‘Ready Player One’ plays unevenly — some levels of this video game-inspired sci-fi flick are a blast, while others are a grind.
From the second you power on the screen to watch Ready Player One, you’ll have to keep up with a lot. Steven Spielberg, bouncing from his Oscar-nominated drama The Post to this, shoves a lot at us in terms of plot and visuals.
The movie, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, has Avatar-like visuals, Fast and Furious-style action and, like any good Spielberg movie, just the right amount of cheese.
Still, something’s off. Perhaps it’s that the movie made the book’s milquetoast plot even more mundane. Maybe it’s that despite its bountiful collection of copyrights, it fails to do anything creative with most of them.
The first 15 minutes of the futuristic sci-fi serve as an exposition dump to get everyone up to speed on the plot — the year is 2045, and everyone lives in the virtual world Oasis because real life has gone to the wayside. People live in trailers stacked on top of each other, ignoring their squalor for a shot at glory in the Oasis.
Because of its setting, your favorite video game and movie characters mill about the background of jam-packed screen like it’s normal to see King Kong, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and the DeLorean all in one frame.
In an odd time where much of pop culture is heavily steeped in nostalgia (welcome back, Roseanne!), Ready Player One is the ultimate cash cow. Much of its heavy $178 million budget had to have gone to obtaining copyrights. The book was originally, more or less, just a long list of ’80s references — in a term, nostalgia porn.
In the Oasis, there’s a universal competition everyone can participate in. They have to find an “Easter egg” (a gaming term meaning a hidden reference often incredibly hard to find) somewhere in the game’s sprawling universe. To do it, they have to decipher clues and complete hidden challenges left behind by the game’s late creator, a blatant, knock-you-over-the-head Steve Jobs allegory played by Mark Rylance.
Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, who prefers you call him his Oasis name, Parzival. He’s as uninteresting a protagonist as they come — with no distinct traits, he’s able to accomplish what no other person has in five years and solve the first clue to the Easter egg.
To solve the clue, one has to complete a race course under chaotic siege by a band of movie monsters (this is where the King Kong, T-Rex and DeLorean reference is relevant). After the extended exposition dump where Sheridan is tasked with explaining the story over voiceover, the race scene is a well-earned treat.
Actually, it’s better than it sounds. The movie can be knocked for a lot, but in general its action scenes are unbridled thrills. The race is followed by two action scenes so delightful you forgive the dour opening — that was just the tutorial, now it’s time to actually play. These scenes include a shootout in a zero gravity dance club and a romp through a famous horror movie best left unspoiled — the entire thrill is that you’re wondering if the movie will actually do what you think it’s doing, and then it goes much further than you would have guessed.
Despite having access to some of the most famous movie characters ever, there’s no one particularly interesting on screen. Characters don’t grow, and Parzival’s entire arc revolves around him learning to share, a lesson commonly taught in pre-school. Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is the much more interesting character here — she’s Parzival’s love interest and teammate in the egg hunt, and comes from a much realer place.
The movie is a distraction. It’s something you might be won over by as it plays, but most of it won’t be retained. There’s nothing wrong with that — it completes its quest at entertaining, but clears no high score. ••