Ready Player One (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Underneath the superficial layer of impressive visual effects lies a movie with great potential to hone in on our relationship with escapism, sometimes in the form nostalgia, in “Ready Player One,” a busy and noisy picture that functions both as a love letter and a criticism of video game culture. While its main goal is to entertain by parading pop culture references from the 1970s to the 2010s, it is actually most effective when these elements are brushed to the side as the film gets a chance to explore its specific universe where virtual reality has taken over nearly everyone’s lives to the point where an imaginary world of avatars is chosen over actual life with flawed but real people.
Director Steven Spielberg is no stranger as a storyteller when it comes to underlining our connection with technology. As he did in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report,” superior works compared to this film, he touches upon our responsibility in ensuring that the tech we create does not overshadow our humanity. However, this theme is not ironed out through the scope of our protagonist’s journey in attempting to win complete ownership of the OASIS, an extremely profitable virtual reality world where people, many of them low-income, go to become and do anything they wish. Their only limit is their imagination.
Tye Sherdian plays our hero named Wade Watts and he lives in a place called “the stacks” in Columbus, Ohio 2045, a slum-like location where trailers are literally stacked on top of one another. While Sheridan is competent in portraying a character who is suddenly thrown in an epic battle against corporate greed (Ben Mendelsohn), he is ineffective during dramatic moments where, for example, he must connect in a romantic way with another character (Olivia Cooke). His facial expressions do not change much throughout the course of the film.
But the picture looks beautiful. I argue that the scenes that take place in the real world are more eye-catching than those set in virtual reality. To me, there is a tactile griminess in the overpopulation of this world; people look dejected, angry, without hope. Look at the crowd’s postures, whether walking about or sitting down, how nearly lifeless, wan, and hungry they look. They rarely smile; no laughter is heard in the various outside communities we visit, not even inside the corporate building where management rule with an iron hand. The potent images of its real world draw us in because they show a possible eventuality for us.
Sure, the CGI in the virtual world looks amazing. Who doesn’t wish to see the DeLorean smash against other generic cars in a high-stakes race, to marvel at the sheer size of the lovable Iron Giant, to be terrified by the seemingly indestructible Mechagodzilla, and wish that there was a Gundam standalone movie in the works? But they are not critical to the enrichment of the picture compared to the aforementioned elements of convincing world-building. In other words, they are stunning decorations. And I think these throwbacks spent so much time being front and center that the film’s running time had ballooned unnecessarily.
Still, there are moments when references are utilized to progress the plot. I will refrain from specifics, but the best example, I think, takes place inside a classic horror movie. My mouth was agape when Wade and his friends (Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) set foot inside this incredibly memorable place filled with nightmares. The first shot of this place is exactly the way it should be. Spielberg is smart enough to take a few seconds of pause so that those of us familiar with the work have time to be thoroughly impressed. And I was.
Based on Ernest Cline’s novel, “Ready Player One” is not about winning trials in order to acquire keys that will lead to a participant claiming ownership of the OASIS. It is about the importance of human connection. Its overall message is apparent way before the halfway point. It left me scratching my head then as to why Spielberg felt the need to return consistently to the less interesting virtual world. And because it attempts to juggle both worlds where stakes in each one were treated with equal importance, there is a disconnect between central character relationships like the budding affection between Wade and Samantha. There should be romance there, just like there should be romance between the picture and the audience. Alas, there is only impersonation.