Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Steven Spielberg's (Mostly) Triumphant Return to Sci-Fi
If we’re being honest here, writer to reader, I never got around to reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One novel despite the fact that it’s sitting on a bookshelf less than ten feet from me as I type this. It turned out not to matter that much since Steven Spielberg took liberties with the source material. In the film, a virtual video game reality known as the OASIS is where everyone spends their time in the year 2045. Our main character Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in, “The Stacks,” which is basically just a bunch of mobile homes stacked on top of each other. The coin collected in the OASIS as well as purchases within the game have evolved into an individual's life savings in the real world. Everyone wants to escape their crappy life and the OASIS is now all that matters.
James Halliday (Mark Rylance), creator of the OASIS, dies suddenly but he leaves behind a treasure hunt for three keys hidden within the depths of the OASIS with the main prize being an Easter egg that would allow the winner to have complete control over the entirety of the OASIS. Wade (as his avatar Parzival) intends to win Halliday’s challenge to get out of The Stacks and adopts the title of Gunter (egg hunter) along with his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) who become known together as the, “HIgh Five,” but a video game conglomerate known as Innovative Online Industries or IOI spends all of their time and money attempting to find the secrets Halliday has hidden. IOI consists of an army known as the Sixers, which are players who owe large debts to the OASIS. CEO of IOI Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) intends to take the free-to-use OASIS and transform it into a monetized monopoly.
The storyline of Spielberg’s Ready Player One reminds me of the 19th episode of season two of Regular Show entitled, “High Score.” In that episode, Mordecai and Rigby attempt to beat the world record on a video game with record holder Garrett Bobby Ferguson (GBF or Giant Bearded Face). Ready Player One kind of expands on that concept and throws in a ton of nostalgic movie references while being set in the future. The weird thing is that those recycled moments that call back to the movies of yesteryear are the highlights of Ready Player One while the rest of the film suffers from Spielberg’s usual shortcomings.
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I haven’t enjoyed a Steven Spielberg film since 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin. That combined with the trailer coming off as less than impressive and poster art from the marketing campaign (the main poster illustrated by Drew Struzan is amazing) that seemed to rely on generic face swapping via Photoshop on well-known movie posters had me really underwhelmed for the film overall. The film itself also suffers from corny dialogue, tender and romantic moments feeling force fed and overwhelming, and head-scratching sequences that leave you wondering why they needed to be included in the first place (the whole dance club/second challenge scene, for starters).
However, what the science fiction adventure gets right is the reason why you go to the movies. Spielberg along with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski know how to smoothly and effectively capture dynamic shots with a camera. When we first see Wade in The Stacks, he slides down a series of ropes and poles passing by and through various homes and junkyard cars that no longer run all while showcasing how plugged into a false reality civilization has become. The first race sequence of the film is also extraordinary with its fast pace and hectic action that is fairly easy to digest due to the sleek camera work. There’s a fairly lengthy segment devoted to a beloved horror film that is legitimately fantastic since it is not only a throwback to that original film, but it’s also injected with new thrilling terrors that you won’t see coming. Most battle sequences in the film with large ensembles are impressive for all of the obvious reasons; solid special effects, mass number of characters on the screen, a delicious dose of destruction, and most of all a countless series of references to movies, video games, and cartoons that you probably love. Witnessing what characters will pop up, when, and how they’ll be utilized is half of what makes Ready Player One so fun; it’s like a big budget version of South Park’s Imaginationland.
You either love or hate what Steven Spielberg has accomplished as a filmmaker, but it’s difficult not to admit that Ready Player One is a hell of a lot of fun even if you have some issues with the film. Spielberg has this cliche quality to him that is completely overbearing at times and he isn’t able to escape that aspect of his filmmaking with Ready Player One, but there’s enough of an entertaining and nostalgic value combined with not knowing who’s going to pop up next and some incredible cinematography highlighted by fluid yet flashy special effects resulting in a film that will be exciting and fun for anyone who was ever or still is a rabid gamer or movie lover. Spielberg has crafted a surefire crowd-pleaser that is basically a two and a half hour sentimental plunge directly into your childhood.
© 2018 Chris Sawin