Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One is akin to a sandwich made from Thanksgiving leftovers. It’s initially satisfying, but the long term sense of satisfaction depends on the quality of the ingredients.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, the film takes place in a not-quite-post-apocalyptic landscape in which most people spend their days within the OASIS, a World of Warcraft/Second Life hybrid online virtual environment. Like our modern internet, industries grew up around it and, it seems, the OASIS is the only way to make any sort of cash in a over-populated and over-extended United States. Our protagonist, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), also toils within the OASIS. But he is also an Easter Egg hunter in search of the OASIS creator’s hidden prize. Find the prize and you get control of the OASIS itself.
Wade is not alone in this quest. He has a few friends who also want the Easter Egg, a possible romantic interest known as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) also searches, and a mega-corporation called IOI also wants control because of course they do. And as soon as Wade cracks the first clue in the egg hunt, his whole world changes.
Well, once you get past the fairly clunky introductory twenty minutes. Like most of Spielberg’s 21st Century efforts — Bridge of Spies being a notable exception — Ready Player One is roughly twenty minutes too long. And while it seems the initial minutes in which Wade races against Art3mis and IOI through an insane pop culture obstacle course would be the place to cut from, it would be difficult to do so. Both the race and the info dump before it are essential to understanding the world. Sadly, there seems to be no elegant way to accomplish both tasks and start the film with a rousing opening sequence.
Happily, the film improves immediately after Wade unlocks the first key to the egg hunt. Now a champion with a bonus account of coins, Wade splurges on some real world tech and becomes a minor OASIS celebrity. He also gets to know Art3mis, whose search for the Easter Egg reflects a darker reality in the world and IOI’s part in a digital form of servitude which also extends into the real world. Of course, Wade barely hears what she’s saying because he’s caught up in being a 1980s film protagonist: which means he fell in love with her instantly and tells her as much when IOI goons attack them at an OASIS nightclub. Though she considers the night club meeting a failure, they agree to work with each other and Wade’s small group of friends; leading to the film’s most successful sequence. They enter one of the OASIS creator’s favorite film in hopes of finding the next clue. The adventure they go on to get it is both a technical marvel and a surprisingly fantastic use of Ready Player One‘s love affair with pop culture reference.
In fact, Spielberg’s use of cultural touchstones is, for the most, very successful. Except for one very clunky explanation of a reference, the visual cues, musical stings and licensed appearances by Back to the Future‘s DeLorean and Mobile Suit Gundam‘s key piece of mecha aid the story instead of distracting from the goal. In a few cases, they even add up to appealing mash-ups not too far removed from the IP-mixing one sees on Tumblr.
Spielberg’s senses also correct — for the most part — a key criticism of Cline’s novel: Wade’s Lloyd Dobbler-esque pursuit of Samantha (Art3mis’s real name). It’s a fair criticism as she tells him time and again she is not interested until — in honor of the 1980s films name-checked throughout — she acquiesces. Spielberg avoids the potential ugliness of this plot by giving the pair an instant physical attraction as soon as they meet in the real world. Sheridan and Cooke are very attractive people and likeable as romantic leads in a generic way which is also reminiscent of 1980s films. There is likely still problematic content in their characters’ romance, but director and stars smooth it over for the most part.
But by a wide margin, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the weak-willed by nonetheless powerful IOI executive Nolan Sorrento. Like Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Mendelsohn absolutely kills it as an officious, corrupt, and ultimately impotent project manager. His strength as the villain here elevates the entire film as Wade and Samantha have a clear and wonderful adversary. In fact, Sorrento, a character William Atherton would’ve played 30 years ago, may be the most 1980s aspect of the film.
One aspect of the film deserving of more focus was the emerging bond between Wade, Samantha and the loose clan of Ache (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). They’re a great team within the OASIS and even better when they all meet up in the real world. Unfortunately, the moment they agree to be a clan never gets the emphasis it deserves. But like reworking the opening, it is difficult to suggest how it could be done and still shave some minutes out of the runtime.
Despite its length, Ready Player One is a largely charming adventure as only Spielberg could deliver. It certainly has its faults and devotees of the novel may find its divergences more unpleasant, but its likeable leads, impressive villain, and smart use of pop culture keeping it moving along at pleasing pace. That said, I may come back to this film again around its home video release to consider more spoilery topics and the nostalgia phenomenon I myself participate in. But for the moment, it’s safe to say the film is an enjoyable night at the movies whether or not you recognize the media the film references.