Review: Ready Player One

Review: Ready Player One

What is this movie? It is a basket of contradictions. It is a futuristic look at a world obsessed with a decidedly 80s-based nostalgia, made by an old man who also happens to be the most accomplished filmmaker of all time. It revels in the references from Gen-X childhood that have taken over so much of our pop culture recently. It somehow feels fresh and dated at the same time. There is also a scale to the story that belies the very specific cultural references it relies on. But more than anything, it is reminder that Steven Spielberg knows how to make movies. It has been billed as a modern take on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but in many ways, its obsession with the past is even more interesting than its virtual reality shell. 

 Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The basic setup immediately drew me in. James Halladay (played by Mark Rylance) is a tech founder who created a virtual reality world called “The Oasis.” People spend most of their lives interacting within this virtual world, where they maintain their life savings and play high stakes games to escape the dystopia of the real world. When Halladay dies, he leaves behind a challenge where players must track down three keys hidden in the game. With $500B and control of the Oasis on the line, people from all over to focus on tracking down these keys. This includes not only our protagonist, Wade Watts, or Parzival as he is known in the Oasis (played by Tye Sheridan), and his “clan,” but also one of the largest companies in the world, Innovative Online Industries ("IOI"). 

IOI is intent on getting the keys and ownership of the Oasis so that they can fill it with ads to make more money than ever. They employ hundreds of people whose sole job is to go after the keys. When Parzival gets out to an early lead in the quest for the keys, IOI becomes obsessed with stopping him, even if it means killing him in the real world. 

 Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

First, let’s establish that there is a ton going on here. There are real world stories, stories in the Oasis, a dozen characters with various levels of narrative arc and a universe with rules we are gradually introduced to. It is something between Fortnite and Mad Max, but where every significant outcome turning on an obscure 80s reference. The answers to every clue involve navigating the intricacies of Halladay's take on certain cultural relics. If you are not steeped in Kubrick or video game history, or at least familiar enough to know when a reference is being made, you might find the appeal lacking. So much, for better or for worse, relies on an affinity for these characters and stories of a bygone era. That said, there is a certain wonder here. Spielberg is still a storyteller with an impressive grasp of cinema even before adding in the visual candy and manipulative music. Though two and a half hours is too long for the movie to run, it’s not hard to see why he wanted to stay in this world. It’s internal rules and gratifying structure has just as much to say about our world as theirs. 

There are arguments about corporate greed, personal privacy, net neutrality, indebtedness, for-profit prisons, stereotypes and so much more. Likewise, the ethnically rich cast speaks volumes without needing to be referenced. The message is clear. Working together across boundaries is going to be the only way to confront these complex issues in a meaningful way.

 Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The movie’s weakest moments come in the bloated middle that builds the love story that never really feels essential. While Act I lays out the fascinating rules, Act II feels bogged down with more traditional story-telling elements. Once Act III arrives, it is clear we are headed toward a sappily drawn out ending, but for some reason it still works. When characters from The Iron Giant to Mortal Kombat join together in a populist revolt to facedown IOI, it somehow has an unexpected charm. I can't say for sure this will work for everyone, but what I can say is that this is one of Steven Spielberg's most ambitious and original works in years. 

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