Film Review: ‘Ready Player One’ is a fun ride but lacks depth

Courtesy of CenturyCinema5

Steven Spielberg is back in the directorial chair for his latest film, “Ready Player One,” based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name. Set in the near-future, the film follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in “The Stacks,” a slum in Columbus, Ohio. His only escape from the dreary real world is the OASIS, a virtual reality world where users can be whoever they want — their only limitation is imagination.

After the death of the OASIS’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a few years prior, users have been on the hunt for an Easter Egg Halliday has hidden within the OASIS. Whoever completes the three main challenges can unlock the Egg, and gain control over the OASIS and Halliday’s stock. Wade, who goes by the name “Parzival” in the OASIS, finds himself a frontrunner shortly after he meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a female avatar he develops feelings for.

Sheridan and Cooke are both endearing leads, but the true star of the film is the stunning visuals of the OASIS. Spielberg uses a combination of motion-capture performances and extensive CGI to bring this virtual world to life, and the result is one of the most innovative visual landscapes I’ve ever seen in a film. The OASIS looks a lot like a modern video game; no detail is overlooked, from the character design to the world-building aspects.

There are some dynamic action sequences that take place here that includes a car race and a third-act battle. In the hands of a less skilled director (and visual effects team), the film could have run the risk of being bombastic, but Spielberg has a strong command over his vision. I think this will likely be a frontrunner for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars next year (if not Best Animated Feature).

Pop culture references are littered throughout the film; you could watch “Ready Player One” ten times and not pick up everything. Some people may find this distracting or pandering, but I actually thought it was fun being able to identify all the different references to movies, music and video games. Most notable is “The Shining,” which plays a surprisingly big role in the second act. Nothing new necessarily gets said about pop culture, but it’s still fun to be able to say, “I understood that reference.”

The familiar themes of a Spielberg film are present as well, most notably being that sense of childhood wonder he’s so good at creating. Wade is the hero of the story, but he’s also a kid who just wants to escape and dream up a better life for himself. He comes from a dysfunctional home-life (again, classic Spielberg), living with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend. Knowing that, it’s pretty easy to side with Wade and root for him in the OASIS.

“Ready Player One” is definitely more idealistic than it is realistic, and that’s probably its biggest fault. Spielberg goes for an optimistic tone, which is ultimately the right choice, but he doesn’t allow the bigger emotional moments to sink in. In particular, a major event happens to Wade about halfway through the film that should have a huge impact on him. He digests this for a moment, but then it gets brushed off like it didn’t happen. This is an example of the film’s overall lack of emotional weight.

I also thought it was a missed opportunity to dive deeper into Halliday’s backstory. As part of the Easter Egg hunt, users can visit a virtual library of Halliday’s memories to help give them clues. Wade and Art3mis visit this library, and we do see some of Halliday’s life, but we only see the things that most serve the plot rather than truly understanding Halliday. I got a real “Being John Malkovich” vibe from these scenes, and I think that there was more to explore here on a psychological level. I really liked Mark Rylance’s performance as the introverted, neurotic tech-genius, but I wanted more of him in the film.

As I said, the OASIS is a fun, visually impressive universe, but the film asks its audience members to make a few leaps in logic to accept all the events unfolding. The film’s antagonist, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), runs an organization called “Innovative Online Industries,” whose sole task is to find the Easter Egg. Yet, they had never gotten close to uncovering anything until Wade took the lead. It just seems unlikely that no one in the IOI would have thought of these solutions. Another leap in logic is the convenience with which things come together or get resolved. The OASIS is a global phenomenon, and yet, everyone important seems to reside near Columbus, including Wade’s avatar friends within the game.

Maybe this is a nitpick, but as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how people didn’t get injured more in real life from the OASIS. There are kids blindly running around with their VR headsets on, which should be a major safety hazard, but that never seems to be a problem for anyone. Logistically, the OASIS is not that feasible, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about it.

If you’re looking for a deep, emotional or inspirational movie-going experience, you’ll find that “Ready Player One” is a bit hollow. But if you’re looking for a solid, entertaining flick, I think you’ll enjoy it. Its incredible visuals and endless pop culture references are enough to outweigh its shortcomings. “Ready Player One” is not Spielberg’s smartest film, but it’s still a hell of a fun ride.

At any rate, it’s probably the best “video game” movie we’ll ever get.

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