Ready Player One
What it's about:
It’s 2045 and the world is on the brink of chaos and collapse. The people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe. When James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS dies, he releases a video in which he challenges all users to find his Easter egg, which will give the finder Halliday’s fortune. Unlikely young hero Wade Watts finds the first clue and starts a race for the egg, hurling himself into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery, and danger.
What we thought:
For all the acclaim that Steven Spielberg gets for his “serious” films (Schindler's List, Lincoln), it is ultimately his peerless work with blockbusters and genre pictures that have most earned him his status as one of the very best living filmmakers. From Jaws to The BFG; Raiders of the Lost Ark to Minority Report, no one makes big-budget, (usually) fantastical films quite like Spielberg – though, many, of course, have tried. It's a pity, then, that his latest Huge Hollywood Blockbuster is the very definition of a mixed bag; one that, quite shockingly, almost gets away from him.
The film, which is based on the massively popular novel by Ernest Cline (who co-writes the screenplay with veteran - though hugely inconsistent - screenwriter, Zak Penn) is a very uneasy mix of characters that are both immediately likeable but are very broadly drawn (the cast is uniformly on point, though); a plot that is overly simple while also being refreshingly straightforward; a message that is both muddled and emotionally effective and an overall aesthetic that is both ugly in its overstuffed, CGI-mush (made ten times worse by the colour loss of 3D) and beautiful in its pure visual imagination.
It's a film that is clearly a love letter to pop culture of all stripes, varieties and eras; from '80s pop music (add to that John Williams' score and you have a film with a seriously killer soundtrack) to cult science fiction to vintage video game consoles. It undoubtedly says something, then, that by far the most effective sequence in the film takes place in a classic horror film, where the CGI is scaled back to a breathable level and the film's classic adventure-film spirit is at its most direct.
The virtual reality of the Oasis in general, however, may be stuffed with really fun Easter eggs for nerds and geeks of all ages and it may have moments of genuinely terrific visual invention and kinetic-but-easy-to-follow action set pieces but between the fact that the players aren't in any real danger in this fundamentally fake world and that the whole thing just looks like a video game (of the MMORPG sort, to be specific), it's hard to ever get terribly involved with what's going on. It's a film with a beating heart at its centre but that heart is too often obscured by level after level of very obvious artifice.
Fortunately, both Spielberg and his screenwriters do understand this so they are very careful to ensure that there is enough real stakes in the “real world” of the film, where our loveable (but, again, less three-dimensional than the sprites in the Oasis) heroes have their actual lives threatened by Evil Corporation, IOI, and its wonderfully, cartoonish Evil Big Boss (played with relish by the great Ben Mendelshon), to give the film some actual heft. The cutting between the real world and the Oasis in the later parts of the film, in particular, are far more effective than it has any right to be – and says plenty about just how great Spielberg is that he can make any of this stuff work at all.
And make no mistake: This is C-level Spielberg. As someone who almost always relies on others to write his movies, Spielberg is, if not only as good as his script, often encumbered by scripts that aren't as good as he is. He is good enough to elevate sub-par writing, to be sure, but even he has limits – and a story about a world that is several layers removed from recognisable reality with a script as muddled as it so clearly is here (I haven't read it but the novel has a reputation for being a fun page-turner but one that is quite badly written), is too much for even the Master to fully transcend. Not that Spielberg is entirely blameless here, of course, as he is responsible for the vision of the piece but, frankly, considering the film's central conceit, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job. Ready Player One, as directed by Michael Bay or Zack Snyder... I shudder to think...
Really, this is far from his best, but any film with even just a bit of that Steven Spielberg magic is well worth seeing – though do be sure to do so in glorious, unencumbered 2D. 3D is normally a colossal waste of time but it's genuinely disastrous here.