Ready Player One
When discussing modern mainstream blockbusters, nostalgia can be a touchy subject. Whether it’s discussing the use of subversion as an attempt to deepen nostalgic characters we’ve been waiting years to see again in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” or the possible merits a Bumblebee spinoff set in the 1980’s can have in an otherwise bloated and disappointing live-action “Transformers” franchise, nostalgia can be a defining factor as to whether or not a person sees the resurgence of properties of their romanticized past in an optimistic or cynical viewpoint. With a film like “Blade Runner 2049,” you see how nostalgic callbacks can be used to not only engage fans of the previous film but also how to use that nostalgia as a way to build an original, more emotional story that organically builds off the past. However, on the flip side, you can see films like 2015’s “Pixels” misuse nostalgia in the worst ways, cynically presenting nostalgic properties without even trying to replicate what made them nostalgic to people in the first place. I could probably do this all day because, in recent years, films have been trying to tap that nostalgia vein nearly to the point of sucking it bone dry.
So when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would adapt the 2011 novel “Ready Player One” (a sci-fi adventure novel by Ernest Cline that relies heavily on 70’s and 80’s nostalgia) into a blockbuster film, the reactions were unsurprisingly mixed. Many were excited to see Spielberg work his magic to bring the virtual reality playground of the novel’s OASIS to life on the big screen, maybe even mixing up the references and set pieces in order to surprise fans of the novel. Others were…far from excited, hating trailers and promotional materials because they were using properties in ways that they didn’t approve of, almost as if fans were trying to protect them from big bad Warner Bros. Granted, the early posters and trailers weren’t great and it was obvious that Warner Bros. was having a difficult time initially trying to advertise such a nostalgic melting pot. It makes sense though; Adapting a novel with such a specific, nostalgic foundation is going to lead to a mixed reception regardless of the film’s quality.
As someone who enjoyed the book, I was cautiously optimistic of the adaptation. It has the potential to be better than the book, especially if they build on the likable but forgettable characters, dragging second act, and author Ernest Cline’s flawed writing. Going into the film, I was genuinely excited to see what Spielberg would create. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised.
The film takes place in the year 2045. Five years earlier, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of the innovative virtual reality world OASIS, dies which leads to a video being released to the public. This video shows Halliday giving his last will and testimony, stating that he hid an Easter egg in the OASIS and if someone finds the egg, that person will inherit the entirety of Halliday’s fortune as well as ownership of the OASIS itself. This sparks inspiration in teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), pushing him and his other egg-hunting friends to find the egg before it’s found by the evil corporation, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to use the OASIS for their own benefit.
Reading that synopsis, you might wonder where the 70’s and 80’s nostalgia comes into play. Well James Halliday was a massive nerd, hiding the egg behind three keys that you can only find if you know extensive knowledge on classic video games, 80’s movies, and Halliday’s entire life. While that may sound boring, Spielberg, Cline, and screenwriter Zak Penn do a great job of making the scavenger hunt exciting and interesting, using the time to not just dive into only Halliday and the references but also revamp the story to feel more streamlined, bombastic, and entertaining. It does a great job of fixing the pacing issue from the book while also changing the events in a, in my opinion, less niched and improved way, especially for a film. While the writing is still shallow in the character and thematic department, having the veteran screenwriter who helped with “The Avengers” was definitely beneficial for the final product.
Speaking of the characters, the film does a really good job of making them enjoyable and relatable. Olivia Cooke is great as Art3mis, Mark Rylance is absolutely perfect as the eccentric James Halliday, Ben Mendelsohn shines as the almost mustache-twirling Sorrento, and while he doesn’t look like the novel’s version of the character, Tye Sheridan does a really good job as Wade Watts. Even the rest of Wade’s friends (Aech, Daito, and Sho) are given more to do in this iteration, thankfully improving on The Wade Watts Show that the novel felt like at times. This results in an ensemble that does a great job with what they’re given, doing what every film adaptation of a novel should do: bring the characters to life.
While on the subject of bringing the novel to life, I want to talk about the visuals of the film. Spielberg decided to make the entirety of the OASIS computer generated, scrapping any chance of giving the main characters the realistic looks that they had in the novel. While some have criticized the decision, I actually fell in love with it as I watched. In a world where anyone can be anything, it makes a lot more sense for our characters to have these unique, cartoonish avatars in these beautiful worlds rather than stand out by looking like themselves. It also keeps the look and design of the OASIS consistent, culminating in a virtual world that completely commits to its vibrance and ridiculousness.
And nothing adds to that ridiculousness like the action set pieces. Whether it’s a fight next to a moving plane or a battle on the Normandy beaches, Spielberg has always been the type of director that kills it with directing action sequences. “Ready Player One” is no different as Spielberg shows he excels at directing organized chaos, keeping the audience enthralled and interested even when you can’t tell what is going on. Even the weakest action set piece (which is plagued by a few instances of quick yet confusing editing) is better than most films. Add on a really fun live-action sequence and you have a 2 hour and 20 minute film that never really drags or feels boring.
That being said though, the film does have its flaws. Like I mentioned earlier, the writing is still shallow, improving on some elements and story beats yet it unfortunately keeps the novel’s decision on focusing more on the references and the straightforward story rather than building on the themes that can grow from a diverse setting such as a utopian virtual world that distracts from a hellish, trashy dystopia. It even gets bogged down in the beginning by unnecessary narration which thankfully goes away once the film starts to move along. As for the references, they’re also used similarly to the book, mostly relegating them to scene stealers and vapid moments of “Hey, I know that character!” Thankfully, Spielberg doesn’t put too much time on these references, leaving them to be fun, nostalgic nods that are gone before you can figure out whether they’re good or bad.
Overall, since I saw the film on Monday, I’ve been jumping back and forth from 3.5 stars to 4 stars quite frequently. On one hand, the film does represent some of the novel’s weaker elements, keeping the story’s straightforward, flawed approach and its simple handling of nostalgic callbacks. However, it also improved on the book by revamping several story beats, giving the main cast more to do, and having an absolute blast with the setting, both in and out of the OASIS. The directing is great, the editing has its moments, and the movie actually caught me off-guard with some great changes to the source material. It’s not Spielberg’s best but it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. While I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with whatever rating I give it, I know I’m comfortable with saying this: Despite its flaws, I’m legitimately excited to see “Ready Player One” again.
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Great ensemble cast
Incredibly fun action set pieces
Really good editing
Quick and engaging pace
Shallow, flawed writing
Mostly vapid callbacks to nostalgic properties
Very few moments of quick and confusing editing