of that title.

The film is not a complete disaster. There will be plenty who will likely have a completely wonderful experience, especially those who enjoy watching other people play video games, which is now a thing, apparently. Spielberg knows how to craft an action sequence like few other blockbuster directors. While the pop culture references populating his set-pieces become rather nauseating, the exploits of his work are still somewhat entertaining and enjoyable. As a filmmaker, Spielberg has always known how to craft something visually remarkable, and, thankfully, he’s still at the top of his game in that arena.

A dazzling car race scene through the virtual streets of New York is a particular highlight, especially when the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and King Kong drop in. These references are two which actually make sense, given they relate to the setting (King Kong guards the Empire State Building) and activity (the T-Rex chases down a car) of the scene in progress. This train of logic should have been applied elsewhere. References for the sake of references is really all we’re delivered. The same goes for the soundtrack, which is populated by a dozen or so classic 80s pop hits, which are obviously great to hear but serve zero purpose to the film itself.

Nothing hurts the heart of a Spielberg fan more than to walk away from one of his films feeling entirely let down. Or cheated. That’s all you get with Ready Player One. Empty feelings and missed opportunities, in a film which runs a tedious 2 hours and 20 minutes. The film’s endless parade of cameos is entirely pointless. It’s a cheap ploy to make this film seem more interesting than it ultimately is. If you’re impressed by a wave of nostalgic nods to the past, at the expense of anything remotely interesting itself, this is really the film for you.