It’s fitting that Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of writer Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One debuted over Easter weekend: The movie is like a hollow chocolate bunny that people enjoy and then forget within moments. It may elicit a smile, but it’s ultimately not fulfilling.
One of the trickiest tasks with bringing beloved works of fiction to the big screen is to hire writers and directors who can convince the core fanbase that editorial changes — even big ones — were necessary. Ready Player One, at least on paper, benefits from the fact that Cline worked with writer Zak Penn on the script. Spielberg, of course, is the living Hollywood legend behind sci-fi works like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Minority Report (2002).
Given Spielberg’s acclaimed body of work, it’s hard to imagine many individuals better suited to tackle the novel USA Today once called “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” Indeed, Ready Player One’s special effects are impressive and the director’s many skills are on full display. The project, however, is hampered by the ghosts of dead philosophers.
The premise of Ready Player One revolves around a virtual-reality world called OASIS, where the Nietzschean idea of self-creation reigns supreme. Protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), aka Parzival, and the rest of humanity in 2045 avoid dystopian wastelands in a digital illusion because “people stopped trying to fix problems and just tried to outlive them.”
In short, they value VR self-expression above all else and will stop at nothing to protect it.
“It’s a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination,” Wade says at one point. “You can do anything, go anywhere — like the vacation planet. Surf a 50-foot monster wave in Hawaii. You can ski down the pyramids. You can climb Mount Everest with Batman. … People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be. Tall, beautiful, scary, a different sex, a different species, live-action, a cartoon — it’s all your call.”
OASIS was created by a Steve Wozniak-like character (Apple co-founder) named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who regrettably signed over his intellectual property to those who would warp its intended purpose. Halliday, in an attempt to save his creation, hid three digital keys and clues in the program before his death with the goal of putting OASIS into the hands of a worthy sleuth.
Wade, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, is soon pitted in a race against the an evil corporate snake named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who seeks to maximize profit for Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The hero is joined by the mechanical genius Aech (Lena Waithe), motorcycle master Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and Japanese “gunters” Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (and Philip Zhao).
Moviegoers who walk into the theater primarily hoping to see “The High Five” complete tasks while racing around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985) will not be disappointed. Those who want to chuckle at references to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and old Atari games will probably have a good time. Individuals who are inclined to dig a little deeper into what, exactly, Wade and his friends are fighting for will likely shake their head in disbelief.
Consider this: Luke Skywalker fights to save an entire galaxy in the original Star Wars trilogy while Wade Watts battles to avoid reality. The physical world is only valued to the extent that it provides “a decent meal” on occasion (a Groucho Marx quote also featured in the book).
Ready Player One does include real-world killings linked to the plot, but the scene is over in the blink of an eye to get back to CGI fights with the star of 1999’s The Iron Giant. OASIS essentially doubles as a digital Rome ruled by libido dominandi, the lust to dominate, and everything outside virtual reality is a totalitarian dump that even the heroes have largely given up on.
Ready Player One is worth seeing during its theatrical run for anyone who wants to experience 2 hours and 20 minutes of nostalgia bombs and popular culture “Easter eggs” bouncing across the screen. Young adults will enjoy it as well, although parents would probably be better off introducing them to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Jurassic Park (1993).
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.