Need to open this quick little review of “Ready Player One” with two things:
* First, I am quite possibly the world’s worst video gamer.
I have the hand/eye coordination of a drunken toddler and I know next to nothing about video games, online gaming, virtual reality, etc. Driving in often-thick California traffic is the limit of my gaming abilities. I’m primarily a book and movie nerd. Our home Wii system is my speed (skee-ball and bowling, primarily), and I haven’t played with it in years. It now sits in our entertainment center as a piece of semi-abstract, early millennium art.
* Secondly, I have not read (though my wife and I do have a copy of) Ernest Cline’s book.
That said, I’d recently attended a panel at WonderCon 2018 for the movie in which Cline took part. During questioning by the moderator, I got the feeling that Ernest Cline’s mind was a biological repository of all things ‘70s and ’80s. As a friend I’d attended the panel with told me, “He’s you.”
The WonderCon panel featured Cline, co-screenwriter Zak Penn (of the underrated 1993 parody, “The Last Action Hero”), and actors Ben Mendelsohn (corporate villain “Sorrento”), Tye Sheridan (“Parzival”/”Wade”), Olivia Cook (“Art3mis”/”Samantha”), Lena Waithe (“Aech”/“Helen”), Philip Zhao (“Sho”) and visiting all the way from Japan with a rarely-needed translator, Win Morisaki (“Daito”). The panel was lively and the actors were engaging. It was, in fact, their infectious enthusiasm for both working with Steven Spielberg and for the movie itself that got my wife and I (I dragged her along) out of the house to see it in our favorite Dolby Atmos theatre, no less.
Well, we saw it.
We liked it. Won’t go far to say that I loved it (my wife might’ve liked it a hair more than I did), but it was enjoyable.
There are a dizzying number of 20th century pop cultural references whizzing by onscreen (and I mean that quite literally). Aside from a virtual high-speed parade of vehicles and characters from “Back to the Future”, “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Iron Giant” and a gazillion other movies/TV shows, there’s also a heady mix of disco/pop songs thrown in as well. There was even a nearly-subliminal marquee sign for a new “Jack Slater” movie (Jack Slater was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie star character from the Zac Penn-scripted “The Last Action Hero”).
As one review I’d read stated, “The movie needs a PAUSE button.”
“Ready Player One” stews in an virtual cauldron of mid-to-late 20th century pop nostalgia.
The story (more or less spoiler-free).
“Ready Player One” is a dazzling, fast-paced hybrid of 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” 1982’s “TRON” and (speaking of 1982) just a bit of “Blade Runner”-ish dystopia thrown in as well.
The plot involves a worldwide quest inside of a virtual-reality, escapist realm known as “The Oasis.” The ‘escape’ is from a real world utterly gone to hell; with the impoverished living in dangerously precarious, vertical columns of trailers called “the stacks” (that’s the pinch of Blade Runner). In this overcrowded, environmentally trashed world of the mid-21st century (not at all that far removed from our current reality) the Oasis has become the ultimate opiate of the masses.
The Oasis’ late creator is a gentle, introverted, mildly-autistic genius named Halliday (played by “Bridge of Spies” Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) who is offering the three virtual ‘keys to the kingdom’ in a worldwide competition (the “Willy Wonka” part) that is being hijacked by an ambitious corporation led by an evil suit named Sorrento (Mendelsohn) who wants to own The Oasis for his own dastardly self (a apt metaphor for the end of net neutrality, if ever I saw one).
Enter a poor dreamer from the ‘stacks’ named Wade (virtual name “Parzival”), his virtual friend “Aech” (real-name Helen, played by Lena Waithe) and his budding virtual rival/girlfriend “Art3mis” (real-world name Samantha, played by Olivia Cooke).
Note: It’s an odd-consequence of our present-day reality (not to mention our near-future) where we can have friends from all around the world with whom we regularly correspond, but never meet. As someone who values my own online friends, that aspect of the movie resonated with me quite a bit.
Inside of The Oasis, the virtual race is on, and the competition is heavy (the “TRON” part), as various virtual vehicles and players try to outwit each other in a high-stakes, winner-takes-all battle to the finish line.
To say any more would to be ruin the experience for those who’ve not yet read seen the film or read the book, which I hear is a more rewarding experience. This isn’t too surprising, since most source material novels tend to be more rewarding than their film adaptations (with some notable exceptions).
My two bits.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that “Ready Player One” is among Spielberg’s best. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even place it in his top ten. That’s not a slur on the film, either. Spielberg’s top ten (for me) is a list that includes (pausing for breath) “JAWS,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Color Purple,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” etc. Few films can place within a list like that, so it’s not exactly a shame for “Ready Player One” to fail to break into that elite club. Spielberg’s repertoire reads more like an AFI Top 100 listing than a single director’s filmography.
While the movie may lack the depth and bravura of some of Spielberg’s best works, it offers plenty of solid escapism (escapism within escapism… pretty meta, when you think about it). In that way, “Ready Player One” is not so different from The Oasis itself; a couple hours of virtual escape into a colorful, digital island of action and adventure away from a world that’s increasingly bleak and pessimistic.
What “Ready Player One” ultimately delivers is an enjoyable, engagingly-cast, fast-paced good time at your local multiplex. Perfect Saturday matinee fare.
Well worth playing for a couple hours…