When CGI technology debuted in movies audiences were awestruck. One would often hear, “…the story was weak but it looked amazing.” As audiences grew more accustomed to CGI films that kind of excuse began to wear thin, and a movie couldn’t skate by on appearance alone. I was certainly one pounding this drum, repeatedly getting irritated that I was supposed to overlook an incomprehensible plot and a thin story because the movie had great effects.
After seeing Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s long-anticipated movie about virtually reality and gaming, I’m going to eat a little crow. The plot is incomprehensible and the story is thin, but gosh darn it, it looked amazing, and the unrelenting pace and humor of the picture papered over much of the believability issues.
Ready Player One is aching to be one of those You Tube memes with the title, ‘Everything wrong with this movie in 10 minutes.’ So it would be very difficult to describe the plot of the film, which is an ode to the visual entertainment of the past (fledgling video games), the present (movies), and the future (online and virtual reality). The best I can do to describe the story succinctly is to brand it a mash-up of Avatar, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, The Goonies, and, for the heck of it, I’ll throw in The Manhattan Project. If you have to have more crumbs than that, it’s about a bunch of kids taking on corporate baddies in virtual reality and saving the world. Full stop.
For film and gaming geeks, it has so many references and side jokes, it will take years for the nerds among us to dissect and compile them all. There are the obvious such as Back to the Future, King Kong, and The Shining (which was the best sequence of the film) and then the abstruse, such as Excalibur. And then there are probably dozens I missed.
I’m not sure giving Ready Player One more serious consideration is appropriate. It’s supposed to be fun (and it is) and silly, not just a popcorn movie but a two-bin popcorn binge with candy and soda to boot. Yet it’s also clear, the filmmakers tried to inject some kind of message into it. This effort is a muddle, and the central thread of the film has an inherent contradiction that goes unnoticed by its creators.
In the story, most of humanity spends its time in a virtual reality world, called ‘The Oasis’ created by a genius named James Halliday. Halliday is played by the always brilliant Mark Rylance, and the character is himself a mash up of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. He’s presented as a benevolent, withdrawn genius who invented something billions of people love. The real world of Ready Player One, at least as we are shown, is a husk, an economic and environmental wasteland, and people would rather be in The Oasis than anywhere. But the man responsible for turning people into virtual reality addicts, Halliday, is universally loved, while the CEO of a corporation looking to take over The Oasis is all mustache-twisting and finger-steepling evil.
You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Spielberg. Can the CEO of Facebook be beloved while the CEO of Apple reviled? After two hours and twenty minutes (not to mention a budget of $175 million), we are given a cheap homily about how it’s good to unplug once in a while. The US Forest Service (Unplug!) and the NFL (Play 60) have better campaigns for this goal, and you would think the man who invented a game space where so many have wasted their lives would be held to account. But alas, it’s only the “bad” CEO who is marched off in ignominy at the film’s conclusion. Nor was the dystopian world improved at least as far as I could tell, except The Oasis was taken over by a benign Politburo of kids. And what was the take away for real audiences: will the average film-goer walk away from this movie thinking he or she needs to exercise more, or will they run for the nearest Oculus device to get lost in a fantasy?
As with most big action spectacles these days, the filmmakers were more interested in creating a visual world with plot, character, and story coming later—and to clichéd effect. Yet something about Ready Player One’s pinache and insouciance was able to overcome its deficits, and all the quadrants this movie was intended to hit will have a pleasant, escapist experience. That’s why we go to the movies anyway, right?
3 of 4 stars
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance
Running Time: 138 min.