When it was first announced that Ernest Cline’s epic, sci-fi love letter to the ‘80s was going to be adapted from its original novel form into a Hollywood blockbuster, the reactions were mixed. Fans of the book especially treated the news with trepidation. How would a film manage to cram the enormous amount of action, adventure and pop culture references into a two-hour runtime? Others were concerned with the admittedly problematic writing and how the story was, if we’re being perfectly honest, rather cringe. It was up to director Steven Spielberg to address these issues in the final product, which he has managed to do but with only varying degrees of success.

Ready Player One takes place in the year 2045, where society has all but collapsed. Most people spend all their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world that allows them to go anywhere, do anything and be anyone. The OASIS was created by the revered James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a Steve Jobs type figure who dreamt up his creation with his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) as a means to escape a world that didn’t understand him.

When he passed away, Halliday left his immense fortune and control of the OASIS to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt, to find the three keys that would grant control of this virtual world, spawned a mass of player called Gunters – Egg Hunters – who were determined to win the contest.

Our unlikely hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a typically nerdy, overweight, glasses-wearing Halliday expert who goes by the name Parzival in the OASIS. Parzival is desperately trying to win the contest to escape poverty and life in The Stacks in the real world. Of course, there are literally thousands of other players trying to do the same thing, from Parzival’s best friend and modding expert Aech to legendary Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).

There’re also the Sixers, players employed by the evil organisation Interactive Online Industries or IOI for short. Run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), IOI has all the money, backing and endless amounts of players to throw at Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt. And if they win, well, it’s obviously going to be for nefarious purposes, as Sorrento has his own ideas on how the OASIS should be run.

At its core, Ready Player One is all about the Easter Eggs. The Halliday Hunt, yes, but also the number of references to pop culture that the movie throws at you. There are far, far too many to list, and it would honestly take multiple rewatches to pick up all of them. When you do spot some awesome reference, it’s almost impossible not to nudge your neighbour with delighted whispers of “Blade Runner!” or “Monty Python!” But an overload of references does not a movie, or a book for that matter, make. There’s got to be a bit more substance to the story, and here is where Spielberg and co. tend to stumble.

Parzival’s crew of friends and hangers-on are underwritten and two dimensional, though Olivia Cooke does as much as she can with Art3mis who is a stand-out character. These characters, who we are supposed to cheer for and love, end up as plot devices that are only there to help Parzival with his quest. They’re basically NPC’s, which given the setting should be fine – if it weren’t for the fact that they’re all supposed to be real people. You can only do so much with what you’re given to work with though, and most of the story missteps are straight from the book, including the most cringe-worthy dialogue.

Oddly enough, where the movie shines is where it deviates from its source material. Fans will likely spend hours pulling apart the Easter Eggs in Ready Player One but trust me when I say that the film is an improvement over the book. Firstly, there aren’t as many of the nudge-nudge nostalgia moments, and the really obvious ones are completely different from what happened in the book. Yes, I know two paragraphs ago I said that it’s overloaded with references, but there are far fewer than you are subjected to in the novel.

Spielberg also places more trust in his audience. Instead of being overly-descriptive and boringly verbose as Cline was wont to do, Spielberg allows the visuals to speak for themselves. From the get-go, Parzival is seen driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, but it’s just treated matter-of-factly as a cool car. If you recognise it as the DeLorean, then awesome, but there’s no time to stop and languish over the nostalgia.

Inside the OASIS, the film’s pacing goes at a break-neck speed. The first act is a near non-stop rollercoaster ride of flashy thrills and massive action sequences. Here is where Spielberg’s blockbuster mastery is shown in full effect. From speeding break-neck around race courses in the aforementioned DeLorean to a delightfully detailed homage to Stanley Kubrick (probably the best sequence in the entire film), Spielberg’s admittedly hit-and-miss filmmaking from the past few years is on point in Ready Player One. Unfortunately, that sort of pace is unsustainable, and when the movie slows down it’s practically to a crawl. Scenes outside of the technological marvel of the OASIS drag at a snail’s pace when relying on the underdeveloped side characters.

And therein, for me, lies the biggest issue. Ready Player One is a great excuse to go completely wild with impressive special effects, but this comes at the cost of the story. There’s no more subtlety, no more edge, and the darker moments of the book are either glossed over or straight up ignored. Look, the book wasn’t exactly lauded as a literary masterpiece in the first place, it’s a childish, male wish-fulfilment fantasy. But in the same way that Cline’s book was a spot-the-reference game to the ‘80s, the film is a spot-the-reference game to the book. It’s a weird mishmash of the best and worst parts, stripped down in some areas and built up in others.

If you haven’t read the book, you obviously won’t continually be making comparisons to the source material, but you will miss out in other ways. Spielberg’s movie skims over the deeper issues behind this gloomy future, and doesn’t bother to provide answers about how things work exactly, in the OASIS and out – which you would find on the page. Also, from around the point where the search for the third key begins, Ready Player One seems to lose its grip on itself. When earlier it provides breathing space to appreciate the film’s strong sense of fun and wonder, it becomes rushed and jumbled. You find yourself questioning whether certain plot choices are filmmaking failings or deliberate references to 80s adolescent-orientated cinema. In the end, you’re left with a trite moral that comes out of nowhere, and a strong sense that this movie was made with a very specific demographic in mind, to the exclusion of anyone else.

Last Updated: March 22, 2018

Ready Player One
Summary
Ready Player One is a visual spectacle and, for better or worse, captures the spirit of its source material. If you don’t think about it too hard, and don’t mind being side-lined if you’re not 100% the target audience, you’ll enjoy this a big, fun, dumb action adventure movie.
6.5
64/ 100

Tracy Benson

All about movies, board games, cider, sci-fi, fantasy and geek culture.

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