Between Jumanji and Tomb Raider, I’ve written enough introductions about how video game movies are quite awful. Instead I’d like to talk about nostalgia. Nostalgia has swept up the entertainment industry, and that isn’t completely a good or bad thing. Some properties use nostalgia to great effect, like Stranger Things. Some, like Jurassic World, think carbon copying a movie will capture the same thing that made the original great. Ready Player One is a movie built on nostalgia, both ours and it’s characters. Unfortunately, it isn’t about much more than eliciting the, “Hey! That thing! I know that!” response.
For those who haven’t read the book, Ready Player One is set in a world where a virtual reality video game, The Oasis, has completely take over the world. As population, poverty, and economic disparity continued to balloon out of control, people retreat to The Oasis where than can be anyone or anything they want. Rather than come up with new, exciting, creative ideas, most people just opt for their favorite movie or video game character.
Sometimes, the references can be fun and inventive (it will never not be awesome to watch The Iron Giant fight Mecha-Godzilla). However, most of the time they are blatant and obvious attempts at getting the audience to recognize as much as possible. There are moments where the plot and character development grinds to a halt, so characters can expound long lists of all the things they know.
Taking a step back, you can tell this is a world which doesn’t invent it’s own pop culture, rather hyper-focusing on what’s come before. Knowing the most about pop culture is a very real currency, as the one who does inherits trillions of dollars. Spielberg could have explored this idea, but rather, he often reinforces the idea that who ever knows the most nerd stuff is king.
However, the action in this movie shines, as Spielberg reminds everyone he’s still king of the set-piece. The film revolves around the treasure hunt for three keys left behind by the creator of the Oasis (Mark Rylance, giving a wonderfully warm and subdued performance). Before our heroes can get to these keys, they have to complete an exciting challenge designed to test their skills and knowledge of the game.
Each of the three set pieces are expertly crafted, and even though he’s in his seventies, Spielberg hasn’t lost an ounce of what makes him great. The T-Rex paddock scene from Jurassic Park or the opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark are some of the greatest set pieces of all time, and Spielberg not only gets to craft more of the same, but he get’s to “play with all the toys in the box.”
There’s such love and care for these set pieces, two of which (before the second and third key) are some of the greatest he’s ever delivered. Not only are they high energy and a whole lot of fun, but they’re character driven. So often, action sequences simply happen around the characters. However, Spielberg wisely chooses to make the characters the cause of the action. our characters are the cause, and for better or worse, they have to deal with the effects. Seriously, it cannot be understated how much fun this movie can be when it really starts going.
Once you leave the Oasis, the tone becomes a bit problematic, as it doesn’t really change. The Oasis is a big, bright, insane world full of larger than life characters. The real world switched the color pallet, but not much else. The characters are just as over-the-top as their digital counterparts. It makes sense for a CGI character to be over-the-top and unrealistic, they literally aren’t real. But when their real-world counterpart acts and speaks the same way, it feels wholly out of place.
I understand the idea that their Oasis avatars are slowly affecting their real life selves, but if the real world can still be full of excitement and wonder, what’s the point of retreating to the Oasis? And in a realm where you can be anything or anyone you want, it why just be basically yourself with blue hair?
This disparity ultimately bleeds over to the films confusing message. Spielberg hit’s you over the head time and time again with “reality is the only thing that’s real.” How a life spent in a virtual world, or one spent obsessing over pop-culture, is a life wasted. However, the main character succeeds and is ultimately rewarded based off of his obsession and devotion to studying pop-culture and a video game creator.
The message of the film is how obsession of the digital world is a dangerous thing, yet the film rewards those who are most obsessed. Over and over through out the run time we hear about how unfulfilling life spent in the digital world is, but it’s hard pill to swallow when the digital realmt takes our main heroes on the greatest adventure of their life. Adding a line of dialogue at the end of the film where the hero learns a lesson doesn’t make up for the two plus hours we see contradicting it.
Ready Player One is a fine surface level flick. It’s great if you just want to watch a little action, hear some familiar references to things you love, and show popcorn in your face. A lot of people will have a ton of fun with this movie. However, it’s confusing message and needless, fourth-wall breaking references rob it of any weight it could have carried.
Rating: 2.6 – Meh.