Ready Player One
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Zak Penn & Ernest Cline
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, & TJ Miller
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
As a baby of the 80’s, I grew up watching and re-watching a lot of 80’s/90’s blockbusters. Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Masters of the Universe, Jaws, Back to the Future, E.T., Die Hard, T2: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park, Batman, Superman: The Movie, and many others – these were my bread & butter back in the day. You could say that they very much shaped my taste in movies overall, as I usually prefer the experience of seeing a great blockbuster epic over a good comedy, thriller, or drama. That’s due to the fact that, like many of you, I’m always chasing the feeling those movies gave me when I was a child – the feeling of wonder and excitement that you get from seeing something new and interesting on the grandest scale possible.
The father/grandfather/grand-pooba of this giant medium that we came to know as the “blockbuster” is obviously none other than Steven Spielberg, who had a hand in creating many of the movies listed above and more. And yet, when he was announced as the director of the film adaptation of one of my favorite books in recent years, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I wasn’t too overly excited. While the contents of the book couldn’t exist without referencing the movies he made, even Spielberg would admit that he hasn’t made any movies like that in quite some time.
In fact, I’d wondered if the man was even capable of producing the lightning in a bottle that he once was the world’s foremost expert at producing. Let’s face it, the man hasn’t made an adventure epic that really pops since Jurassic Park. That’s not to say he hasn’t made any good movies since then – I love Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan, and some others as much as the next guy, but they’re far different and more adult leaning movies than his 80’s/90’s adventures that families could enjoy together. He’s tried dipping his toes back into those waters with movies like The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, & The BFG, but all of those, while not terrible movies, failed to capture the former magic of his earlier films.
Make no mistake here, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg showing us doubters that he’s still got it – and boy, does he ever. The film adaptation captures the essence of the book, improves on it, and cements Steven Spielberg as a man to never count out when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking.
At first and basically any glance, Ready Player One is so in Steven’s wheelhouse it’s insane. It references an era that he helped shape and also allows him to show off his new VFX tricks (I highly suggest seeing this one in 3D IMAX). This combination of ever-present and ever-changing nostalgia and new visual flair create something that is unmistakably Spielberg.
For the uninitiated, Ready Player One, follows a lower-class kid named Wade Watts who, like most of the overpopulated, rundown world, spends his days in a virtual reality universe called the Oasis, because the world is a terrible place that warrants constant escape. When the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, dies, he announces a VR challenge to the world – the winner of which will not only take control of the Oasis, but also inherit the creator’s massive fortune. Wade and his friends spend their time in the Oasis searching for clues and keys to win this challenge. They’re up against a giant corporation (IOI), led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento, that’s hell-bent on assuming control of the Oasis and using it to hold a dominant monopoly on ad-filled VR content and, in turn, the world. What follows is a part Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a dash of The Matrix, a zing of Avatar, and a pinch of Indiana Jones, that come together to form an adventure of a flick that feels like the closest thing we’ll ever get to an 80’s blockbuster again. It’s the exact thing that fills a guy like me with the child-like/drug-like joy that I’m chasing whenever I see a blockbuster like this.
The cast that Steven has chosen for this epic is serviceable enough, for the most part. Tye Sheridan and Oliva Cooke, are a bit wooden at times, but are made better by the supporting cast that surrounds them, like Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Simon Pegg and Philip Zhao. Ben Mendelsohn, yet again, takes on his scowling villain role with menace to spare. The stand-out of the movie, and many of Spielberg’s recent movies, is Mark Rylance, who plays the eccentric, 80’s pop-culture obsessed creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, with such goofiness and quirk that you can’t help but adore the man.
While I wasn’t sold on the VFX in the trailers, seeing it in 3D IMAX absolutely floored me. All of the big set pieces teased in the trailers are not only bigger & better in context, but they’re chock full of so many nostalgic references that you’ll likely be going back for second and third viewings just to attempt to catch them all. Seriously, the amount of times I giddily said, “Wait…was that _____?” is absurd.
That’s not to say that the movie is perfect. There’s the bits of wooden acting mentioned above. The film also has a lot of work to do just to get the audience onboard and following along, which requires a ton of expositional dialogue; however, it never topples the movie over. Thankfully, Spielberg knows how to toe the expositional line – the dialogue guides you along, but never drags you or talks down to you.
While the film takes a lot of what makes 80’s movies great, it also keeps some things that don’t fly quite as much these days. Specifically, the character of Artemis/Samantha. In the Oasis, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She has her own drive & motivations, but as soon as we meet her outside of that, her beats/motivations, without hesitation, become completely secondary to Wade’s and she becomes the typical 80’s love interest. Yes, it was fine(ish) in the 80’s, but I can see Ready Player One taking some flack for this one.
The film also has trouble sticking the landing in the end, but it comes close enough and the adventure that precedes it is so astoundingly fun that you’re hard-pressed not to forgive it.
For all its strengths and faults, Ready Player One is a movie that feels both like a blast of nostalgia and a completely new experience all at once. As much as the story needed Spielberg to translate it, Spielberg needed an adventure like this to reclaim his throne. Hail, King Spielberg…and we’ll never doubt you again.