Ready Player One

2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Lena Waithe, TJ Miller, Simon Pegg, Ralph Ineson | directed by Steven Spielberg | 2hrs 18mins |

Studio Pitch: A Who Framed Roger Rabbit style pop culture mash-up based on Ernest Cline’s YA boy novel, powered by state of the art CGI, candy-coated in trendy 80s nostalgia and directed by the man who invented this type of movie in the first place.

To be honest, I was dreading going into Ready Player One. After watching our baby boomer parents being hooked by re-packaged 50s and 60s nostalgia, then Fight Club so aptly commenting on Generation X being sold 70s nostalgia with re-packaged Pepsi and Volkswagon Beatles, it’s been soul-sucking watching my generation going down that same path of wallowing in the supposed glory of their childhood with the invasion of 80s nostalgia. I was over 80s nostalgia when Stranger Things came out, really over it when It came out and really really over it a few weeks ago when the Strangers sequel was repackaged into an 80s jukebox slasher movie homage. Despite being Steven Spielberg’s big return to fun, populist, blockbuster adventure filmmaking since Minority Report over a decade ago, Ready Player One looked garish and grotesque.

The ironic “problem”, so to speak in the sense that this type of nostalgia is here to stay, is that Steven Spielberg is just so damn good at making this type of movie. He can make this type of wildly entertaining cheer-the-heroes, hiss-the-villains crowd-pleaser with one eye shut. After a decade of prestige films, he hasn’t missed a step when it comes to arranging the fun stuff. From it’s pace – which doesn’t feel rushed, just right at over 2 hours – to it’s structure – which sticks to a tried and true 3 acts instead of the recent trend to eliminate act 2 and slamming endless exposition and endless climaxes together – to it’s tone – which is cheesy and fun and threatening when it needs to be – Ready Player One is a fully realized adventure. From a purely mechanical standpoint it is a more well-made movie than Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and the last handfull of comic book movies.

The actual problem is that for all of Spielberg’s twisting the nobs and fine-tuning the action, it’s all at service of a story that’s empty, predictable and feels like the most cynical of Hollywood nostalgia cash-ins. He empties his vast bag of tricks just to keep the thing from being a total bore. The 80s punch you in the face right from an opening title set to Van Halen’s “Jump” – which is to 80s period pieces what “All Along the Watchtower” or “Fortunate Son” is to the Vietnam war film.

In the year 2045, society has crumbled to such an extent that humanity has all but escaped into a virtual reality video game world called The Oasis where players can do anything and be anyone. When one of the program’s creators, Halliday (Mark Rylance, hilariously against type in an almost indescribable mix of wackiness, awkwardness and sadness) passes away, he leaves behind a contest with a series of riddles, at the end of which is ownership of the Oasis itself. Halliday inspired a generation of fans and loyalists, none quite like Wade (Tye Sheridan, dry as driftwood) whose knowledge of the creator’s life and affinity for 1980s pop culture leads him to the first of 3 clues and a race against Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, cast right in type), the Spielbergian evil corporate villain heading up the IOI corporation who has collected an army of digital prisoners (Loyalty Tests) to find the hidden video game Easter egg first.

That a generation of kids are so obsessed with the socially awkward nerd Halliday is the strangest bit in the movie. It’s a necessary bit, because no teenager in 2045 would otherwise give a damn about the 1980s, but in order to fit the square peg of nostalgia in the round hole of a post-apocalyptic future film, the movie suggests something about the population that it doesn’t expound upon. The tasks in the game aren’t puzzles for them to solve, but tasks simply about how much they know about Halliday. This generation likes Buckaroo Banzai and Back to the Future not so much because they relate to them, but because Halliday liked them. Halliday has made a test that is the exact opposite of Willy Wonka’s. It isn’t about rising to the top with good character or skill, it is about himself. It is a virtual monument of self-indulgence. One of the things that makes Wade Watts such a dud of a lead is that he doesn’t seem to have a personality outside of an obsession with Halliday. Halliday and the movie then rewards this by giving him a life that he doesn’t earn. He doesn’t learn, he simply repeats and memorizes.

The world the movie builds is superficially interesting. Not the Oasis world but the real world. The Stacks that Wade lives in in Columbus, Ohio that amount to towers of vertical trailer homes, the quieter life of the resistance and the cold IOI headquarters where a warehouse full of human captives are locked into VR stations that light up red when they die in the game and have a replacement dragged in to keep up the quest. The movie sets up and pays off nicely and the ending is a perfectly rendered homage to how these movies always ended right down to the running gag where the leads are interrupted before a kiss.

The draw here, the meat of the film, is a new generation’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where an impossible group of licensed characters share the screen together. Of course, Roger Rabbit had a killer story and a fantastic script. And of course, we’ve seen this kind of mash-up recently in The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. Ready Player One is a lot of visual name-checking with references scattered across the screen like a game where the simple recognition of those references is enough to satisfy the audience. Toss them a fish and watch them slap their fins together, as Lonesome Rhodes would say. It isn’t homageing these characters as much as it is using them in a way that is debatable and the references are rarely cleverly integrated into the action.  It takes a meticulously crafted Stanley Kubrick movie and imposes it’s bouncing CGI action-movie aesthetic on it. It features an extended cameo by The Iron Giant, the centerpiece of Brad Bird’s wonderful 1999 film that was explicitly anti-gun and anti-war. Cut to Ready Player One and The Iron Giant avatar stomps in and shoots up the battlefield. I rolled my eyes in the back of my head at the mention of The Zemeckis Cube.

Ready Player One feels tired in a movie climate awash in 80s nostalgia, but when you pull it out of that and toss it up in the halls of history does it still work? Superficially, sure, but not much more. The real thorn in the side is that every once in a while a nugget of a satirical idea comes out. There is a Robocop-esque sequence where Serranto details his plot for taking over The Oasis and awashing the players vision with advertisements. There are scenes where Halliday argues with his co-creator Marrow (Simon Pegg) about living in the past and the need to move forward. At points it feels like Player would make a perfect sucker-bait movie to satirize our inert obsession with nostalgia – only then to let the opportunity go or undercut it with another reference bit that’s too well conceived to be satire (an appearance by a particular 80s slasher character stands out as a highlight). It’s sort of how basic cable networks allow curse words in every so often. Warner Bros allowed something clever to slip in the script every so often. Ultimately, the biggest blind spot here is that the movie seems at war with itself about what it wants to say and then settles on the softest and most generic sentiments. “Real life is real” after all.

Ready Player One is an entertaining and basically well made piece of shallow eye candy, becoming exactly what it’s referencing, but no more, and calling that homage. The opening night crowd for this one was particularly obnoxious, eating the film up and shouting out it’s references like it was a game and patting themselves on the back for recognizing Buckaroo Banzai or Terminator 2 (again, it seems Halliday played fast and loose with his 80s influences). At one point a woman in the crowd yelled out her recognition of a bag of Doritos Spielberg had put square in the frame like she thought it was a reference and not just a product placement. It’s hard to fault her, at that point in the movie there wasn’t much of a difference.

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