Like many of us, I grew up on Steven Spielberg. While all of the master filmmaker’s canon is notable, it’s his earlier efforts that perhaps cast the widest net. Anyone born from the late 70s all the way up to the early aughts has likely found an entry with which they connected from the director’s early works. Be it Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises, among others; there’s a choice pick in there somewhere for everyone. Alas, after Schindler’s List (1993), the director mostly moved away from making escapist, fun-filled cinema. From that point forward, Spielberg tended toward more serious, dramatic and adult fare. At no point, no matter what kind of movie he’s making has the filmmaker lost a step.
However, I for one greatly missed “Spielbergian” cinema. Those fun and hopeful movies that helped coin such a term related to their director have become few and far between in his oeuvre. Hence, when I heard he was doing Ready Player One, I was immediately excited. Was Spielberg able to recapture the cinematic magic that only he can produce? Read on to find out:
Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s novel, is set in the dystopian future of 2045. No longer does anyone truly live in the real world; conducting their lives as we know it. Instead, people spend all of their time as avatars in a state-of-the-art VR program called The OASIS. In the real world, Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) is an impoverished teen, living in “The Stacks” of Cincinnati, Ohio. But in The OASIS, he is Parzival, where he lives a very full and exciting life. Along with his avatar friends, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Diato (Win Moriaski), and Sho (Phillip Zhao), Parzival takes part in a competition created by The OASIS’ late creator, James Halliday (played by Spielberg regular, Mark Rylance.) Whoever wins Halliday’s multi-level competition will receive all the money they would need. Moreover, the winner will gain complete control of The OASIS. Unfortunately, Wade and his gang are competing, not only against the rest of the VR program’s population; but also a malevolent, rival tech company with unlimited resources, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn).
Full-disclosure: I’ve not read the novel on which this film is based. It’s not that I was opposed to doing so; I simply never got around to it. After all, why wouldn’t a fanboy like myself want to read a fellow uber fan’s novel about all the properties he mutually adores? Well, after seeing Ready Player One, I feel no need to consume its source material. Don’t get me wrong; the film is an absolute visual feast. One that was not only expertly made; but also cast perfectly. In turn, it’s also an entertaining enough picture. The film is undoubtedly a step forward in its medium (though only slightly more than Avatar (2009) was) and should be experienced on the big screen.
Sadly, once the awe of the visuals and the potential geekgasm of seeing a multitude of my favorite characters making cameos wore off; I noticed something. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a video game as opposed to a movie. After such a feeling took hold, it only made the film’s biggest problem more evident. That being, Ready Player One‘s story. It’s a story that’s not just been told before; it’s been told better. If you’ve seen TRON (1982) or The Matrix (1999), you’ve essentially seen Ready Player One. The difference is, those two movies are original, and the film in review is anything but that. This flick relies far too much on other popular intellectual properties and the audience’s knowledge of them. It’s as if someone took that element of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and turned it up to eleven. What started as a charming cinematic Easter egg hunt for beloved characters became something of a tired activity by the film’s second act.
It’s for this reason that I think Spielberg failed to recapture that magical warmth that his pictures of yesteryear possessed. As I’ve said, Ready Player One lacks any new ideas or even new spins on old ideas. Without originality, I can’t imagine it would be easy for Spielberg to add any of his distinct magic to it, and he doesn’t. Or maybe Spielberg has just lost that particular skill. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and The Adventures of Tintin (2011) would certainly support such a theory. However, I hold out hope that isn’t the case.
As you’ve surmised, I found Ready Player One to be nothing more than a glorified cinematic Easter egg hunt. Granted, it is a very well crafted one and one that needs to be taken in theatrically, if at all. There’s a particular Kubrick related sequence that makes it worth one viewing. Although, I contend that you could sit at home and do a double feature. Start with the very fanboy-centric Last Action Hero (1993) which was penned by Ready Player One screenwriter Zach Penn. Follow that up with The Matrix. After watching that double bill, you’ll have gotten better versions of Ready Player One and all aspects of it. In closing, this film is worth seeing once. Just keep in mind, it doesn’t have one original idea in 140-minute runtime.
READY PLAYER ONE IS NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS!