READY PLAYER ONE (7 out of 10) Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Zak Penn and Ernie Cline; Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance; Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language ; Running time 140 minutes; In wide release March 29, 2018.
In George Lucas's first film, THX-1138, the Lucas sought to drop an audience into a movie from the future without context. It dealt with issues of humanity fighting against the soulless corporations and right-wing governments and we were meant to wonder at how a future such as this could possibly arrive. Ready Player One feels as a popular spiritual successor to a film like that, right out of the future, except this one almost overloads you with context.
Set in the 2040s, it tells the tale of a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who is desperate to find the ultimate easter egg in the Oasis, a virtual world where most people live their lives. The creator of this world, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died and he is leaving his fortune and the virtual world to whoever can pass three tests and find this egg. He has a team of compatriots to help him, but he is opposed largely by the company run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn.)
Unlike other "films from the future," Ready Player One is largely entertaining pablum that works best when it gets beneath the surface of its material. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. There's a lot to be said about the references to other properties across the pop culture landscape of the time between the '70s and the early 2000s, and there are so many that you can literally blink and you'll miss them. Going back and watching the film over and over again will yield knowledge of these references, but for the most part, there won't be some deeper meaning hidden with them, which feels like a missed opportunity.
For instance: Kaneda's bike from Akira is the motorcycle of choice for Artemis (Olivia Cooke) at the beginning of the film. As the film unfolds, I thought this choice was going to be emblematic of her choices later in the story. In Akira, Kaneda watches his best friend self-destruct and destroy Neo-Tokyo because he has a power that he can't handle. Watching Wade try to handle the power of capturing the entirety of Oasis could be very self-destructive and it seemed like a clever thematic telegraphing technique. But then the movie unfolds and it turns out there was no thematic need for that particular bike, It just looked cool and the licenses were cleared.
Sadly, the vast majority of references in the film are just like this. They look cool, they make you giggle here and there and there's a wink of recognition, but digging deeper into them offers nothing to the broader understanding of the story. It doesn't matter that Spawn shows up. Or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the Michael Bay versions, not even the superior animated ones). The Iron Giant's use gets close to it. There is a heroic sacrifice there. But, again, it's mostly to look cool and create an engaging action sequence rather than to elevate the material.
If there's one sequence that does elevate the material and makes Ready Player One worth watching, it's the sequences set in the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. On the surface, it's a completely brilliant sequence. The characters of Ready Player One, whose grandparents were barely being born when The Shining had come out, have to navigate through the eerie hotel in search of a jade key that will grant them access to the next quest. It's equal parts hilarious and horrifying and plays to every strength of Spielberg's. Hands down, there was no better sequence in the film and I wish the whole thing had been more like this.
Part of the reason this sequence works so well is that it actually does rely on your knowledge of the text in question (though it works just as well if you don't, with the avatars of the characters acting as your avatars through the situation.) If you know The Shining, the horrifying moments are scarier and the funnier parts are funnier. But this gets into how Spielberg is the Halliday of this generation. And this sequence in The Shining is an easter egg into Spielberg's mind. He famously eschewed references from his own films, but for this sequence turned to his friend and collaborator Stanley Kubrick.
Here's Spielberg talking about coming to an understanding with Kubrick about this film in particular from the DVD extras on Eyes Wide Shut:
Knowing how Spielberg felt about the material creates a connection with the audience that Spielberg was never quite able to brook between Halliday and the audience. If there's a scene that people will be talking about, it's going to be this one, only because Spielberg had the passion for this part of the film, it sings. The rest of the movie looks like entirely passable Spielbergian fare, but full of empty calories.
And I wonder if it's because the film has a broader point about what means something to a creator doesn't always mean something to a viewer. Spielberg created so much nostalgia for a generation, but those things he created aren't what he clung to. He wouldn't even include them in the film. Instead, he repackaged what we wanted in an entertaining fashion and then offered us this small window into his self. This is what makes him tick. And I find that much more fascinating than the rest of the wrapping Spielberg gave us around this sequence.
I think people will be rewatching this movie a lot over the next few weeks, but aside from this Shining sequence, I'm not sure they're going to find anything beneath the surface except a list of references to other properties. There will be a dozen articles offering you lists of every easter egg in the film, but knowing those references won't do a single thing to help you better understand the film because there isn't much more to understand beyond the obvious. For being entertaining and harmless fun with moments that soared beyond my expectations and keeping a smile on my face (and only making me roll my eyes twice), I'm giving this film a 7 out of 10.