Having absentmindedly missed last Monday’s all-media at the Chinese, I paid $17 yesterday afternoon to see Steven Spielberg‘s Ready Player One. I came to scoff but came away placated, and even mildly enthralled by certain portions. I would have loved to have descended into a hate pit with this thing but I can’t. At worst I felt pummelled and trampled by the VR realm, but much of the time I was going “ehh, this isn’t too bad.” It really isn’t. Much of it is an almost blinding visual knockout. For what it is, you could do a lot worse than Ready Player One. Strange as this sounds there were times when I actually enjoyed the ride.
Do I have to explain everything? Naah, but it’s basically a VR treasure-hunt movie, blah blah. Find three keys inside the OASIS, which is where everyone youngish seems to “reside” given the exceptionally bleak dystopian atmosphere that permeates “the real world.” OASIS was created years ago by late billionaire James Halliday (Mark Rylance), blah blah. The ultimate find is a glowing golden egg, blah blah, along with piles of Halliday’s money and control of OASIS, etc.
The “High Five” heroes are Tye Sheridan‘s Wade Watts (and his avatar “Parzival”) and Olivia Cooke‘s Samantha Cook (i.e., “Art3mis”), plus three others (Lena Waithe as Helen Harris/Aech, Philip Zhao as Sho, Win Morisaki as Daito). The corporate baddie-waddie is played by Ben Mendelson, and it says something about Ready Player One that I wasn’t irritated by the guy.
I partially agree with Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman that Spielberg’s “dizzyingly propulsive virtual-reality fanboy geek-out” is “an accomplished and intermittently hypnotic movie although you may feel more occupied than invested.” And yet I began to feel fully invested somewhere around the 90-minute mark, or during the final 40 or 45. And like everyone else I especially loved the VR visit to The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel, although I was somewhat disappointed that Jack Nicholson doesn’t appear.
I can’t believe I’m giving a pass to two Spielberg films in a row (this and The Post) and only four months apart. Who am I if not a confirmed “beardo” disser? To paraphrase Dennis Hopper in The American Friend, “I know less and less about who I am. Or who anyone else is.”
Five reasons why I found Ready Player One tolerable and sometimes better than that:
(1) The story is actually half-understandable, and the elements actually combine into a coherent whole. (Hats off to screenwriter Zak Penn, who adapted Ernest Cline’s novel). Spielberg seems to have gone to some effort to ensure that what’s happening is semi-palatable even to non-gamers and non-VR enthusiasts. And the constant back-and-forth shifting between VR and reality is smoothly finessed.
(2) Spielberg’s trademark heart element not only works but provides welcome relief in this relentlessly digital context. I found the emotional connection between by Sheridan and Cook earnest and believable.
(3) The three big breakthrough moments (i.e., discovering where the keys and clues are hiding within the OASIS realm) are truly exciting.
(4) As noted, the visit to the Overlook is worth the price itself.
(5) The fact that I actually wasn’t pissed off by Ben “full Mendo” Mendelson, who doesn’t smoke or sweat and actually seems to hold himself in check, told me “if you can handle Mendelson RPO is probably up to something special.”
(6) As noted, the third act is quite riveting.
(7) At the very end Ready Player One actually editorializes about the blessings of the real world. The post-triumph finale reveals that the High Five have decided to shut down OASIS two days per week week to prod users into spending more time in the realm of messy, imperfect, organic life.
That’s all I feel like saying now. Ready Player One is an above-average CG popcorn flick, better than I thought it would be, not a burn.
“This is not a film we’ve made — this is a movie!