Steven Spielberg rushed The Post for Oscar qualification last year, while he was prepping Ready Player One for a March release. It’s based on a popular sci-fi novel of the same name, written by Ernest Cline, and it has a tremendous visual effects budget. It’s got young stars fresh off of other hot properties. What could possibly go wrong?
In 2045 dystopian Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts lives in “The Stacks,” a slum of trailers stacked up on top of each other, in a world with dwindling resources and no hope for the future. Life is so miserable, everybody spends all their free time escaping reality in the OASIS, a picturesque videogame-like virtual reality world. Created by a now deceased game developer, a string of puzzles is left in the OASIS for someone to solve, that if completed, this person would own his company and control the OASIS, leading to some hope in this world. Wade and his friends set out to complete this mission.
The film is overstuffed with references to 1980s pop culture, mostly limited to properties owned by Warner Bros. King Kong shows up, a character is building an Iron Giant replica, Freddy Krueger pops by, and the characters go into the world of a certain horror classic that I won’t spoil for you. It’s the best scene in the whole movie, primarily because this is the one reference in the movie that actually brings the narrative forward. My audience audibly reacted to several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references. Perhaps if I were in on all of this, I might have enjoyed the film more than I did.
Ready Player One is a parade of references, not amounting to much. It feels like crucial scenes are cut out to make room for obscure pop culture references.
It also has a terrific soundtrack; full of ‘80s music I’m sure Spielberg and Co. spent a fortune on. But, ultimately it’s too much and not enough. It feels incomplete, and the movie is roughly two and a half hours long. It’s breathless, overpowering, vapid and ultimately empty. There’s not much to hold this film up on its own. Take all the references out of it, and it’s a story you’ve seen a hundred times before in better and more interesting ways.
Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, the film’s leads, do their best with what they have. Most of their performances rely on voice acting because so much of it is CGI. There’s virtually no character development, and it’s so difficult to engage with these people, especially after they’re in their animated avatars. Lena Waithe, from Master of None is very charismatic, however, and she’s a joy to watch. I do not understand why T.J. Miller is in the film.
There’s nobody better-suited to this material than Spielberg. It’s the decade where he became known as an iconic director who can work a solid narrative with brilliant visual effects. However, there’s no reason to emotionally connect to any of these characters. There is so much being thrown at you from every corner of the frame, and yet this big, loud, expensive movie just feels excruciatingly boring. I haven’t read the Ernest Cline novel, but from what I hear, this film is vastly different from it. I hear it’s much better-developed. Maybe try that instead.