It’s not his best film, and it’s not his worst film, but it is, without question, Steven Spielberg’s most film.
“Ready Player One” packs in a lot: two stories taking place on different planes of reality; a massive multiplayer online battle; droves of fleeting references to as many ’80s movies, books, games and songs as they could get the licensing to. Oh, and at around the movie’s midpoint, Spielberg remakes Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” as a level in a video game.
I’ve seen things I never thought I’d see. I’ve seen the “Alien” chestburster pop out of the abdomen of “Mortal Kombat” fighter Goro. I’ve seen the Joker charge into war with the Ninja Turtles. I’ve seen so many things so quickly that my brain is still trying to process the swollen spectacle that was just beamed into my eyeballs.
If you see “Ready Player One” at all (and you probably should), you should see it on the biggest screen possible and with the loudest sound system there is and, if you can swing it, with the nerdiest audience you can find.
Then, afterward, you should find a nice dark and quiet place to let your frazzled neurons cool down for a while. Because while this is sometimes a fun film, while it is an impressive technical feat that moves the needle on special effects, “Ready Player One” is just a lot of movie, to the extent that it even is a movie.
It’s a bucket of Lucky Charms with two cups of sugar on top ... and high-speed Wi-Fi. It’s every geeky subreddit shouting at once. It’s too many tabs open on your Chrome browser window. It’s the Internet. It’s the whole Internet.
Mileage will vary on whether you find this thrilling or exhausting. I more often than not leaned toward the latter. Whatever the case, the too-much-ness of the film is fitting, as “Ready Player One” is all about overstimulation — about the noxious slurry of tech, pop culture and capitalism that’s burbling up to kill us all.
The film walks a fine line between pointing a finger at a problem and being a part of it. It is both a product and a critique of our rotten, tech-addled culture. I am very tired.
Based on the best-selling novel by Ernest Cline, the film spends a lot of time explaining itself.
We begin in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, which has become the tech/economic hub of the universe because it’s where the OASIS was invented.
The OASIS is a virtual reality world where humanity spends most of its time now. And why wouldn’t they? In the real world, most people are living hopeless lives in destitute conditions — the income inequality curve did not right itself after 2018, apparently.
But in the fake world, people can be whomever they want to be. As our hero, 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), explains in one of his expositional-dump voiceovers, you can do anything in the OASIS, even go rock-climbing with Batman.
Another catch of the OASIS: When you die for not-real, you face real-world consequences. When you lose a life in the game (or are zeroed-out, as they call it), all the resources and upgrades you’ve accumulated are lost. Your avatar explodes into a burst of coins, and you have to start all over again. IRL, this can mean financial ruin and land you in a debtors’ prison — in 2045, those are a thing again.
Wade (who goes by the handle “Parzival” in the virtual world), is a Gunter, a player hunting for the Easter egg left by the OASIS’s late creator, James Halliday (Spielberg regular Mark Rylance). Before he died, Halliday left a string of clues in the OASIS itself, the clues steeped in the ephemera of the ’80s pop culture Halliday grew up on.
Whoever finds the three keys will win the egg and inherit Halliday’s $500 billion fortune and complete control of the OASIS.
A nefarious tech company called Innovative Online Industries is also looking for the egg. The CEO of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), will stop at nothing to gain control of the OASIS. In an amusingly relevant touch, Nolan reveals to his company’s board that once he obtains the OASIS, he’ll put it behind a paywall and flood the service with so much video advertising that it will stop just short of inducing seizures.
Anyways, there’s a death race in which Wade/Parzival drives his “Back to the Future” DeLorean under the “Jurassic Park” T. rex while trying to avoid getting smashed by the “King Kong” King Kong.
On the road, Wade meets a fellow Gunter named Art3mis/real-world name Samantha (both played by Olivia Cooke, a wonderful young actress who gives the only performance in “Ready Player One” that really registers above the chaos).
They get a digital crush on each other, and team up to find the egg, along with Wade’s best friend, Aech, a hulking warrior in the OASIS but actually Lena Waithe in the real world.
Nolan and his IOI heavies learn Parzival’s identity, putting him and the stacked-up trailer park where he lives in real-life jeopardy. Our characters enter Room 237 of the Overlook Hotel. Magical spells are cast. A whole planet dies. A Chucky doll is used as a weapon. The Iron Giant and a Gundam fight Mechagodzilla during a car chase. (I am very tired.)
In Spielberg’s capable hands, the film’s multiple-planes-of-reality plot is never confusing, though sometimes the dialogue has to work a little too hard to explain what’s going on.
And with the filmmaker’s oversight, the minions at Industrial Light & Magic have poured every last drop of cutting-edge digital wizardry into the movie’s visuals.
A lot of it is admittedly quite cool, and all of it is unquestionably innovative, and yet I don’t know that I’d call what’s happening in “Ready Player One” filmmaking.
The characters were motion-capped into the computer-animated universe, meaning Spielberg got to move his camera around the way he wanted. But the ratio of real-to-not-real gives the film the feel of a modern video game cutscene. (Spielberg has revealed in the past that he’s a big gamer, and it shows.)
That’s a wholly appropriate stylistic choice, as “Ready Player One” is a film about gaming and is mostly set in a video game. Modern gamers will likely adore the aesthetic as much as pop culture nerds will enjoy the film’s wall-to-wall nostalgia.
But the former sometimes repulsed me as much as the latter sometimes annoyed me, and both, in unison, made me very tired.
In the end, it was an experience that filled me with admiration, but rarely, if ever, wonder.