You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Ready Player One’

Steven Spielberg has turned Ernest Cline's novel into a virtual-reality fanboy geek-out that's entrancing when it's virtual, less so when it's real.

Steven Spielberg
Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Susan Lynch, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, McKenne Grace, Letitia Wright.
Release Date:
Mar 29, 2018

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1677720/

In “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s dizzyingly propulsive virtual-reality fanboy geek-out, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a dystopian trailer park in the year 2045, spends most of his time strapping on a headset and immersing himself in the OASIS, a techie surrealist theme park of the senses. Once inside, you never know what you’re going to see or imagine next — though it’s hard to go for more than 30 seconds without encountering some succulent tidbit of pop nostalgia, most of it from the 1980s.

Early on, there’s a shoot-the-works car chase in which Wade — or, rather, his avatar, Parzival, who resembles a frosted-blond, plane-cheeked Keanu Reeves in a jean vest — climbs into the wing-doored DeLorean DMC-12 from “Back to the Future” and races through a cityscape at pedal-to-the-metal speed to the tune of Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” even as he’s pursued by King Kong and the T. Rex from “Jurassic Park.” (Blink and you’ll miss the Batmobile.)

A bit later, Parzival goes on a date with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who is also an avatar, with punk-red hair and the oversize eyes of an anime kewpie doll. He gets ready for the evening by morphing into assorted outfits — he tries on Prince, Michael Jackson, and a Duran Duran trench coat before settling on the shaggy suit and tie of Buckaroo Banzai. At a nightclub, Parzival and Art3mis boogie to “Staying Alive” on a floating disco floor and wind up literally dancing on air. All very trancy and romantic, though what good is virtual reality if you can’t wage an unholy battle in it?

Have no fear: In “Ready Player One,” there is plenty of vicarious fantasy combat, notably a war of the worlds that features the Iron Giant as well as the red-eyed, gleaming silver Mechagodzilla. Every time a creature like that shows up (at one point, even the monster fetus from “Alien” makes a kind of palm-buzzer cameo), it’s entrancingly cool. “Ready Player One” tells a breathless and relatively coherent story — essentially, the future of civilization is riding on the outcome of a video game — but the movie, first and foremost, is a coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy.

Spielberg, when he got up on stage to introduce “Ready Player One” at the film’s SXSW premiere, made a point of insisting that it wasn’t a film — he said it was very much a movie. Yet I wondered why he needed to make the distinction. Years ago, the words “Spielberg” and “fantasy” went together like “ice” and “cream,” or maybe “Citizen” and “Kane,” and one reason for that is that Spielberg grounded fantasy (even the spectacular extraterrestrial visit of “Close Encounters”) in the nitty-gritty of the real world. That’s what made his fantasies magical.

Yet ever since he became more of a serious, real-world dramatic filmmaker, Spielberg seems to have dichotomized reality and fantasy in his thinking. “Ready Player One” isn’t an obnoxiously flashy and hollow indulgence, like “Speed Racer” or last year’s live-action “Ghost in the Shell.” It’s an accomplished and intermittently hypnotic movie. Yet you may feel like you’re occupied more than you are invested. The virtual world that Spielberg creates, though it just about pops off the screen, isn’t an emotionally textured place. Mostly we’re just staring at it, or “riding” it.

The most telling sequence in “Ready Player One” is the one in which Parzival, Art3mis, and Parzival’s best friend and protector, an avatar named Aech (pronounced H), who resembles a metalloid cross between Vin Diesel and Shrek, enter the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” The reason they’ve gone there is that they’re trying to track down the woman who James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the disconnected nerd-genius inventor of the OASIS, once had a date with and nearly kissed. It turns out that the two went out to the movies (they went to see “The Shining”), and as the characters in “Ready Player One” stroll around on the sets and images from Kubrick’s film, it’s ticklish, after an hour or so of slippery mutating synthetic digital imagery, to envision “virtual reality” as something that’s this iconic and analog and concrete.

Aech winds up next to the Overlook’s infamous Art Deco elevators, slipping and sliding around in the jellied blood that pours out of them, and that’s before he ventures up to Room 237. The black-and-white New Year’s Eve photograph that pictured a tuxedoed Jack Nicholson now features, in his place, James Halliday, and Art3mis is able to make contact with Halliday’s date, which results in our heroes getting one of the three keys they need to win the game. Yet when that victorious moment happens, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. In “Ready Player One,” everything you could call virtual is clever and spellbinding. Everything you might call reality is rather banal.

If Wade can win the three keys, he’ll unlock the hidden Easter Egg that Halliday tucked inside the OASIS and inherit Halliday’s empire, worth half a trillion dollars; he’ll also gain control of the OASIS itself. Competing for the same prize is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a corporate weasel who’s the head of Innovative Online Industries (I.O.I.), a company that wants to dominate the world. Ernest Cline, the Austin novelist who wrote the 2011 novel on which “Ready Player One” is based, and co-wrote the screenplay as well (along with Zak Penn), packs in the geek references — and not just the stated ones (Hot Pockets! John Hughes! Robotron! Beetlejuice! Chucky!) but the fact that Halliday is a kind of Steve Jobs crossed with Willy Wonka. Or the way that the OASIS, an escape valve from the world, isn’t just a projection of what VR might one day become but a metaphor for how people relate to the Web right now.

Yet the contradiction of a video-game/VR movie is that games are, of course, awesomely immersive, whereas a movie about games is more akin to watching somebody else play one. The hoops that Wade and his team have to jump through to win each key feel arbitrary, like rules made up as the plot goes along, and you wish there were a greater sense of intrigue to it. The movie has more activity than it does layers.

Eventually, we meet the real-life people behind the avatars. Art3mis is really Sam, played by Cooke as a pensive redhead made shy by her birthmark, and Aech, though still called Aech, is played by the spiky and ebullient Lena Waithe, from “Master of None.” The one actor who gives a genuine crafted performance is Mark Rylance, who plays Halliday as a spooked angel trapped inside his frizzy head. We see slices of his past, including his fateful break-up with the partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), who launched the OASIS with him. Yet all of this adds up on paper without ever seeming like more, in the movie, than a frame on which Spielberg can hang his eruptive visual imagination. “Ready Player One” is set in a dilapidated future where fantasy rules because reality looks hellish by comparison. Yet the movie puts you in a different mindset. By the end, you’re more than ready to escape from all the escapism.

Film Review: 'Ready Player One'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (TBA), March 11, 2018. Running time: 140 MIN.

Production: A Warner Bros. release of a Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, De Line Pictures production. Producers: Steven Spielberg, Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko Krieger. Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Christopher DeFaria, Daniel Lupi, Adam Somner.

Crew: Director: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Ernest Cline, Zak Penn. Camera (color, widescreen): Janusz Kaminski. Editors: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn. Music: Alan Silvestri.

With: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Susan Lynch, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, McKenne Grace, Letitia Wright.

More Film

  • Jack Ryan

    Richard Rutkowski on ‘Jack Ryan,’ Costa-Gavras and Being Nice Abroad

    TORUN, Poland – Speaking at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday, Richard Rutkowski praised the work of Costa-Gavras, offered sage advice for filmmakers working internationally, and offered a glimpse of the fast-paced work faced by cinematographers on high-profile TV series. Rutkowski, whose credits include “Jack Ryan,” “Castle Rock” and “The Americans,” discussed the methods, [...]

  • 'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With

    'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With High-Powered Storytelling

    Filming the Sundance-awarded “Honeyland” in a remote North Macedonia locale without roads or electricity, it was easy to get lost, confesses cinematographer Fejmi Daut. “It was too hard to decide what would be the storyline in the beginning,” said the debut DP, speaking at the 27th EnergaCamerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland. The editing process [...]

  • Q A_Joker_Lawrence-Sher_CKK-Jordanki_fot-Maria-Kowalska_11

    'Joker’ Cinematographer on Joaquin Phoenix’s Transformative Performance

    TORUN, Poland – “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher received a rockstar welcome at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday as attendees struggled to squeeze into a standing-room only conference room for a lively and in-depth Q&A session on the making of the box office sensation. Sher appeared equally excited to be at the event. “Obviously [...]

  • Igor Drljaca, Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo

    Verve Signs 'Disappearance at Clifton Hill' Director Albert Shin (EXCLUSIVE)

    Verve has signed Albert Shin, the director of the buzzy new thriller “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” Variety has learned. Distribution rights for the film were recently acquired by IFC Midnight and the movie is expected to open in February. “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It centers on a [...]

  • John Bailey

    John Bailey Urges Cinematographers to Embrace Story Over Technology

    It’s safe to say John Bailey does not miss the trappings of the president’s office at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Speaking at a retrospective celebrating his five decades of cinematography work at Poland’s EnergaCamerimage festival, where Bailey will be honored with a lifetime achievement award this week, he told an audience [...]

  • Justin Bieber Cupid Movie

    Justin Bieber Debuts First Look at 'Cupid' Movie

    Beware of cupid’s arrow. Justin Bieber unveiled a first-look photo for “Cupid,” his upcoming animated movie from Mythos Studios. The image sees a cartooned Bieber, who will voice the god of love, on the side of a cliff with the sun setting in the background. “Cupid” will tell the story of the eponymous mythical being [...]

  • Robert De Niro

    Robert De Niro to Receive SAG Life Achievement Award

    Robert De Niro will be honored with a SAG life achievement award. The legendary actor, who currently stars in Netflix’s “The Irishman” and Warner Bros.’ “Joker,” will receive the performers’ union’s top accolade at the 26th annual SAG Awards on Jan. 19 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The award is given annually to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content