What happens when reality gets to be too much? Well, most of us depart it as soon as possible. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” (little T.S. Eliot for you) and it’s true. Especially in the hypersaturated information age, reality is an overwhelming non-stop sensory onslaught. People need to check out to stay sane. Some find healthy ways of doing this, others not so healthy, but the need for escapism remains. In Ready Player One, the enter world has escaped a depressing society into a virtual reality playground known as the OASIS. Inside, the whole world is engaged in a treasure hunt to find three keys that will unlock the ownership of the OASIS embedded in the system by its deceased founder. If that sounds like an awesome premise for a story, you are correct. The book is one of my favorite of the last decade. Whether you like Ready Player One or not, is probably going to depend on whether you have read the book or not and know just how much better THAT story is than the one Steven Spielberg delivers.
I have long-standing issues with Spielberg’s filmmaking over the last 15 years. I think he’s lost his way. I think he believes he can still make the kind of films; the blockbusters he invented for Hollywood that now serve as its bread and butter. He also believes he can make the kind of hard-hitting adult fare like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc. that transformed him from just a box office kingpin to a celebrated “serious” director. The problem is…. he can’t do either well anymore. The Post is an example of a serious film that should have been a slam dunk in these times, but Spielberg nearly absented himself from its direction. Ready Player One would have made 1980s Spielberg go insane, but instead of delivering a taut blockbuster, he delivers an overload of pop culture noise. It’s so focused on showing off nearly every intellectual property WB could get their hands on, that it drops the plot. The structure of Ernest Cline’s novel (Cline is given a co-screenplay credit, and that’s hard to believe) is there, but that’s about all that remains intact.
The treasure hunt in the OASIS is for an easter egg (which in video game parlance, for the non-gamers, is a hidden bonus embedded into the code of the game for dedicated gamers to discover). Ready Player One takes the easter egg concept and focuses so much on cramming appearances by as many pop culture icons as you can imagine and takes it to ridiculous lengths. Spielberg flashes around so fast that you probably missed most of the literally HUNDREDS of easter eggs in this film, but he also takes the self-indulgent time to hail his director friends and idols, most notably by rewriting the second quest as a tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the book, the OASIS is mostly focused on the video games and pop culture of the 1980s, and I can see how this would be limiting to focus on in the movie adaptation, but there’s a saturation point for cameos, and RP1 passes it very quickly. The final battle has so many characters in it, you’d think It would be incredible, but he can’t keep the camera on any of them but the Iron Giant (who got more promotion for this film than his own animated classic received) for more than a split second. Think I’m overstating the cameos? Mr. Sunday Night has put together a video on as many of them as he could (and even he admits he didn’t get them all).
The F/X in the OASIS look distracting in trailers, but you quickly get used to the look while inside VR, and they really are spectacular. My issue with all the frenetic activity over plot or character development, the F/X really do push boundaries and are an amazing achievement. The casting, too, is also great. I especially loved Mark Rylance as the OASIS founder. Each character pulls double-duty both as their real-world self and their OASIS avatar. Probably the weakest character/actor is unfortunately Tye Sheridan as the protagonist Wade Watts. That’s less due to Sheridan’s abilities and more due to the fact that the movie script reduces him to simply a character who moves the plot along; reduces all the characters except Rylance’s to the bare minimum of development. In the book, Wade’s journey to solve the puzzle, earn the keys, and find the egg is an epic quest that requires a lot of real-world sacrifice on his part. It’s what makes his character so interesting is all that he gives up and goes through to solve this puzzle. In the movie, that sacrifice is pretty much reduced to one scene. Most real world activity feels like an excuse to get back to the OASIS, which you get the feeling Spielberg found the far more interesting place to spend time (much like the citizens in the book).
The ultimate message of both the film and the book is that reality is where life really happens, and while that’s jammed in at the end of the film, it’s undercut by a lack of any emotional connectivity between the two realms throughout most of the script. Granted, there’s a huge amount packed into that book, and any adaptation was going to be tough, but the emotional core of the story should have been Spielberg’s focus, and his direction was as scattered as a Jack Russell distracted by jangling keys. Also, I realize due to his age that John Williams can no longer score every Spielberg film, but Alan Silvestri is one of the greats too, and this film deserved an epic score and didn’t get one. Movie scores, in general, over the last 5-10 years have declined alarmingly in quality. Another Spielberg hallmark was always a great score, but the only piece of Silvestri’s RP1 score I recall is when he got to use his own Back to the Future theme for a brief bit.
This is not an AWFUL film. Ready Player One is what should have been a GREAT film made mediocre. If you haven’t read the book and don’t mind the ADHD pace of things in the OASIS, you may love it, and never know the difference. However, if you have read the book, you’re not going to walk out of the theater excited about the adaptation of Cline’s novel that you got, you’re going to be thinking Spielberg’s vision pales in comparison to the one that Cline’s words painted in your mind.