Ready Player One review Tye Sheridan Olivia CookeYear: 2018
Director(s): Steven Spielberg
Writer(s): Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: PG-13
35mm, Color, 140 mins

Synopsis: When the creator of a virtual reality world called the OASIS dies, he releases a challenges for his fortune. (Source)

We live in a world where pop culture and nostalgia have plateaued – like the dystopic world rendered in Ready Player One, fandom stands at the brink. On one hand, there are legions of fans who have been truly touched and inspired by their favorite fictional characters and worlds. On the flip side, are creatively bankrupt corporations and artistic vultures who feed on this need for cross-media connection. In a nutshell, this is the basis of Steven Spielberg’s latest, which adapts Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name in the best way that it can. While Cline’s novel is a love letter that mimics an archetypal hero’s journey through a relentless barrage of pop references, Spielberg emphasizes the dangers of a world retreating further into its own escapism. Naturally, as Spielberg to return to his fantasy roots, it comes at a cost. The final product is definitely something to behold, but mixed messaging clashes with undeniably breathtaking spectacle.

In 2045, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in an overpopulated, sprawling Columbus, Ohio. In this future, everyone has resigned to the digital world, spending most of their time in a simulated reality called the OASIS. Here, Watts is dubbed Parzival, and everyone takes the form of their favorite pop culture characters as they explore an interconnected world in which everything is possible. Before passing in the real world, the OASIS’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), left behind clues to a special quest. Hidden within his dense digital simulacra, are 3 keys. Whoever finds all keys first, will be granted complete control over the OASIS, leading its players on a desperate search for the ultimate Easter egg. So far, no one has been able to find a single key, but Watts, a devotee of Halliday is close. Before he can get much further, he meets another gamer named Ar3mis (Olivia Cooke), who warns Watts of an evil corporation that wishes to use Halliday’s prize for dubious reasons. And like that, a battle for the freedom of the OASIS begins, and carries with it real life consequences.

To be blunt, there’s no way a story like this works without Spielberg. Lots of the references and tone are ripped from the director’s work, and the scope and scale of each key hunt is something only he could translate to film. It’s also Spielberg that prevents the film from merely being a skeletal story propped up on its own nostalgia, searching past the flash to find the meaning behind it all. Why would we want to escape realty? How does the OASIS reflect the ways we create our own realty, and how does relying on fallacy prevent us from experiencing something real? In terms of sci-fi, these are all boilerplate conundrums, but there’s no denying the magic of seeing Spielberg twist and warp pop culture to his narrative needs. If there’s something that makes the film worth a watch, it’s the level of awe and wonder on display. This is as immersive and transportive as blockbuster spectacle can get, and with a master at the helm, there’s a lot of heart as well.

Ready Player One review Lena Waithe Win Morisaki Philip Zhao Olivia CookeNot to be outdone, the cast stands up to the film’s sensory overload. As the story’s focal point, Sheridan makes Watts is relatable and genuine. For Watts, the story represents an awakening and coming of age, as he’s pushed beyond his limits and challenged to really connect. Sheridan has an innocence that transcends his somewhat flat characterization, making everything felt rather than just seen. As Art3mis/Sam, Cooke is a presence to be reckoned with. Cooke allows her character to be fierce and headstrong, struggling with frailty but immovable through conviction. The film slightly suffers from trophy girl syndrome, but Cooke gives Art3mis meat to chew on. On the flip side, Ben Mendelsohn is a worthy baddie. As Sorrento, Mendelsohn goes beyond a typical sneering villain with understated poignancy. There’s a weight to his actions – we feel as if he’s not evil for the sake of it, but searching for the same purpose as Watts. Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao and Mark Rylance round things out in smaller, but impactful roles.

Ready Player One is a perfect encapsulation of our pop culture zeitgeist. Because of this, it inherits both the good and bad of the current landscape. Spielberg tells the story through a cautionary lens, but the ending is still too much of a compromise, never fully exposing the threat of pining for nostalgia as a safety blanket, and the importance of reality rather than simulation. As two-hour spectacle, however, the film is a gargantuan achievement, one the overflows with wonder despite feeling like the cinematic equivalent to clickbait.