As one of the most talked about movies of the year so far “Ready Player One” has been poised for either tremendous success or spectacular failure. Based on a popular novel by Ernest Cline, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the Steven Spielberg film adaptation of “Ready Player One” may not follow the book religiously, but having read the book myself I can say I rather enjoyed the new directions this film took the overall story, even if it had its flaws. That being said the question still remains…is the movie worth the watch or is it just an effects-laden mess? This is my review of “Ready Player One”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Ready Player One” takes place in 2045 where the world has devolved into a poor, broken down reflection of itself. To escape this world countless people delve into a video game universe known as the Oasis. The movie picks up five years after James Halliday, the socially awkward creator of the Oasis, passed away leaving a hidden Easter egg programmed into the game for someone to find and three keys that must be obtained through challenges to unlock it. Those who seek the egg are known as Gunters while global organization known as IOI has employed countless other gamers and Halliday experts to unlock the mystery themselves. The prize: ownership of the Oasis and half a trillion dollars. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) embarks on a quest to find the egg as his avatar Parzival eventually teaming with Samantha (Olivia Cook) aka Art3mis and their friends Aech, Daito and Sho who all seek to reach the egg before IOI and main villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mandelsohn) who plan to use control of the Oasis to turn it into an advertising-laden mess. With IOI on their tail and the stakes rising every minute the High Five, as they come to be known, engage in all-out war for the fate of the Oasis and ownership of Halliday’s egg.
Ready player one might pack a lot of nostalgia, but it’s cast it filled with relatively fresh faces led by Tye Sheridan (mostly know for his meh take on Cyclops in the “X-men” prequel trilogy) as Wade Watts/Parzival, a Gunter who becomes the central figure of the film. It’s here that I should note that this film varies greatly from the book while also keeping the same basic structure, theme and goals of the novel. Sheridan portrays Wade pretty closely to the way the novel tries to set up the character, making him feel nerdy and out of place in society, but confident and capable in the Oasis. While Sheridan doesn’t give a career making performance here, he is memorable as a lead and does fit the character quite well even if he proves to be more memorable as his avatar than as his real-world couterpart. Sheridan gives us a true nerd who is amazed by the simple things but also clearly has a hard time fitting in or rising above his socially awkward tendencies. He’s human and represents gamer stereotypes without insulting them making him a very relatable lead. It might not prove Sheridan worthy of superstardom, but he does exactly what he needs to with the character and that’s enough for me.
Beside Wade is Art3mis, a fellow Gunter and Oasis superstar who quickly becomes the objects of Wade’s affection. She is played by Olivia Cooke, who once again shows her ability to capture the nuances of a character quite well. Actually, I’d say her performance as a dorky and adorable gamer girl with the confidence of a warrior in the Oasis and a believable and contradictory self-consciousness in the real world makes her an even more memorable character than Sheridan’s Wade. Cooke just feels true to her character’s portrayal and pulls off the discomfort and cautious nature that comes to Art3mis naturally. She takes the game and the challenge seriously and despite her vibrato has a hard time accepting herself for what she is in the real world. This performance was one of my favorite characters in the entire film as it was in the book and thankfully Cooke and Sheridan share a great chemistry that makes their budding adorable romance believable, whether in the virtual world or the real world.
One of the problems with “Ready Player One” is that it kind of forsakes the remainder of the cast with minor or even more important parts feeling small and insignificant compared to bigger roles. There are two other standout performances though. The first is the villain, Nolan Sorrento, who is portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn and proves to be a pretty despicable person. He’s cunning, he’s dangerous, and yet he’s also misunderstood and vulnerable which makes him all the more complex because in the virtual world he’s a bigger, stronger person and that ego and façade seems to follow him into reality. On the other end we have Mark Rylance portraying Oasis founder James Halliday (shown above) and his avatar Anorak. Rylance does a fantastic job here and brings Halliday to life exactly as I pictured him when I was reading the book. He’s probably the most socially awkward person in the world and adds humor to the story despite the chaos his egg hunt has caused. The difference in portrayals between his real world self and his avatar perfectly capture the separation between reality and fantasy and how the Oasis allows people to be someone they can’t be in real life. He’s a man that truly seems to be fascinating even to the viewers of the film. Rylance completely owns the character’s eccentricities and gives us a man we can truly embrace as a gaming genius and one perfectly capable of creating the mixed up puzzles and odd riddles that make up the film’s challenge. He’s a game lovers Willie Wonka in every definition of that phrase and, despite his limited screen time, is probably the most completely fleshed out character in the whole movie.
Just like the book that inspired it, “Ready Player One” is amazingly nostalgic and that truly is one of the best aspects of the film. Every challenge delves deep into 80s and 90s pop culture history and brings those memories and fascinations to life right there on the big screen. It makes for an incredibly fun and memorable adventure, especially when the story delves into the more imaginative segments of the Oasis and the key challenges like the zero-gravity dance hall and the characters delving right into actual scenes from a well know horror movie that I won’t spoil here. Some of the references do borrow from Spielberg’s own past works and productions or from the list of properties owned by rights by Warner Brothers, but that never detracts from the film or makes it feel limited in its scope and scale. All of this is complimented by very well-done imagery and CGI that feels very much like a modern video game, but never looks choppy, messy or underdone. “Ready Player One” is engaging, engrossing, imaginative, immersive and really beautiful to look at living up to the promises made about its visual aesthetic and dedication to capturing the same magical and otherworldly feel of its source material, at least when it’s in the Oasis.
I also found this movie to be well paced and while it doesn’t quite hit the mark in the real world (I’ll touch on that in a minute) we spend most of our time in the Oasis and that’s where the story unfolds as a well crafted and smooth display similar to the greatest of video games ever made. It’s a story that you can’t wait to experience from the very beginning with a decent, if imperfect, script and characters you can’t help but route for. The challenges leading up to the Easter egg are truly puzzling and extigin and, ins some ways, even more fascinating than the ones written of in the novel. As long as the movie stays in the Oasis or focuses on characters in the real world logged into the Oasis “Ready Player One” remains a riveting, pulse pounding adventure like few we’ve ever seen before.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
But that brings me to what didn’t quite work with the film and if you couldn’t tell from what I stated above “Ready Player One” loses it’s touch when it exits the Oasis and focuses more on the real world. I felt like I watched two different movies spliced together at times, one a quality movie rooted in the virtual world and another, less impressive film focusing on the real world dystopia. The scenes in the movie’s reality to me felt rushed and, at times, convoluted or watered down but thankfully this makes up at most maybe 20-25% of the film without at least being plugged into the Oasis. It’s hard to forgive the lazily introduced real-world versions of the avatars Wade and Art3mis hang with or the generic “evil organization hunts down the heroes” plot that unfolds, but despite how predictable and messy these scenes feel the time we spend in the Oasis makes up for it in droves. I was almost thankful they rushed through some real-world scenes or added in a chase scene here or there because either it got us back to the Oasis faster, or it added some drama within the Oasis that creates another conflict for the heroes. It doesn’t really forgive the errors in storytelling, but these little realizations did make me appreciate these flaws more than I hated them.
Another big issue I had with the movie overall is that while it’s very well paced in my opinion, it does lean heavily on people already understanding some ideas from the book in order to enjoy everything about the experience. We do get moments of exposition that allow insight into certain terminologies, nicknames and how things work that the book had more time to explain, but other aspects of the story are left out. We don’t fully get to understand why it was such a big deal to get everyone in the Oasis to wage war as one, which is explained in the book. We don’t get to understand why Wade calls he and his friends the High Five, which is explained in the book and comes out of nowhere in the movie. We don’t fully understand the mindset of IOI and their quest for the Easter Egg, which is summarized in the movie and made much clearer in the book.
The film adaptation also only KIND OF touches on the book’s deeper themes of reality versus fantasy, which is a shoehorned concept at the end of the film that doesn’t really resonate through the entire project the way I had hoped. I know in the end the book doesn’t really matter as long as the film is good, but to me a movie at least has to understand and respect its audience enough to offer something to fill in the blanks for people who might not have read the book beforehand. “Ready Player One” tries to do that, and succeeds in many ways, but it also fails in many ways to the point where sometimes it’s easy to think something was missing in the translation. To be fully honest though, If I have to get that nitpicky to find a flaw in a film like this then it’s probably plenty good enough for the casual viewer to embrace.
Despite some flaws in character development and a messy story outside of the Oasis, I very much enjoyed “Ready Player One” as a whole. It was amazingly nostalgic, beautiful to look at, entertaining on so many levels, and as a fan of the book I felt like I got my money’s worth when it was all said and done. There’s more to love than there is to hate about Spielberg’s latest creation and it continues a great start to the year for science fiction. It’s also probably one of the most respectable and complete video-game themed movies to ever come around so there’s that. I truly loved the depiction of the Oasis and the immersive nature of the story and the characters were fun and made for a great team led by two actors fully capable of carrying their roles all the way through the movie. It might not be perfect, but it’s a film I truly can’t wait to experience again and one that makes me long for even more adventure from the world of the Oasis. “Ready Player Two” anyone? I hope so! So, to summarize all that, it might not be the absolute best Steven Spielberg has ever created, but it proves the legendary filmmaker can still pull it off and bring a world of pure imagination to life.