Steven Spielberg has to be the busiest AARP member this side of Clint Eastwood.
“Ready Player One” is the adaption of the popular 2011 book by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay here with Zak Penn. Set in the year 2045 where humanity has become obsessed with a virtual reality game called the OASIS, a young man (Tye Sheridan) tries to stop a large corporation (run by Ben Mendelsohn) from finding the keys to taking it over. Olivia Cooke, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance also star as Spielberg directs.
The book this is based on became a bit of a cultural phenomenon because of just how many pop culture references it jammed into its 385 pages. From the Iron Giant to the DeLorean, Batman to “The Shining,” the film adaptation tries its best to include as many nods to pop culture and nerd fandom nods as possible as well. For fans of the novel and video games, “Ready Player One” may serve its purpose, but for casual filmgoers there may not be enough in this film to satisfy.
The fact that 71-year-old Spielberg would take on a $175 million blockbuster like this is impressive and almost feel-good, since he inspired so many of the projects that would in-turn be referenced — there are a few “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” nods throughout. The film moves at a brisk pace, its 140-minute runtime is never felt in-full, but it never feels fully justified. I haven’t read the book, but my friend who has said that this actually was a majorly condensed version of it, which surprised me since the plot and character development is lacking.
If you’re going from a straight kid’s action movie perspective then I’m sure the “good guys need to stop evil cooperation from taking over the world” line will get the job done; however, for a movie that sets itself up to have such a big scale and great stakes, it just is a little disappointing.
The real-world events outside the OASIS are just never compelling, and one could argue that that is the point, that reality has become such a drag that escaping into VR is the only out. However, that clearly was not Spielberg’s actual attempt, and instead he just wanted to coast by those sections in order to get back to the game.
In the OASIS there are some truly manic moments of sheer fun, including one chaotic race through the streets of New York City that includes King Kong, fireworks and wrecking balls. It’s moments like these where “Ready Player One” is at its best, but unfortunately there are only three or four sections like it.
The acting here ranges from great to serviceable, with the standout by far being Rylance. The creator of the OASIS who has recently passed away, Rylance plays his role with such heartbreaking simplicity as a man who loves video games but could never figure out how to love a person. He has several great flashback scenes, and adds a layer of emotion and humanity to a film that sometimes is lacking.
As the main character Sheridan is fine enough, but is never interesting or captivating, and Miller and Mendelsohn are both just playing the same kind of characters they always do to varying degrees of effectiveness.
“Ready Player One” was built to be in-the-moment entertainment, and in that regard it is a moderate success. But it is a bit underwhelming and never as much fun as it should be, and while its pacing is often brisk enough, you still can’t help but feel this could’ve been condensed into a two hour film. For a movie that cost $175 million and includes most every film and video game character known to man, this should have been a culmination of pop culture and itself been referenced for years to come; the fact that it isn’t will disappoint some more than others.
Critic’s grade: C+.