Full Disclosure: When I first heard that Steven Spielberg, possibly the greatest director to have ever worked in the medium of film, was tackling this adaptation of a questionable literary work of contemporary science fiction…I wasn’t all that interested. I’d never read the book of the same name by author Ernest Cline, but I had heard that it’s reputation as a vital piece of pop culture has been some what over-inflated since it was first released. Also…I’m not a gamer. Never have been. I simply wasn’t raised with them as part of my life and, as a result, I don’t have some overwhelming attachment to video games, and find it hard to relate to the excitement that millions of people around the globe feel about the various titles, franchises and platforms. That being said…we are still talking about a new film by Spielberg! On THAT level…I was admittedly curious. Like tons of geeks who were born in the late 70’s / early 80’s, I’ve been following Spielberg’s meteoric rise through the ranks of Hollywood since I first saw ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ in the theatre when I was 5. He single-handedly reshaped certain genres and film styles with his masterful ‘eye’ and natural talent behind the camera. Some of my all-time favorite films are tucked comfortably into his filmography. I’m a HUGE fan of the first 3 Indiana Jones flicks, but felt really let down by the sloppy and juvenile ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’…most of the blame for the end result, I unapologetically lay at George Lucas’ feet. It was recently announced that Spielberg anticipates production on ‘Indy 5’ to kick off April of next year and, in my opinion, this is a dicey move. I fully understand that his and Harrison Ford’s fondness for ‘Indy’ is driving them toward giving the beloved character a dignified (and hopefully exciting) send-off…while also apologizing for the embarrassing shit-show ‘Crystal Skull’ ended up being. Plus, Ford is REALLY starting to look like a grumpy old dude in his mid-70’s, so casting him again in an iconic and traditionally action-heavy role is an obvious gamble, just from a ‘will the audience buy it?’ perspective alone. But I have faith in Spielberg’s directing prowess and believe that even if Ford’s elderliness is undeniable, Spielberg will be able to put a good movie in around him that gives the rugged archaeologist the good-bye he (and we) deserve. And it was on that level that I wanted to see ‘Ready Player One’. I wanted to see if Steven still had the chops to give us an exciting ride, as opposed to a slower, dramatic ‘period’ piece of some historical significance, like he’s been doing for the last decade or so. So on a blustery Sunday afternoon…I sauntered on down to the local marquee.
‘Ready Player One’ takes place in Columbus, OH, in the year 2045. We meet our main character ‘Wade Watt’s (Tye Sheridan) as he goes through life in ‘The Stacks’, which is essentially a city-within-a-city of RV’s, trailers and shipping containers all stacked and mounted on DIY scaffolding. The futuristic world at large seems worn around the edges, while still looking relatable to us today. One aspect of every day life is a digital escape called ‘The Oasis’, which is a cyberspace universe that allows the players to live out the fantastic life of…well…whatever they want, really. 5 years prior, the owner (and co-creator) of ‘The Oasis’, ‘James Halliday’ (Mark Rylance) had passed away but he left instructions and details regarding 3 keys that were hidden in the digital realm. If found, these 3 keys would unlock a hidden ‘Easter Egg’ that would grant the winner half a trillion dollars and complete control over the ‘world’. ‘Wade’ teams up with 4 other players in a quest to find the ‘Easter Egg’ and beat a slimy competitor of ‘Halliday’s named ‘Sorrento’ (Ben Mendelsohn) and his army of online soldiers who are all competing to complete the puzzle and claim the prize. This puts everyone on a collision course with some very high, and dangerous, stakes.
I had a lot of fun with ‘Ready Player One’. The sheer volume of 80’s / 90’s pop culture references was impressive alone, but there was some really sweet scenes scattered though-out the 2 hour 20 minute run-time. One thing that seemed to be both a negative and a positive of the book (that I’ve heard) is that it uses nostalgia as a crutch, almost pushing it to the forefront to cover up how thin the core story actually is. And wow…they crank the references up to 11 in this mofo! Another aspect that’s cool is that Spielberg’s work as a director and as a producer in the 1980’s is allegedly hugely referenced in the book and here he is adapting a work that clearly worships him and his own past projects. I understand that he did have some reservations about including much from films he actually directed, versus ones that he produced. But still, the references to his stuff are everywhere, if you’re looking for them (you really don’t have to be looking that hard).
While the references and ‘Easter Eggs’ are fun, again seeing Spielberg set up some truly inventive and invigorating set-pieces was great. My faith in the possibility of him pulling off ‘Indy 5’ was topped up! When the action kicks into gear…holy shit! Hang on! There’s a race early on that was off the chain, in it’s cinematic insanity, as we follow ‘Wade’ ripping through a high-velocity mass of smashing and crashing vehicles in the always-cool Delorean from ‘Back to the Future’. This was one of those examples of a simple choice by Spielberg going a helluva long way to get the ‘impact’ of the action across, and that was his decision to exclude the use of any film score, similar to how he handled the D-Day sequence in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998). We get thrust into a loud and chaotic symphony of roaring engines, thudding impacts and punch-in-the-gut explosions…and it was fucking awesome! I caught myself grinning like an idiot as the scene splashed out at me and my 3D glasses. But that was just one scene. There are definitely others too, both in the ‘real’ world and in The Oasis, and they were proof that even if The Beard is getting on in years, he has certainly not lost his touch when it comes to putting together excellent action scenes. But even if you discount those, there are a number of seemingly simple shots that are also complex and interesting and show us exactly what we need to see to keep the story moving naturally.
There was a lot more pop music in the soundtrack than I was expecting, especially 80’s tunes that we all know and love. Hell, the movie starts with ‘Jump’ by Van Halen…worked for me! It was also interesting to hear someone else come in to provide score, as Spielberg’s ever-reliable ‘go to’ composer John Williams was unavailable for this one. So we get music provided by another well-renowned composer, Alan Silvestri, who has provided memorable scores for films like the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise, ‘The Abyss’, ‘Predator 1-2’, ‘Forrest Gump’ and a shit-ton of other notable titles over the years. I can usually pick out a Silvestri composition and here it sounded like he was toeing the line, when it came to giving his tunes a ‘John Williams’ vibe, while still being a Silvestri original. The score, with the plethora of 80’s tunes, worked just fine for me.
As usual with Spielberg, the cast is solid. Along with Tye Sheridan, we also get Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe and TJ Miller. Everyone else did what they needed to do, and they did it well, as they always do in a Spielberg flick. Having said that, I will admit that most of the characterizations are a wee bit on the thin side, with no one really standing out as a fully fleshed out character. But…since they are literally avatars guiding us through the vast digital world for 60% of the screen-time, deep reserves of intricate characterization aren’t necessarily required.
Now, I did actually have a couple complaints. The biggest relates to how a main character reacts to the murder of a couple people he knows (and many he did not) when an explosion is detonated in ‘The Stacks’ and brings a tower of RV’s crashing down in flames. But, there is almost no regard given to that event afterwards. It’s barely mentioned, which seems odd, as the character was racing to save these folks, only to basically watch them die in front of him. Then it’s just a case of ‘moving on’. Back to the game! Who cares if a dozen people in his neighborhood were just blown up and crushed to death! Clearly not worth mentioning! So that little plot-thread oversight seemed odd to me. There was also what some people could construe as being a mixed message (though I’m not sure it is) in that the movie seems to celebrate people’s creative freedom, imagination and odd sense of ‘community’ in ‘The Oasis’, but then comes in with a direct ‘anti-tech’ vibe that felt like a calculated attempt to make sure a balance was observed. Personally, I appreciated the not-so-subtle message about making the attempt to reconnect with actual people out in the real world, as I think we’re rapidly losing that in this age of social media and VR. But, I could see some folks maybe feeling manipulated by it.
All in all, ‘Ready Player One’ was a fun movie that embraced the current climate of cinematic nostalgia and the quickly advancing technologies around us to give us an exhilarating ride, while also allowing Spielberg to get back to some of his more whimsical and pulpy adventure-type material, which is what we all want to see from him anyway. The effects were great, the pop cultural references were too numerous and clever to catch on a first viewing, the action, both in and out of the Oasis, was expertly handled and it was all bolstered by a solid cast. I was a little put-off by that dropped plot-line (and lack of remorse) regarding the violent (offscreen) deaths of several people but I quickly got over it. I saw this one in 3D and for the most part, it did add to the experience. I also saw it in a D-Box theatre, but didn’t take a seat in the ‘active’ section thankfully, as my back’s been sore and the jumping and jolting I could hear (and feel through the floor) with every impact or explosion, probably would’ve crippled my ass. I can easily recommend this movie to just about anyone, but especially to fans of Spielberg’s past work, hardcore geeks and those who just want some cool science fiction action to burn a couple hours in a day with. From what I understand, fans of the book will also not be disappointed. For me, to compare this entry to any of Spielberg’s past work, I’d say this could comfortably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of his ‘newer’ sci-fi titles like ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001), ‘Minority Report’ (2002) and ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005), but it still doesn’t rank with absolute classics like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) and ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).
*Fans of ‘The Shining’, both the book and the 1980 Kubrick-directed adaptation, will be well served by an unexpected extended scene that takes place in a VERY recognizable location, featuring some VERY recognizable situations, all set to some VERY recognizable music. I laughed out loud when I realized what they were doing and I was not disappointed when the sequence wrapped up.