[SPOILERS] Ready Player One (2018)
Title: Ready Player One (2018)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars (primary actors): Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, TJ Miller
Bias: Despite having never read the book, I can’t imagine being any more the target audience for this movie.
In A Nutshell: In the near future, a VR world/video game known as the OASIS serves as an escape for millions in a kind of/sort of/semi-dystopic America. A hunt inside the game is on for an Easter egg left by the creator of the game, which will give the winner complete ownership over the OASIS. Wade Watts (Sheridan), a young gamer, must race against the evil CEO of IOI, who wants the OASIS for himself.
The Critique: Let me start by saying, if you liked Ready Player One – even if you loved it – I get it. This review isn’t meant to tell you you’re wrong. It’s meant to serve as a response to a film that somehow felt like it was going out of it’s way to be bad for me. I’m an apologist at heart and I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that I disliked as much as this. Scratch that. Dislike is about as negative a response as I usually have to a film, and my feelings are stronger than that. I hated almost everything about this movie.
I’ve never read the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, so the extent to which the film successfully adapts it, I don’t know. What knew of the premise (in my head it boils down to “What if Disney Infinity/Lego Dimensions were a film?”) sounded cool. While 80’s nostalgia is more than a little played out I’m not opposed when it’s done well – last year’s It, Stranger Things, or the Brian K. Vaughn/Cliff Chiang comic Paper Girls, for example. But both of those use the nostalgic appeal as a way to draw the audience in to a compelling, well-told story. The kids in Stranger Things feel like real people with real emotions in real danger. They have personalities, rather than skill-sets and platitudes. Wade is a complete cipher who doesn’t seem to want anything but to be rich instead of poor or feel anything but “love” for Ath3na (Cooke), a legendary gamer (we know this about her because Wade tells us, as he tells us EVERYTHING, CONSTANTLY) in the OASIS who is also going after the Easter egg. Ath3na is the closest thing to a real character as she (rightly) wants the egg to keep Sorrento (Mendelsohn) and his corporation from getting it and ruining things for everyone, as well as (rightly) pointing out to Wade that he can’t possibly “love” her because he literally knows nothing about her except for the limited things she’s allowed him to know in the five minutes they’ve interacted with each other in the game. That Wade and Ath3na end up together despite that is just one of the movie’s many flaws.
Where the nostalgia also fails is the “Where’s Waldo?” visual noise within the OASIS itself. Massive battle scenes, race scenes, and crowd scenes are filled with what would be recognizable pop culture references from the 80s if you could make them out in the half a second they’re onscreen. Instead it’s “Look! It’s Freddy Kreuger! Over there! It’s Strawberry Shortcake! – except, that’s for girls, so none of that.” And part of the problem is that none of this “nostalgia” is rooted in character. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and when he’s meeting Ath3na at a club he dresses in Buckaroo Banzai’s iconic suit, and his best friend in the game, Aech (Waithe) is building an Iron Giant, but we’re never shown why these things are important to the characters. And it’s because they don’t. They matter to us – the audience – because we recognize them, have our own attachments to them, and presumably the expectation is that that’s enough. Instead, it’s a film trading on the cultural currency of those things in a crassly commercial way.
The film spends almost as much time outside of the OASIS as in it, and this should be the opportunity to really sell why it’s so important to everyone, why they need that escape (beyond a throwaway voice-over line), and why Sorrento’s plan so desperately needs to be stopped. Instead, the worldbuilding seems to stop at the Stacks, a genuinely interesting concept (the poorest of the poor living in stacks of trailers that evoke skyscrapers). But outside of that we get so little an idea of what the world is like that I was genuinely confused when the police show up to stop the villains because there was never an indication a mundane police force still existed (you’d think they might have been interested in the giant explosion in the Stacks an hour or so earlier in the film).
The ending itself (or, endings, as there’s one in the OASIS and one outside) is perhaps the most infuriating thing. So, having retrieved three keys that give the players three clues that lead Wade to the elusive Easter egg, there’s an exchange between the deceased creator, Halliday, who has presumably been an AI-driven avatar throughout. Only, Wade asks, “You’re not an avatar, are you? Is Halliday really dead?” and receives a bemused smile in response. I don’t know if this is meant to set up some sort of sequel mystery or what, but the fact that the question isn’t raised until the movie is nearly over, and then not even begun to be answered felt genuinely hacky.
Even more of a problem is the ending ending. Gone is our diverse (albeit, problematically so) team of heroes, and instead the now super-wealthy Wade and his romantic prize Samantha/Ath3na snuggle together in a chair as Wade details the changes he’s made to the OASIS, including closing it down on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because the now super-wealthy Wade has learned the importance of living in the real world sometimes – you know, the world that is so terrible that the need to protect the OASIS from Sorrento so that people can escape it was the driving motivation for the entire film up to this point…just, no.
Shout-out: In addition to all of the 80s Easter eggs (as opposed to the Macguffin Easter egg) we get the nostalgic throwback of the mechanically-adept/black sidekick character, along with the two Asian martial artists who help our inexplicably effective white male hero win the girl..er…game…trope. So, that’s fun.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: If you subscribe to Netflix and this shows up, I recommend canceling your subscription.