"This whole movie is bullshit." So went a text I received from a friend and fellow colleague shortly after our screenings. So yeah, Ready Player One is going to be that kind of divisive.
Based on Ernest Cline's best-selling novel – and improving upon it in many ways – Steven Spielberg's latest adventure is both a joy to watch and an eye-roll to endure. You'll either enjoy the avalanche of pop culture references or be sick of the 300th wink to any mildly popular product of the 1980s.
Set in a dystopian future that's so awful, pretty much everyone on Earth retreats into a virtual reality system called the OASIS, which makes up almost all the world's economy. People actually bankrupt themselves in the real world to be able to acquire digital things in this fake world. In this place, our bland hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by the online name Perzival. He's one of the millions of players still on the quest to find three keys hidden by deceased OASIS founder James Halladay (Mark Rylance). The winner will inherit his multi-billion dollar fortune.
So yes, the story of Ready Player One isn't any deeper or more original than an old video game or sci-fi film or any Joseph Campbell "hero's journey" stuff. While Ernest Cline was hardly a great writer, he had an energy that kept you turning the pages even as you tuned out the that cultural touchstones that were never a part of your own adolescence. And what keeps the film from getting bogged down is the film's often dazzling setpieces. One in particular, which sees our virtual heroes encountering a demented version of an actual iconic film from the 1980s, is up there with some of the best action sequences of Spielberg's career. (Of course, some people will think this whole scene is a total desecration.)
But while the film wants to spend most of its time in the OASIS, there's a lot of fascinating unexplored corners of the real world. The big bad of the film is Nolan Sorrento, played with scenery-chewing excellence by Ben Mendelsohn. He's the CEO of the OASIS' chief competitor, which isn't even faceless evil like the OmniCorp of RoboCop. They're actually evil, with a paramilitary force that literally enslaves people who fall behind in their payments. What kind of government would allow such a thing, and has the economic depression that so many people suffer under exacerbated by the very thing that allows them to escape? Those are apparently questions for a smarter movie. After all, their are big battles to be had and increasingly obscure artifacts to reference.
Ready Player One is everything its fans want it to be, and it's not nearly as bad as its detractors would expect. Steven Spielberg has basically made the best possible version of this material with the serviceable-at-best script he was given. There's a ton you could pick apart – including that its two Asian characters get even less to do here than in the novel – but for big-screen spectacle, you could do a whole lot worse than Ready Player One.