I’ll be honest; I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Ready Player One, the newest courtesan to Hollywood grandmaster Steven Spielberg’s harem of family-friendly adventure fantasy films, up on the big screen. No, I haven’t anything against the man for the vast majorityof his features are nothing short of fantastic (with exceptions to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 1941), I simply just wasn’t all that jazzed up for Ready Player One’s premise. I still haven’t read the novel by Ernest Cline, but from what I gathered from the marketing and trailers it seemed like yet another cinematic hero’s journey structured as a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-esque wish-fulfillment fantasy with all the sweets replaced by video game/retro pop-culture icons. Now while that all sounds chaotically amazeballs on paper I was still somewhat skeptical of how the whole picture would turn out; and you know what? I had a total blast! Once again Spielberg has proven himself as the crown king of whimsically potent visual storytelling and has produced a cinematic adventure that’s so remarkably fluid and fun that I still feel silly for doubting him in the first place.
Ready Player One takes place in the not-so-distant future of 2045 where virtual reality has not only been perfected but has also become the single most potent global economy as everyone on the planet would rather escape reality than have to deal with it face on. So yeah, just replace the “internet” with the “oasis,” and you have a two and a half hour long family-friendly black mirror episode complete with cybernetic Orwellian labor camps and giant Anime robots. As the film kicks off we were given a brief “history” of the Oasis’s construction and creator, James Halliday played by Mark Rylance, whose death reveals an “Easter egg” that will bestow a vast fortune and complete control of the Oasis to whoever finds it first. From there the plot follows the basic structure of any video game adventure in which our main characters must go through challenges, riddles, and tribulations against the cartoonishly evil forces of corporate CEO who want the egg for their evil corporate plan to add micro transactions to the Oasis. Regrettably, this is the weakest aspect of the film, but it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for making a said decision in the first place. The film is an adventure fantasy for the whole family, after all and a proper one at that. Spielberg understands that flow and pacing are tantamount to the adventure, especially when considering that it’s being told through the visual medium of film. Ready Player One’s story may have all the layered complexity of a simpleton bashing a couple of bricks together but that way the audience can focus on the visuals carrying the narrative.
Now while Ready Player One’s central conflict/story is cliched and predictable, just about everything else in the film is utterly dazzling. The visuals alone would be worthy of appraisal, but Spielberg isn’t the sort of director to throw up expertly rendered globs of CGI characters on the screen and leave it at that. Oh no, he takes full advantage of the fact that the majority of this movie takes place entirely in a computer-generated environment where the “camera” can do and follow whatever Spielberg wants, and often to significant effect. There are many eye-catching sequences that are so fluid that it’s nothing less than magical to behold. It should surprise no one at this point that Spielberg would prioritize unusual long takes of action sequences (both for live action and CGI), but here it feels like he’s truly in his element and the result is a film that I found stupefying engaging. The acting performances were solid, though nothing stood out to me as anything inordinately memorable. Though upon reflection Mark Rylance did impress me as the socially awkward Halliday, who at times was so vocally awarded that I forgot Rylance was an actual actor and not just some weird extra you might find on Tim and Eric. The film’s action scenes are ridiculously over the top and cartoonish but so simultaneously imaginative in its design and free-flowing motion that I was never bored. I was also pleasantly surprised at the amount of character development within the film, granted most of it’s given to Rylance and the other three main characters in considerably smaller bits but it’s there, and I remembered it so that counts for something. And finally, Ready Player One has one of, if not the best homages to horror in a non-horror film.
As you might imagine, Ready Player One is still a flawed film, as is the case for most wish fulfillment fantasy-adventures. I’ve already touched on the film’s unoriginal story/ethos though I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that was the whole point of a fiction comprised of trunkloads of other creator’s intellectuals property. Occasionally the dialogue would incite a mental groan whenever a character pointed out the name of an onscreen pop culture cameo or divulged into “we have to say this specific thing because it’s convent to the plot-line.” And it wouldn’t be a family friendly Spielberg movie without a few metric-tons cheesy cinematic catharsis dumped on us as the film wraps up but unless your explosively lactose intolerant, it’s not all that annoying. What is, however, is Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as the evil CEO Sorrento whose so villainous I was almost disappointed when his virtual self didn’t resemble a twelve-foot tall Dick Dastardly with a mustache made out of mini-Mussolini. Other than that, there’s not much else wrong with Ready Player One unless you’re of the sort who absolutely cannot stand a movie with a story structure ripped straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Ready Player One is exactly the kind of movie you should expect from Spielberg. Now that I’ve thought about it I can’t help but be reminded of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the 2011 animated film directed by Spielberg. Both movies are terrific adventure spectacles and adequately showcase their director’s visual prestige but Ready Player One does it better. That may be because Ready Player One’s ethos is a bit more in line with Spielberg’s, which is centered around high adventure and an appreciation for the pop culture of one’s youth. Granted, the film may suffer from it’s simple good vs. evil dynamic but for whatever reason, it works in the long haul. Spielberg’s success as a filmmaker has been built on his sincere ability to mix childlike wonderment with the complex fetes of cinematography and editing and Ready Player One fits that mold flawlessly. The plot’s simple but never holds the audience in contempt, and the result is an experience that so unabashedly fun that you almost forget that movies don’t have to sacrifice visual intricacies for the sake of entertainment. Ready Player One is one of the most enjoyable works of cinema I’ve seen in the theatre in a long time that’s purely attributed to Spielberg’s illustrious shooting style, and creative team. If you’re gunning for a fun weekend adventure movie thrill ride then you should at least see the one that’s exceptionally well made.