By Daniel Howat
Final Score - 8/10
“People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.”
Steven Spielberg built his career on fun and fantastical adventures, full of excitement, grandeur, and heart. Ready Player One returns to that classic Spielbergian sense of adventure along with spectacular visuals and non-stop pop culture callouts.
This adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel takes place in 2045 where a virtual reality world called the Oasis provides an escape from the decaying real world. Here you can do anything, and be anyone. Within the Oasis there also lies an elaborate Easter Egg hunt created by the game’s founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The prize: ownership of the Oasis.
Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, better known by his in-game avatar Parzival, aims to be the winner of this challenge, despite his humble background as a poor kid in the “stacks” of Columbus, Ohio. Armed with his comprehensive knowledge of pop culture and Halliday himself, Wade seems to have a fighting chance. He’s aided by Art3mis (Oliva Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Phillip Zhao).
There’s plenty to say about the film, but it’s one thing above all else: fun. It's a both a throwback to classic Spielberg adventures and a burst of new and innovative imagery. This film is a non-stop blast from beginning to end. An opening car race through the ever-changing streets of New York featuring obstacles like a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong is exhilarating. Oh, and Parzival is racing in a Delorean.
If that last paragraph annoys you, this movie isn’t for you. Ready Player One is over-the-top, sometimes overloading the senses. Though it comes dangerously close, it’s never too much. The film keeps itself grounded in our main quest the whole time. It’s a search for a prize, yes. But it’s also an exploration of history, and what it means to really be present in the life you’re living. The themes aren’t executed as strongly as the action, but there’s still enough heart to balance out the insanity inside the Oasis.
Of course, the best part of the film is the abundance of pop culture references. It would take hours, if not days, to uncover every reference and nod. Though there are too many to count, it feels natural in this world, never just cheap winks at the audience. The creator had a deep love for pop culture and expressed it in this world.
Rylance gives a stunning though brief performance as Halliday, full of awkwardness and a quiet oddness. It’s subtle and gentle, which grabs your attention in such a loud and wild film. Ben Mendelsohn also shines as Nolan Sorrento, the evil CEO who wants control of the Oasis. T.J. Miller appears in a voice-only role, making this his first appearance since sexual assault allegations surfaced against him. It's curious that Spielberg didn't choose to recast the role, which would have been a seemingly easy task.
If not for the utterly stunning visual effects inside the Oasis, this film would fall apart. Long takes and elaborate action sequences go off without ever feeling false. It helps that the Oasis doesn’t have to look photo-realistic. It’s still a game after all. Some of the most stunning effects work takes place inside the movie The Shining. The way Spielberg was able to merge these two films together was unbelievable.
More than anything, Ready Player One is an exhilarating adventure. It feels like a classic Spielberg film, right down to the spunky kids outrunning the corporate bad guys. It’s full of wonder, excitement, and nostalgia. It may not have tapped into the deep dark themes that are possible with a film about virtual reality, but it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, this is a popcorn film. And it’s just about the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a very long time.