Despite Steven Spielberg’s best efforts, “Ready Player One” disappointing


Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language

Screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Ernest Cline

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance and more

Grade: Two stars

 

Welcome to “Wikipedia Article: The Movie.”

Despite the valiant efforts of director Steven Spielberg and co-screenwriter Zak Penn, the movie version of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” remains a series of pop culture facts rather than an actual story. Though they improved Cline’s original story dramatically and gave us some beautiful pictures to look at, the overall result still feels less like a story and more like clicking through a bunch of Wikipedia articles about ‘80s media late at night.

In a dystopian future set in the 2040s, everyone spends their days in an online VR world called “The Oasis.” Many of those people spend their time there hunting for the clues to a set of mysterious keys hidden by the world’s creator before his death. One young man spends his days faithfully trying to solve the challenges, but he soon realizes there’s far more at stake than the glory of winning first place.

There are so many random pop culture references in this movie. If you know and enjoy the thing being referenced, it can be fun. If you don’t, it’s the movie equivalent of being forced to listen to two people have a conversation you have no interest in. Even worse, these references all too often are seen as a replacement for witty dialogue (though there are a few moments where the show actually remembers to be clever).

Any moment in the movie where you see some kind of character depth, balanced heroics or even interesting plot elements is entirely due to Spielberg and Penn, because none of it is in the novel. They also get credit for one surprisingly fun sequence based around the movie “The Shining,” another thing that isn’t in the novel.

Still, they weren’t able to fix everything. The movie seems to exist in a world where the Internet never happened, even though Oasis was supposedly created after 2020 (and the book was written in 2011). The Oasis seems to be the only avenue for any kind of online communication, and the idea of some sort of competing element never occurs to anyone.

The idea of having a friend you’ve never met in person is presented as something that needs to be explained, where out here people meet friends in online games and on social media sites all the time. Screens are only for watching livestreams and surveillance videos, not for reading anything (perhaps they didn’t want to remind anyone of Wikipedia). It’s a baffling absence that makes the movie feel even more old-fashioned than all the ‘80s references. It’s the past’s vision of the future.

This out-of-date feeling of the future actually causes a plot problem at one point. Even in 2018, there are enough security cameras everywhere that people have gotten good at hiding their faces if they don’t want to be recognized. The world of “Ready Player One” is full of security drones that fly through the streets and see everything, and yet one character who has lives depending on their ability to hide their identity walks down the street bare faced with a dramatically identifying facial mark. They don’t even bother wearing a hoodie.

Still, there are a few good moments, especially near the end. And if you enjoy playing “spot the reference to ______,” the movie is an endlessly rich source. Easy mode is Marvin the Martian. Hard mode is Battletoads.

But unless you’re a big fan of Atari 2600 games, “Ready Player One” will leave you wishing you were watching one of the movies it references instead.

(Photo copyright Warner Brothers)

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