- Ready Player One by Steven Spielberg
In Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title, live action and CGI are woven together indistinguishably, and the result is visually astounding. The Oasis, the immersive video game universe in which most of the film takes place, looks like a high-end video game come to life, so believably tangible that it is impossible to question its (virtual) reality. Unfortunately, the film’s many problems leave Ready Player One itself like a video game: pretty to look at but ultimately devoid of life.
Though Ready Player One takes place physically in the Columbus, Ohio, of 2045, humanity now spends all its time in the virtual world of the Oasis, where users pilot [End Page 98] a digital avatar that can look like anyone or anything they choose. In the Oasis, invented by an eccentric named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), anything is possible.
The film follows a contest begun by Halliday after his death. In his will, Halliday leaves ownership of his multi-billion-dollar company and the Oasis to whomever successfully completes a quest for an ‘Easter Egg’ in the 1980s-reference-filled digital world he created. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), as his avatar Parzival, hunts for the prize as an escape from poverty, while his adversary, CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants to win so that he can monetize the currently free Oasis.
With plot elements such as these, and an engaging 350+-page novel to draw from, Ready Player One should have been an effortless cinematic success. The source material was fun, fast-paced, and full of 80s nostalgia. The novel’s Wade’s adventure, cast as an archetypical Hero’s Journey and an oft-referenced Grail Quest through a world steeped in 80s culture, leaves him with a reward that is transformative, both spiritually and financially, and the novel manages to find an enjoyable balance among these seemingly incongruous elements. That the film fails to achieve the same balance is not its only problem.
There are more than a few contributing elements to the film’s ultimate failure. Choosing Spielberg (who forbade references to any of his previous films) as director may have been one. The absence of (almost) any reference to his work ended up more notable than its presence would have been—after all, his films helped define the culture of the 80s, so their absence stands out. Spielberg’s tight control left the film with even more of his presence felt than simply referencing his work would have, preventing it from becoming a more cohesive amalgamation of 80s cultural milestones, as the novel is.
Additionally, the writing and acting both stand out as surprisingly uninspired, devoid of both life and depth. Even the usually scene-stealing Simon Pegg (as Halliday’s former business partner Ogden Morrow) fails to impress. And in trying to capture Halliday’s deep awkwardness, Rylance goes too far and comes across as a wooden Willy Wonka, promising lucky participants a journey through a magical world for the ultimate prize, but without Wonka’s trademark whimsy and morality lessons.
The writing begins to fall apart halfway through the film when the protagonists enter a recreation of The Overlook Hotel from The Shining and dance with floating zombies to rescue Halliday’s former flame. From here, the film also holds less and less rigidly to logical plotting. At one point, for example, Wade’s teammates rescue him literally seconds after they’re called to his ‘hidden’ location, contributing to the rushed and facile feel of the second half.
Ultimately, Ready Player One suffers most as a film because the wrong elements of the book are emphasized. The novel isn’t just about adventure and 80s nostalgia, as the film is—the novel is about Wade’s transformative quest. At one point in the film, Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade’s love interest and fellow ‘egg hunter,’ makes a statement about his avatar’s...