By: Steve Pulaski
It's 2045. The mentality of America is to survive problems rather than try to collaborate and fix them. Many of the country's most notable cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, have taken the appearance of junkyards, with high-rises assembled out of scrap-metal in lieu of economic meltdown being the new norm for society. To cope with the disillusionment of reality, millions have chosen to escape the drudgery by way of the Oasis, a vast virtual world that offers its inhabitants limitless possibilities the moment they strap on their headsets. The world was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric soul who passed away and left three keys hidden throughout the Oasis as his parting gift. The person to find those keys, via a series of riddles, will successfully own the Oasis.
Five years later, the Oasis is still up for grabs as no one has found even one key, let alone completed the ostensibly impossible challenge of racing through a city being ravished by crashing orbs and King Kong of all things. Nonetheless, the world is ever-populated by younger folks like Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known as "Parzival," who escapes his grimy hometown by bonding with his pals H (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), Daito (Win Morisaki), and later Art3mis (Thoroughbreds' Olivia Cooke), a treasure-hunter whom he saves amidst another failed run through Halliday's crazy race. But this isn't a world solely up for grabs by individuals, but also a large corporation, IOI, who enslaves its employees by making them work tirelessly in order to crack the codes of the Oasis so the CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) can possess the game all for himself.
Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's blockbuster spectacle for the modern era. A visual feast with just enough subtext to warrant itself a credible commentary, it stockpiles familiar properties for the X and millennial generations to indulge. Everyone from the Iron Giant to Chucky and everything from Halo to a beautiful recreated sequence set in the Overlook Hotel exists in Spielberg's cavalcade of (pop) culture phenomenons. When it comes to contemporary directors immersing themselves in a film that's essentially bathed in special effects and CGI landscapes, Spielberg is at the top of the list for those who can handle the challenge. The greater the landscape and the field in which to work, the better and more assured he is as a director, so it's reassuring to see he can still handle his own when it comes to directing several action sequences in this film that sometimes feel as if they're going to break the perimeter of the screen.
Give cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List), who should be near Spielberg's legendary status, some credit as well, for working alongside one of his most familiar collaborators on what the latter has called his most challenging effort to date. The two work to keep the basic mainstays of their most malleable and cacophonous films successful, and that's by working to make all the action clearly visible and choreography the number one issue. Consider one of my favorite scenes from the film — the initial race-scene that masterfully handles dozens of cars and motorcycles colliding with one another in mid-air and on the road, as well as capturing a skyline as its pummeled by the wildly inconsistent (and probably implausible) forces of nature. The scene could've been a maddening display of overkill, and to some it probably will be. Yet also consider the damage control Spielberg and Kamiński conduct to assure that what we see in these moments is vivid, rather than something akin to Michael Bay's Transformers, which is often insufferably bland and soiled by excess.
Ready Player One does have its own form of excess in terms of the ubiquity of recognizable figures. Had the film not been written as well (credit to Marvel writer Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, who also penned the novel), this could've been Disaster Movie with a nine-figure budget. Penn and Cline recognize the minefield on which they are operating, and in response, don't make the film largely about the myriad of references. They instead truly devote most of the film to exploring the conflict between IOI and the integrity of the Oasis, as well as the parallels such a story draws to the contemporary world. Spielberg's latest examines not only our fascination but our downright obsession with the things we create, both tangible and intangible, and how our immersion into that which is fictitious can do in part to compromise what we have to live with every single day. Furthermore, the way Sorrento's intentions are positioned inspires the mind to drift to the way FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is actively campaigning to limit the boundless ways in which the world communicates via imposing net neutrality on the internet.
This kind of subtext makes Ready Player One have heft rather than hollowness, even if the second hour of the film is less engaging than the first. Penn and Cline have a difficult time sustaining the conflict over the now acceptable blockbuster runtime of 140 minutes, to the point where the script risks fumbling some of its best bits during lengthy battle/montage scenes seemingly staged just so we can hear the rebellion-inducing Twisted Sister tune. At least the one element that doesn't sag is Spielberg's direction, nor the host of memorable performances: Tye Sheridan, as he was inJoe, is a likable if modestly bland everyman, Olivia Cooke provides solid pathos, Ben Mendelsohn is a wonderfully goofy villain, and Mark Rylance is a scene-stealer, giving the best performance as Garth Algar as a CEO.
Your mileage may vary with Ready Player One, as might your appetite for eye candy, which is liable to induce a head-rush greater than two spoonfuls of corn syrup. This is essentially a Steven Spielberg spectacle in the modern day, something I'm grateful to say I can still enjoy during a time when several claim the 71-year-old veteran has lost his touch. The film also serves as an effective reminder to folks that hoping for the next Jurassic Park, E. T., or Close Encounters of the Third Kind is futile, especially in a day and age where those same individuals would discredit and demean it if it was shown in front of them on a silver-screen.