Starring: Tye Sheridan (Mud), Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One), Lena Waithe (Master of None), T.J. Miller (Deadpool), Simon Pegg (The World’s End), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
Director: Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Writers: Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk) and Ernest Cline (Fanboys)
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Release Date: 28 March (UK), 29 March (US)
If you spend a lot of time on the Internet, you’ve at least heard of Ready Player One and how its quality and content is a fervent debate amongst all corners of the web. Some see it as a celebration of pop culture, others see it as nothing but a fanboy nostalgia drool-fest, whilst others are more focused on Ernest Cline’s lack of nuanced prose and questionable perspective. My personal relationship with the book is a little more…complicated. After the watching the film, I honestly would rather discuss my history with it in more detail on another platform, but in summary my opinion in retrospect on the novel is that it’s “fun but problematic”, and I think that conclusion fits pretty well with the film adaptation too.
The film’s narrative has been heavily simplified from the novel into a more traditional adventure narrative and is ultimately much better for it. All the key aspects of the original story are still there, whilst other elements that either lacked focus or were troublesome have been addressed satisfactorily; these changes may even assuage those who were irked by them in the book. In a surprising change from most adaptations, it’s the new elements added to the story that are honestly the best parts, such as an insane race sequence and a creepy trip through a classic film. Where Ready Player One really struggles in its jump to the big screen is in building its world. The first fifteen minutes is just a deluge of sloppy exposition delivered in voice-over and flashbacks, spoon feeding information that could have easily been delivered in a less abrasive fashion. Once all the cards are laid out, the film becomes far more enjoyable, but the artifice does still come back due to its imbalanced structure and glossing over plot details until they are suddenly important. However, for every slip-up the film makes, it bounces back on pure entertainment and feel-good vibes, delivering that classic Spielberg energy and heart. Of the key changes to the film, the one that feels most necessary is giving it a more defined message. It delivers a tale that feels incredibly timely for our technology-obsessed age, but one that at the core is also timeless and sweet. What else would you expect from Steven Spielberg?
Of all the criticisms that befall the novel, the big one is that protagonist Wade Watts isn’t particularly likeable; he’s simultaneously everything wrong with fanboy culture and an earnest if unintentionally conceited defence of that mindset. The film version of Wade is slightly more likeable, but only in the sense that he’s called out on his sheltered and obsessive bullsh*t and has to actually learn from it, but yet he ultimately falters because we don’t really get to know the real Wade. Much of his screen time is spent inside the virtual world seeing his aggrandised online persona, so anytime we spend with him in the real world we’re asked to connect with a character we don’t really know. Additionally, Tye Sheridan feels woefully miscast. Whilst an immensely talented performer, he plays Wade a little too straight instead of giving him the misguided boyish earnestness he requires; after this and X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s clear he’s more comfortable as an indie character actor rather than a Hollywood leading man.
Luckily, the film’s supporting cast more than picks up the slack of its awkward lead. Olivia Cooke makes for a charming and kick-ass second lead as Art3mis, constantly stealing the movie away from Sheridan for the better, and Lena Waithe equally demands attention as Aech; if she doesn’t her own shot at leading status after this, that would be the real crime. Ben Mendelsohn gives some much-needed depth to antagonist Nolan Sorrento, creating a threatening but all-too-human villain; he’s like if the bad guy from a Paul Verhoeven movie was also an Electronic Arts executive. T.J. Miller is amusing as iRok, the Otis to Sorrento’s Luthor, expanding a fairly inconsequential character from the book into a solid lampooning of the self-serious edgelord. Hannah John-Kamen’s F’Nale Zandor was created for the film but is ultimately unnecessary, having no real clear character and handling tasks that should have really been composited into either Sorrento or iRok. Win Morisaki isn’t too compelling as Daito, but young Phillip Zhao is adorable in his brief scenes as Shoto; he’s like a modern day Short Round. Simon Pegg doesn’t get much to do as Ogden Morrow but is his usual likable self whilst he’s there, whilst Mark Rylance is utterly pitch-perfect as James Halliday, playing the “Steve Jobs mixed with Willy Wonka” role fairly on-the-nose but still giving him a sense of magic and charm.
Ready Player One can get away a lot with in the visuals department both good and ill because it mostly takes place in the virtual world, and the filmmakers have clearly spared no expense in crafting a cinematically spectacular experience. The world of the OASIS truly does feel like an unlimited space of imagination and creativity in how vast and visually diverse it can get. I’d best sum it up as like a Spielberg movie from the 80s that took all of the drugs and is now obsessively munching on Doritos whilst playing NES games (you know, in a good way). The film is packed full of background references and gags, which are generally far more easier to swallow than the ones they shove in your face, but they’ll certainly have hardcore fans going back frame-by-frame to catch everything for years to come. It’s a shame that the same attention to detail didn’t go into the real-world environments, which end up looking like sets and props for a dystopian future pack you can buy on a video game asset store. Tying the entire experience together is a solid if predictable selection of 80s pop hits and a magically nostalgic score by Alan Silvestri; who else could create a score that inimitably captures the sound of 1980s movies than one of the composers who helped define it?
If I had seen Ready Player One when I was fourteen, I probably would have declared it the greatest movie I had ever seen. That part of me that still exists wants to love this film as much as that kid, and for chunks of the film’s runtime it succeeded in bringing them back. However, as an adult who has finally stepped away from an arrested development, I can’t fully embrace the film as much as I would like. It’s an adaptation that clearly understands the faults of its source material and does its best to work with them whilst still having fun, but it can be hard shake away the sense it is ultimately a Frankenstein of misguided memberberry wistfulness and corporate intellectual property-gasm. It’s certainly a far more nutritious experience than the book, mainly thanks to Spielberg mining the feels for all their worth, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone wanting to escape the depressing world we live in for a few hours to enjoy it. After all, as the film makes clear itself, the real world matter most, and our fantasies can just as easily be used to better reality as they can be used to run from it. So yeah, I think my ultimate appraisal of the book still applies.
FINAL VERDICT: 6/10