What it's about: James Halliday was a tech mogul who created a full virtual world called The Oasis, where the public live their alternative lives in a dystopian world. Upon his death, Halliday sets out a challenge to his fans to discover three hidden keys within The Oasis; the winner of this challenge would inherent Halliday's enormous wealth and also complete control over his legacy. Wade [Tye Sheridan] escapes his depressing life in the slums of Columbus, Ohio to build a new identity inside The Oasis, where he meticulously searches the clues of his hero's life with a group of other radical players. This team races against a corrupt business that seeks control of The Oasis to completely monetize the system and further increase the wealth divide.
First I should say that I have no connection to Ready Player One's very popular [and polarizing] source material. I don't read books, I watch movies.
Ready Player One is a pure example of a strain of Hollywood cinema that can be completely enjoyed as entertainment even while recognizing the many flaws when approached on any critical level. That makes it a difficult film to recommend. I think Ready Player One on many accounts is a pretty bad movie. But I recognize its appeal, too, as cynical as it may be.
The most thoroughly entertaining thing about Ready Player One is its Easter egg hunt aspect. I'm not referring to the journey that Wade and his crew go through to win the day, but the viewer's relationship with the bombardment of references the film flings out. Ready Player One taps right into what makes nostalgia and fandom irresistible. You might get the same enjoyment out of the film as you would winning a trivia competition -- the more characters or images you recognize as they flash across the screen the more synapses will spark off in your brain. In that way, Ready Player One has more in common with Coca-Cola than it does with cinema.
Inside of The Oasis is incredibly cinematic, though. There are two particular set pieces that work incredibly well in entirely different ways. The first is a race sequence that happens near the start of the film which showcases Spielberg's ability to stage an action scene perfectly. It is a complete rush, incredibly fluid, insanely big. The other sequence is a deeper dive into a particular film world that, while not as completely satisfying as it went along, makes a wonderful rendering of a film setting that I personally am very familiar with. So seeing a new group of character explore the space in a much different way was as much fun as it was strange and unsettling.
OK, let's take a break from the positives and focus on what Ready Player One does really poorly. Foremost, for a big sci-fi tech movie, the sci-fi and tech elements of the film are incredibly thin. The film does a poor job of giving us a solid vision of what the dystopian future is really like. Sure, we see the poverty [which is uncomfortably melodramatic, by the way] but there is no sense on how people actually live in this world. Everything outside of The Oasis is contained to a small and uninteresting place. How did the world end up like this? Ready Player One waves away this world building to focus on other things, but the deep-seeded themes of how we experiment with and rely on technology, escapism through art, etc. would have all be so much more coherent and impactful with any attempt.
Though it takes place in 2045, the only art that exists is from the 1970-90s -- this is obviously the point with nostalgia, but it is also a pretty lazy narrative device. The film spending any time on the actually idea of how this came to be could have been incredibly interesting.
Likewise, the characters and their relationships are extraordinarily thin. I honestly didn't care about any of the characters aside from humming along to the typical hero's journey template. A romantic relationship comes off as unintentionally creepy and uses the tried-and-true "I have this birthmark so I'm hideous and who could ever love me" arc. It is awful and laughable and toxic. Other character connections are built entirely through plot contrivance that, again, makes the world feel incredibly small.
Hearing T.J. Miller's voice was physically unsettling. Part of it is how unmistakable his voice is, part of it is obviously because of everything we've learned about him.
Overall, though, the look of the avatars inside of The Oasis is pretty impressive. The character designs aren't particularly special [they look like any character from an MMORPG], but the way the actors are subtly within them is interesting. The most striking for me was the avatar used by the big bad corporate head Sorrento, played by professional bad guy Ben Mendelsohn. Again, the Clark Kent inspired look isn't inspired, but small touches of the way Mendelsohn's mouth moves when speaking was completely captured.
I also can't not mention Mark Rylance, who gives a very bizarre performance as Halliday. I'm not familiar with all of Rylance's work, really coming to know him most from Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, but I really wasn't expecting this weird turn. It might come off as a little goofy or over-the-top to some. When many of the characters are bland, however, I appreciated him really going for it.
The all-hit soundtrack laying under long stretches of exposition was annoying and distracting.
Ready Player One couldn't be any different from Spielberg's last film, The Post. This is pretty emblematic of the master filmmaker's career. He's never shied away from working completely in pulp and he has become much more beloved for those choices than his more "serious" work. Ready Player One is a disappointment, though, as Spielberg has never sacrificed so much in terms of narrative and character for his fun thrill rides.