Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendehlson, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg
Written by: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (screenplay), Ernest Cline (story)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Studio: Warner Bros.
Run Time: 2 hr, 20 min
If you follow this site, you are almost by default a consumer of pop culture. We’re up to our necks in it, and it does more than just define our passions and pastimes. It’s rapidly becoming a means of communicating, with references to songs, movies and TV shows serving as shorthand for situations and emotional states. Ready Player One launches that idea into the stratosphere: positing a world where everything has been defined by pop culture and what happens when that status quo is threatened.
It’s no surprise that it works so well; after all, it’s hard to find anyone better qualified than Steven Spielberg to deliver on such a premise. Granted, he shies away from really going for broke with the scenario, and he can’t quite finish with the flourish the story needs. But the first 135 minutes are as entertaining as anything you’ll see this year: a love letter to summer popcorn of all types that turns into quite a tasty meal on its own.
In the hands of a lesser director, the sheer firehose of in-jokes, side jokes and references would overwhelm the story. You could spend weeks with a Blu-ray or 4K copy of this movie, forwarding it frame by frame just to sift through the sheer tonnage of nods. That could have been the sole purpose of the exercise. But Spielberg is, well, Spielberg, which means he knows when to luxuriate in it and when to get back to the business of telling a good story.
And as stories go, its more than serviceable. 25 years from now, the world has gone to the dogs. People live crammed shoulder to shoulder in jury-rigged apartment high-rises built out of old mobile homes. Humanity literally lives in a garbage dump… but no one cares because virtual reality can take them away from all of that. The OASIS – a massive, infinitely large MMO containing every conceivable environment in every possible combination – beckons to anyone with a few bucks for a rig. Most of humanity now spends most of its time within the confines of fantasy, able to become anyone they wish and live whatever life they dream.
OASIS’s creator (Mark Rylance, in full-bore chameleon mode) put an Easter egg into the program before he died. Whoever finds it takes control of the entire program, as well as controlling interest in the company that runs it. Naturally sinister forces want to claim the Easter egg in order to turn the OASIS into a profit-driven enterprise. When a lone gamer who goes by the handle Parzival (Tye Sheridan) hits upon the first tangible clue to that egg, the race is on for claim it before the bad guys do.
The set-up belies the care that Spielberg and his cast invest in Parzival and his buddies. They’re real people with real problems, struggling to hold onto the things that matter to them. We connect to them instantly, which neatly escapes the fact that most of the mayhem they endure has no impact in the real world. But with the OASIS so important to so much of humanity, their battle carries real stakes just the same. Ready Player One hits that difficult tone from the first frame, leaving the weight of all those references as a garnish for the story rather than the main course.
Which isn’t to say they don’t play a role in the proceedings. Spielberg just chooses them carefully. (Parzival patterns his in-game car after the DeLorean from Back to the Future, for example, and a second-act sequence set in Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel carries some of the funniest movie moments we’ve seen so far this year.) The tone stays light throughout: high energy without being manic and funny without trying desperately for our laughs. The director’s gift for imaginative action scenes remains undiminished as well, and with literally all of creation to play with, he delivers on sheer kinetic fun from one end of the movie to the other. (This movie is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and you don’t feel an instant of it.)
The stumbles, when they occur, are comparatively mild. The director remains a dogged optimist, which gets in the way when it comes to conveying dystopian futures. This world should feel worse than it does; as it stands, it’s merely a little cramped and with a few bad eggs who can be easily dispatched when the time comes (which is essentially the big issue with the last few scenes).
Of greater concern is Ready Player One’s potential for a real statement about living online that it only fitfully tugs at. You get the sense that it could really say something about our addiction to technology and the changes it's brought, or how one balances the obvious benefits to a plugged-in world against a reality whose neglect has reached critical proportions. A young, bolder Spielberg might have tackled that challenge with glee. Here, he’s content just to ride the good guys/bad guys story to its logical conclusion: focusing on entertainment for its own sake rather than anything weightier.
Thankfully, its shallow draft doesn’t hurt it in any appreciable way; it merely reminds us how high our expectations can be with this director and this kind of material. Spielberg has never truly lost his touch, but he no longer casts the shadow he used to, with 2012’s Lincoln the last movie of real note on his resume and 2002’s Minority Report the last echo of his summer blockbuster days.
Ready Player One wants first and foremost to be a throwback to that era, when you circled the release date for his films with a red pen. But it finds its own vibes in the process, which elevates it above a mere nostalgia exercise into something unique and memorable in its own right. It may be just a roller coaster, but it respects itself enough to be the best rollercoaster it possibly can, and with that name behind the camera, this material is in the very best of hands. Take the ride. You won’t regret it.