LTG Movie Review – Ready Player One (2018)

By Marshall Garvey Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has had a knack not only for directing and producing great films, but great films perfectly suited for a specific time. E.T. and Poltergeist depicted polar opposite visions of suburban life at the outset of the Reagan 80’s. Saving Private Ryan fanned reverence for WWII servicemen the same year Tom Brokaw…




Read time:

8 minutes

By Marshall Garvey

Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has had a knack not only for directing and producing great films, but great films perfectly suited for a specific time. E.T. and Poltergeist depicted polar opposite visions of suburban life at the outset of the Reagan 80’s. Saving Private Ryan fanned reverence for WWII servicemen the same year Tom Brokaw declared them “The Greatest Generation”. Minority Report envisioned a world of preventative justice at a time when the U.S. began embracing preventative anti-terrorism measures after 9/11.

Ready Player One, his 32nd directorial effort, is another such effort. With its vision of a world where anyone can pretend to be any pop culture character they like in a limitless video game, it’s apropos in the era of obsessive fandoms and fervent 80’s nostalgia. And while I wouldn’t doubt Spielberg’s restless imagination could proffer an original concept like RP1, it’s of course an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel where peoples’ grim reality is supplanted by an opulent virtual reality.

On paper, it’s also a film bound to play to Spielberg’s strengths: an action-packed sci-fi story with young lead characters, and based on a highly popular novel. An action blockbuster is of course a given for him, but I feel it’s worth emphasizing that a lot of his best films (Schindler’s ListThe Color PurpleEmpire of the Sun, Jurassic Park) were literary adaptations. Even Jaws, his breakthrough film and basically the original summer blockbuster, was based on a novel.

When moviegoers in the 70’s finally found the courage to return to the beach, they definitely didn’t have this as their reading.

Furthermore, this film comes at a time when Spielberg had become strangely distanced from making blockbusters. His last veritable effort in that vein was 2016’s The BFG, a tremendous box office flop that had some wondering if he had lost his touch for popular entertainment. Yet it was hardly his first flop, as 1941Hook and Crystal Skull put him in similar ruts over the years. Each time, he bounced back with a crowd-pleasing thrill ride (Raiders of the Lost ArkJurassic ParkThe Adventures of Tintin) to restore his reputation as king of the blockbuster. So given that history, Ready Player One has to be good, right?

Now, before we dive into the bulk of the review, I should include this disclaimer: I haven’t read Ernest Cline’s original book yet. While we did review it here at LTG a few years ago, that was written by Jordan Nelson. I have unsurprisingly received many recommendations to read it (chiefly from my friend and colleague Isaac Smith), given its jet stream of video game, movie and Rush references. And I was very tempted to blaze through it in preparation for this review, but given my crowded schedule as of late, I decided to play it safe and just see the movie.

The story for RP1 takes place in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045. Due to overpopulation and climate change, much of humanity now lives in gritty, sprawling slums known as “Stacks”. Like anyone living in harsh conditions, they seek escapism. But their escapism is more immersive than just movies or video games: the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Created by the late, pop culture-infatuated tech giant James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is a limitless virtual reality where anyone can assume any avatar they desire and do anything they wish.

It’s basically what we all hope VR will one day be like.

Few individuals are as faithfully immersed in the OASIS as Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old orphan living with his aunt. Going by his avatar name Parzival, Wade worships Halliday, and knows his entire life story inside out with nerdy reverence. That reverence will come in handy for the challenge that’s gripping all of OASIS: Anorak’s Quest. Created by Halliday just before his death, the game challenges its participants to endure overwhelming challenges and solve puzzling riddles in order to find three keys. The first to do so will receive Halliday’s “easter egg”, and thus control of the OASIS altogether.

As is the case with any innovative gaming trend, there’s a soulless corporation waiting in the wings to take it over. IOI (Innovative Online Industries), which created most of the VR that accesses the OASIS and led by CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), has recruited hundreds of players to win the game and thus grant the company control of it. The stakes are heightened further for Wade/Parzival when he falls for Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke), who soon joins forces with him in an effort to save the OASIS from having its innovation leeched away by ruthless corporate homogeny.

Look, you knew an EA joke was coming eventually in this review.

As I walked into the theater with my friends and fellow LTG members Michael Ros, Brian McKelvey and Alex Aguilar, I honestly had mixed expectations. Having not read the book, I didn’t have the optimal frame of reference, and the trailers didn’t exactly wow me either. Trailers are rarely accurate, for good or ill, but the high-energy blitz of video game nods with Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” blaring on the soundtrack (while admittedly tailored to my tastes perfectly) had me worried it was just going to be Fan Service: The Movie.

Fortunately, Ready Player One doesn’t fall into that trap. To the contrary, it’s Spielberg’s most meaningful box office hit in awhile, fusing high-octane action, engaging storytelling, clever references, and strong youth performances into a satisfying whole. And when you think about it, it’s the first film of this ilk in quite awhile, as he’s mostly focused on historical dramas the past few years (LincolnBridge of SpiesThe Post). As much as I liked those movies, let’s face it: the universe is just right when he gets back to his adventure storytelling roots.

While RP1 excels mostly due to its relentless action and self-awareness, it also succeeds in rediscovering Spielberg’s knack for working with young lead actors. Tye Sheridan is charismatic as Wade, although Olivia Cooke is every bit his equal. (Bonus points for finally washing the taste of me Me and Earl and the Dying Girl out of my mouth.) The best turn, however, comes from Mark Rylance as Halliday, who marks his third collaboration with Spielberg. To round things out, super geek Simon Pegg has a small but memorable bit as Halliday’s estranged business partner Ogden Morrow.

Like “E.T.” and “The Goonies”, RP1 offers up another memorable group of young leads under Spielberg’s tutelage.

Much has been written about the movie’s resplendent smorgasbord of pop culture easter eggs. Master Chief, Battletoads, the Iron Giant, Chun Li, Tracer, Goro, Chucky the Doll, Mobile Suit Gundam, and a whole host of others (138 in total!) are packed into its 140-minute running time. In an era where nerd culture seems to be more exhaustive than ever, Ready Player One feels commensurately thorough in its frenetic yet digestible presentation of fan favorites. (My favorite was Wade’s decision to have his avatar wear a Buckaroo Banzai suit on a virtual date.) The soundtrack fittingly bounces with 80’s classics from the well-known (“Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears for Fears) to the obscure (the seldom-heard Bruce Springsteen B-side “Stand On It”).

Given the details of the story and the avalanche of geek references, it’s all the more crucial that Spielberg tie it together with skillful direction. Fortunately, he rises to the occasion with his strongest directing in awhile. The action sequences that have the potential to overwhelm the senses never go overboard, and are fluidly crafted and among the most thrilling Spielberg has ever put to film. The world of OASIS is brilliantly realized, engaging the viewer’s curiosity as to what it would be like to play in it while not taking them out of the rest of the story.

Spielberg’s peerless vision is at its full potential here, taking audiences to a a complex, unique world in a way that almost makes you wish you lived in the stacks just to experience it.

The film’s best sequence is easily the middle passage where the main characters find themselves in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, after realizing it’s where the second key lies. The whole sequence is equal parts entertaining and terrifying, especially the way it utilizes the old lady in room 237, who kept me the living hell away from bathtubs for a long time in my teen years. (And yes, I really do want to make some kind of comment about this scene being a better Spielberg tribute to Kubrick than A.I., but I haven’t watched that film yet.)

Yet what really seals RP1’s impact is that it actually shows the limits, as well as the inherent limitlessness, of indulging in geek fandom. Heading into the film, my main concern was that it would just be a predictable paean to geekdom, with no major point. Yet Ready Player One strikes a perfect balance in celebrating escapism, while also making a point about its potential excess.

Especially when fandoms have reached the point of jumping on countertops at McDonald’s over Szechuan sauce, and fanboy hype overwhelms almost every major release, it’s an especially timely message. Given Steven Spielberg’s consummate impact on the entertainment industry since the 80’s, that message has a wisened feeling to boot. And it helps that it’s delivered in a manner that’s just relentlessly fun to watch altogether.

Rating – **** out of *****