Ready Player One
Bruce Steele: Steven Spielberg’s overstuffed Ready Player One is more videogame-like than a lot of movies based on videogames. It drops us into its virtual, all-CG-created world, called the OASIS, and we’re off and running for more than two hours. Were you breathless by the finish line?
Edwin Arnaudin: It’s structured in a way that there’s time for a victory/cool-down lap, but until then I found it an exhilarating ride. It’s well-paced, there’s eye candy galore and the “People vs. The Man” story crackles with contemporary relevance. Did you come away similarly thrilled?
Bruce: I was entertained. I was not thrilled. Any contemporary relevance seems to me mostly superficial and buried by the nonstop action in service to a rather simple plot structure: Teen gamer Wade (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is battling a team of hundreds fielded by evil game company CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, Rogue One) to be the first to solve a trio of challenges within the elaborate OASIS virtual reality world. The winner gets to own OASIS, which is worth, like, a trillion dollars. The twist is, the clues turn on pop culture references, mostly to the 1970s and ‘80s. That was fine with me, but are younger viewers going to be left behind?
Edwin: I don’t think they’ll get quite the nerdy nostalgic jolt of those who lived through those decades and/or are well-versed in their offerings, but Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (the latter of whom wrote the source material novel) do an excellent job framing the central allusions in accessible ways. For example, audiences just need a basic understanding of video games instead of hours and hours playing specific cartridges. The more you recognize, the more fun it is, but in classic Spielberg fashion it all moves so well and looks so good that the details almost don’t matter.
Bruce: You may be right. I know zip about Atari videogames, but I didn’t feel lost when those old cartridge games became a major plot point. And who doesn’t love the return of The Iron Giant as a major player? Among the non-virtual actors, I was constantly amused by the great Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) doing his best nerd impersonation as OASIS founder Halliday. Any other humans stand out for you amid the pixels?
Edwin: I may have been more attached to this Iron Giant than the original animated one! Rylance is indeed hilarious at playing a socially-inept genius, but other than a slightly under-used Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former partner Ogden Morrow, there’s not really a weak link in the cast. Sheridan is serviceable as our hero Wade (who goes by Parzival in the OASIS) and his allies Helen/Aech (Lena Waithe, Master of None) and especially Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, showing her range in a role wildly different than her Thoroughbreds sociopath) provide consistent sparks. How about you?
Bruce: I think you were more impressed than I was with the flesh-and-blood performers, secondary as they were to their CG counterparts. All the humanoids seemed underdeveloped and unoriginal to me. Sheridan and Cooke are more endearing in virtual form, and the voicework by Waithe and Silicon Valley's T.J. Miller (as a virtual thug) is outstanding. As I said to start, this is the most game-ish of movies, with much more thought put into the OASIS than into the actual world it supposedly has in thrall. This dystopian future of 2045 is barely rendered beyond Wade’s stacked-trailer home. It’s hard to get excited about saving a world that barely exists.
Edwin: I lump the real-world and OASIS performances together since the (admittedly more interesting) CG side is achieved through motion capture. And while there may be practically no information about this version of Earth outside of Columbus, Ohio — other than the rapidly-growing midwest capital is where Halliday and Morrow created the OASIS and home to the evil IOI, and therefore somehow a more desirable, tech-centric place to live — there’s enough sense that real life is depressing and the OASIS is everything for a lot of people. Throw in a corporate villain that wants to price out low/middle-class players and I’m rooting for the underdogs.
Bruce: There’s exactly one scene to provide a wider glimpse of this Columbus of the future, and it’s clearly a reshoot, since Sheridan is suddenly (and temporarily) more than a year older and about 20 pounds heavier. It’s like Spielberg cut the movie together and then thought, "Oh, right, we should know a little something about the world we’re in." Not that one scene helps much.
Edwin: Also key for me in the world-building is that the barrenness of reality makes the lush visuals of the OASIS all the more impressive. I got a little emotional during the early race sequence where drivers go up against the likes of a T-Rex and King Kong. Everything is so clearly rendered and easy to follow — both rarities in modern action/adventure films.
Bruce: I think our differences are a matter of degree. You’re willing to forgive some sketchy world-building because the game narrative is compelling and the visuals are fantastic, which they are. I may even go back to get the full 3D experience. But as entertaining as the river of pop culture was to swim in, I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere much. Like a theme park log ride, it’s fun while it lasts and there’s a big splash at the end, but you’re not left with much save damp clothes. That’s a disappointment in a movie that wants to say something important about — well, I’m not sure about what: Corporate greed? Grabbing opportunity? The importance of friends? It’s all a bit obvious.
Edwin: But how often does Spielberg deliver an original message? For me, he’s pretty much the master of repackaging timeless themes in shiny new ways. He reminds us of what’s important in life — things we often overlook.
Bruce: It’s not the originality of the message I’m missing; it’s the clarity and power Spielberg builds into in his best films. Maybe it’s the source material, but there’s not enough emotional context here for him to pluck the heartstrings he’s usually so good at playing. Wade’s dead relatives barely matter, and whatever the social or moral stakes are, they’re just window dressing. The agenda here is thrills and winks. It’s Spielberg-size thrills and winks, so it’s impressive and fun, but it’s not memorable or moving. I give it a B-minus.
Edwin: Back in 2011, Spielberg tried to change cinema with the excellent, fully-animated motion capture Adventures of Tintin and barely anyone cared. By mastering the technology, mixing it with live-action and referencing more than just cult favorites, I think he’s created something that will have far more mainstream appeal. Ready Player One may even be this generation’s The Matrix. I heartily recommend it and will go with an A-minus.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Warner Bros.)