Movie Review: “Ready Player One” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2018)

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One appeared in 2011. It was an ’80s nostalgia trip dressed up in post-apocalyptic futurism and virtual reality hysteria. It was a book written for fans of ’80s culture and video games–the kind of people who prefer Space Invaders to Call of Duty and Amazing Stories to Stranger Things. When the film went into works with Steven Spielberg, the defining eye of ’80s cinema, in charge, it seemed like a near-perfect match. (Robert Zemeckis really seems like the perfect match since he has always been so good at using special effects and understanding their limitations while Spielberg has used them as a crutch. But he also never had the singularity of vision that Spielberg had.) Especially with Stranger Things having taken the public by storm with its Spielberg-by-the-numbers approach, everything seemed primed for at least something really fun even though it would likely have little to say.

Spielberg has also remained a respectable filmmaker even as his star has faded. He’s far less successful than in 1993 when a studio was willing to let him make a depressing black-and-white holocaust movie that it thought had zero chance of making its money back just to get him on the payroll for another film, but he’s remained the same decent-but-not-great filmmaker he always was. Jaws (USA 1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977) set a bar too high for any director to maintain, but he’s had surprisingly strong films like Munich (France/Canada/USA 2005) late in his career and even his missteps like Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany/India 2015) haven’t been outright embarrassments. Plus, nostalgia has clouded his early record–yes he had those two great films back-to-back and several other memorable features, but he also directed bad and forgettable projects like 1941 (USA 1979) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 39 years?), Always (USA 1989) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 29 years?), Hook (USA 1991) (Robin Williams couldn’t save it.), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (USA 1997) (I still don’t know why anyone thought there should be more than one Jurassic Park film.) mixed in with the major successes. It’s not a bad record–most directors don’t have the kind of consistent excellence that Rian Johnson, Akira Kurosawa, or Masaki Kobayashi have had–but it’s not the kind of nonstop success that nostalgia has made people think it was.

However, Ready Player One isn’t any kind of return to form. It’s a failure on some basic levels, and it isn’t even any fun.I have only read part of the book (I just started it recently. I was finally convinced that the prose was not going to be eye-splittingly bad and so began reading it, but other things have distracted me, so I’m still not far into it.), so I don’t know how many of the plot problems are caused by an attempt at fidelity to the source material, but the script form Ernest Cline and Zak Penn has myriad problems. The book begins by painting a picture of the horrendously bleak future in which our heroes live. The Oasis, the virtual reality world that forms the center of life for most people in the world it describes, gets a star’s entrance after the real world is established. And because we see how horrible the real world is, we understand why everyone lives in the Oasis. It’s not because it’s a utopia of the imagination like Wade describes in the film–it’s because life sucks for almost everyone. The film instead throws us in pretty quickly with only a small reference to Wade’s life in “The Stacks” (which leaves us also to believe that it’s just his life that sucks, not everyone’s). As a result, the stakes are immediately lowered. The Oasis is a game. It feels less important than the Triwizard Tournament, and that’s not good for getting us to invest in the characters.

The characters themselves are pretty simplistic teenager tropes, though they are of course not the real focus–the focus is the Oasis itself. And that’s the biggest problem. The Oasis is a cartoon. It’s completely made of digital effects and digital characters without an ounce of reality. It’s a disappointment, especially considering that this is a director who once made dinosaurs seem pretty believable when these kinds of digital effects weren’t even near being on the table. Spielberg decides to set nearly the entire film inside the Oasis and then build the Oasis in such a weak visual manner, leaving us with yet another reason to lower our interest in what’s happening–why does it matter who wins this video game?

What’s especially frustrating about Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky’s visual take is that we’ve seen video game aesthetics and animation used in otherwise-real contexts well in other films. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) uses digital effects to bring elements of video games into the world and it helps make that film’s vibrant, exciting world into what it is. (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009) inserts an ’80s style music video (using one of the same songs Spielberg uses in this film) complete with an animated bluebird out of nowhere and many other animated elements in order to push us further into Tom’s mental world and it works startlingly well. But Spielberg is intent on creating this sharp delineation between the “real world” and the Oasis.

And what’s really unforgivable is that he does it because he’s decided that the novel is a moral tale, and the moral is something that proves he’s an old man: people need to live in the real world, because it’s the only real place.

Yes, Spielberg actually made a film with that “get off my lawn” moral. He’s trying to tell teenagers to spend more time offline, and he’s doing it very hamfistedly. He even has the sage wizard of the world of this film walk out and literally say it and then the hero repeat it, both within the last ten minutes of the film. It would be one thing if the unappealingly-fake look of the Oasis was to emphasize his point, but he even undermines that point by giving us a dull, unexciting “real world.” It looks like a tv movie set in an inner city. If he really wanted to emphasize the difference, the real world should look more alive than the Oasis.

The acting is mostly fine, though Ben Mendelsohn was so over-the-top that he really appeared to be doing some sort of weird Vince McMahon impersonation (though without the gravelly voice that is McMahon’s signature). T.J. Miller was somehow still enjoyable even while only providing a voice. But no one really had much to do–this is a cartoon, not a real film, so the acting is really just voice acting, and in that way it was fine.

One part of the film that does work better is the score by Alan Silvestri. He was one of the defining composers of ’80s cinema, and his signature style is all over the sound of this film. The extant songs used for the film don’t work as well, but they generally aren’t terrible. (Though the use of “Jump” at the beginning does lessen the impact of what little we see of Wade’s terrible real life.)

Overall, Ready Player One is really pretty dull. Its cartoonish look is uninteresting and doesn’t empahsize its point, which is really an old man shouting at the wind. It isn’t as fun as it should be, because its director decided to make the most boring point possible and then didn’t really commit to making it.

Notes

  • One thing I found frustrating is that it seemed so obvious to me that the film should be made with the “real world” largely digital and the Oasis mostly practical–making the Oasis be the “more real” of the two would make sense of people’s willingness to put their lives into it. It would also completely undermine what Spielberg wanted to say, but he really seems to have latched onto the most uninteresting point he could have made with this IP.
  • I know way more about ’80s music than any reasonable person, but couldn’t you have found some more thoughtful choices than things like “You Make My Dreams” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It?” I get “Jump” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” because the simple keyboard riffs are so definitively ’80s, but how about if the fight is to Iron Maiden’s “2 Minutes to Midnight” or Queensrÿche’s “Revolution Calling?” Or, if you want to be less on the nose, how about Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy?” What if Rush’s “Time Stand Still” emphasizes how Wade feels with Art3mis or when he succeeds in the first challenge?
  • The clues are way too easy. To wit:
    • Okay, so I’m not normal, but “the ultimate answer” should be REALLY obvious to anyone nerdy or from the ’80s, let alone a nerd studying an ’80s nerd. Sector 14 should not have taken any thought.
    • When IOI was working on figuring out the game to play, I thought, “Really? It’s not the easter egg in Adventure?” They have “experts” suggesting what they play, so it must not be as obvious as that. And then it was.
    • I thought of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980) as soon as they started looking for a movie because Stephen King hated it–proof that King shouldn’t direct films.
    • It would be one thing for him to have to go backward as a complete leap of faith, but he could see the ramp open up long before he got there–he didn’t have to risk zeroing out.
  • Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, USA 1985) has a really outsized presence in the ’80s nostalgia. It belongs there, but should it be so dominant? And shouldn’t Spielberg’s work have a bigger presence? I understand not wanting to seem egotistical, but couldn’t you just have some fun with it?
  • The Shining was Halliday’s 11th-favorite horror film? He had ten horror films ahead of it?! How?!
  • Shouldn’t Sorrento be more like Donald Trump instead of Vince McMahon? And wouldn’t that open up many more possibilities about what to do with this film overall?
  • They were really trying to make us pay attention to Rona Morison’s character, who was so undefined she didn’t even have a name. Are they trying to set her up for future stardom or something?
  • Wade using the Street Fighter fireball was awesome, but he has to yell, “Hadouken!” while he does it! Come on!
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