TL;DR – This film is so thirsty for you money with that nostalgia dollar, but like most mirages, there is not an oasis at the end, just a barren wasteland
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Well, um, well, that was very much a film, and it is a film that both fascinating to watch, yet also deeply hollow. It was honestly weird to see a film with so many contradictions, made by one of the best filmmakers of our time. However, it feels in many ways like a lot of the throwaway faff that we see on screen all the time, completely without substance. So just a quick aside, with today’s review I can’t really comment on how well this is an adaption of the source material because I have never read it. As well as that, unfortunately, this does mean that I can’t tell you if this movie does not work because of the directions that they took in the adaptation, or because the source material just gave them not much to work with. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a film that launched a thousand top 10 lists.
So to set the scene, in 2045 the world is not a great place to live in, wars and famines have devastated society, and now Columbus, Ohio is the fastest growing city in the world, which might actually be the silliest thing this film sets up. Most people live their lives in a virtual reality world called OASIS where you can be whoever/whatever you want. This is where we meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who lives in the Stacks with his aunty (Susan Lynch) and her abusive boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). In the real world he basically has no prospects but in OASIS he is Parzival a Gunter and friend of Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki). A Gunter is one of those who is hunting down the mystery of the founder of OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday died he let the whole world know that he had left three keys hidden in OASIS and whoever finds all three keys would inherit control of OASIS. That was five years ago and since then no one has been able to get through the first challenge. Only the truly dedicated and skilled players like Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) still try. For many Gunters it is the lure of becoming the richest person in the world that draws them to the hunt, for others it is they want to stop Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who is trying to use his money to brute force the challenge to be the biggest company in the world. All the challenges are based on Halliday’s life, the films, shows, games that he played and meticulously documents, and while no has found a key in five years, everything is about to change.
So at this point, I don’t think it will be a surprise to say that I was disappointed in the film, however, there were some things about it that did really work. So look this is a film by one of the world’s best filmmakers at the moment, the mind behind Jurassic Park and many others and Janusz Kamiński the cinematographer behind the stunning Schindler’s List and many more. So while there is not much going on here, all of it is beautifully framed and presented. You also get those classic Spielberg oners that really fit in with the tone of the film. I did like that when they were in the real world they used practical sets wherever possible so that did get this juxtaposition between the real and virtual worlds. As well as this, OASIS is well realised and Industrial Light and Magic never disappoint with their visuals. Also I did like the visual difference of the conformist sixers with the chaos of the rest of the OASIS.
Now there are a lot of films/shows at the moment that are really hitting up that 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, you have Stranger Things (see review), The Lego Batman Film (see review), and Power Rangers (see review) to name but a few. However, nothing up now, bar maybe Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has ever had this level of stuff everywhere. Seriously there is no way that you will catch every pop-culture reference in the first viewing, and while I would not go and see it a second time, I know the second this drops on DVD/digital there will be hundreds of ‘Top Ten Things you missed in Ready Player One’ lists that will descend upon YouTube like the plague they will be. I love Easter eggs, I love pop culture, in many respects, this is a film that is tailored to me. However, I walked out of the film feeling simply hollow, which is both deeply frustrating, yet also fascinating.
So why did this film simply not work, well let’s take a moment at look at that nostalgia. In the film you will see the bike from Akira, the Serenity from Firefly, as well as, King Kong, The Iron Giant, The DeLorean, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Duke Nukem, Star Trek, and on, and on, and on. Seriously wait until the end of the credits and look at all the different companies they have to credit, it’s almost ridiculous. This film is stuffed to the gills with references, however, bar a handful they are just set dressing. They only exist to be ‘see we get you guys look at this [insert pop-culture reference] from your childhood’ that will flash on a screen so quick in some cases you can literally blink and miss it. It feels forced, it feels clawing, and it feels like a big corporation trying to get my wallet open with references to my childhood, without understanding it. This is because there is no context given to any of it, it is just set dressing, like people taking toys out of a box that only has name tags on them, which is literally a scene that happens in the film. In many respects, except for maybe The Shining section, maybe, it feels like they got someone who had never seen anything from pop-culture to decide what goes into the film after doing an internet search and then also deciding how they get used.
Take for example The Lego Film, which in many respects is quite similar to Ready Player One. You get the same avalanche of pop-culture references and franchise in the film, and frankly, in some respects, it is a film that exists to blatantly market products, but it works so much better. This is first because the film knew what it was, so it could play on that, and also wink at the audience to let them know that they were also in on the joke. As well as this, The Lego Film made clear that it understood the properties that it was using in the film, yes Superman was in it only for a moment, but you knew it was Superman from more than just his suit. Because in Ready Play One these are all meant to be avatars, you get none of the personality that makes them who they are, they are just empty shells and it feels like it throughout the film. So throughout the film, it is like we are getting teased with moments from our past, but without the depth to make them meaningful.
All of this leads to the film actually just feeling dull most of the time, which given everything that is going on is almost an achievement. Now there are a lot of reasons behind this and part of this does feel like it stems from the mishandling of characters. So, for example, you have Ben Mendelsohn who at the moment has almost created a career of being a compelling villain, who just feels bland. Look, yes, I agree that this feels like it was a conscious character design choice, but it was a missed opportunity. The same can be said for his security offsider F’Nale Zandor, she is played by the wonderful Hannah John-Kamen, and if you are not watching Killjoys you should totally be watching Killjoys. However, here bar for one short moment in the end, she is wasted in this role, with her amazing talents hiding behind a poor story. Everything in the real world just feels like a slog to get through, and you feel disconcerted with people of the world, so you don’t really care one way of the other. Look this is a film with Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance, two of my favourite actors working at the moment, and I felt bored when they were on screen.
When thinking back to the film it honestly feels like it could not make up who the film was for, so it targeted itself so widely that it felt like it was for no one. So I think what they were going for was a kids film that the parents going along would get some of the references, and sure that can work, see the before mentioned The Lego Film. However, here it doesn’t work because this feels like it was a film made for the parent to go to and then added parts to be more kid-friendly and that disconnect just falls flat. As well as this, it sets up Nolan as the big bad who wants to destroy video games, but doing things that would be actually quite common to see in video games today. It feels more than a little disingenuous especially since this is a film from a large corporation about how bad large corporations are.
In the end, are there things in Ready Player One that work? Sure, it is a Steven Spielberg after all. However, do we recommend it? No, unfortunately not. Look this might be the last time we ever get to see the Serenity on the big screen and here I recommend that you don’t go and see it and trust me it pains me to do it. However, take away all the pop-culture references, that were not that great to begin with, and what do you have left, a shallow experience, and to be honestly adding the pop-culture references back it doesn’t help add much to the film at all.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Ready Player One
Directed by – Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by – Zak Penn & Ernest Cline
Based on – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Music by – Alan Silvestri
Cinematography by – Janusz Kamiński
Edited by – Michael Kahn & Sarah Broshar
Starring – Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Susan Lynch, Ralph Ineson & Hannah John-Kamen
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13