After a whole decade of being absent from the realm of American blockbuster cinema, director Steven Spielberg returns to the genre he helped bring into existence with “Ready Player One,” an adaptation of a 2011 novel penned by Ernest Cline. Given just what a tremendous track record Spielberg has with blockbuster fare, the idea of him returning to rollicking escapism science-fiction blockbusters sounds like a winning prospect — though the excerpts I’ve read from the “Ready Player One” book (which, for full context, I’ve never read in full) did make the source material he was adapting seem more creepy than exciting, thus diluting my excitement for this newest Spielberg feature immensely.
With all of these factors weighing on the project, how is the actual film? Well, it’s one of Spielberg’s weakest forays into blockbuster territory for sure, but it’s overall a pretty enjoyable adventure, one whose greatest strengths (as well as a number of weaknesses) emerge from a more traditional approach to storytelling. Adhering to more old-fashioned storytelling tendencies means, we have a classical hero protagonist to lead our story in the form of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned 18-year-old who lives in Colombus, Ohio in 2045. The world has gone to hell in “Ready Player One.” Everything is so distraught in this vision of future Earth that people are escaping into the virtual reality world of the OASIS. In the OASIS are a series of three challenges concocted by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) prior to his death. Those who are able to complete all the challenges gain half a trillion dollars and complete control of the OASIS.
Wade and his pal Aech (Lena Waithe) are looking to complete all of the challenges, as is the evil corporation Innovative Online Industries, especially its CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). With the help of his friends, including his crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade is determined to win this competition first no matter what. This is where the treasure hunt narrative comes into play and allows Ready Player One to have a reasonably non-convoluted plot for its characters to inhabit. From the get-go, the stakes are clear, the good guys and the bad guys are overtly defined, all the information you need is upfront and center and that allows the story to move at a pleasingly steady pace.
Just as “Ready Player One’s” straightforward narrative sensibilities serve it well in keeping its storyline free of extraneous subplots, such a prominent element in the overall movie also leaves a number of key characters feeling undercooked. Tye Sheridan has many interesting elements in his performance, but he’s not able to infuse it with enough distinctive traits to make Wade Watts feel like he’s more than just a basic archetype. Similarly, Art3mis, despite a lively performance from Olivia Cooke, is just around to be a conventional love interest role and doesn’t get all that much to do on her own. By contrast, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance and Ben Mendelsohn are a lot of fun in their individual roles because their performances allow them each to add a notable amount of distinct personality to their parts.
Hewing so close to traditional storytelling serves “Ready Player One” well in a number of respects, but as one can see, it also hinders it too. The same can be said for a number of tidy old-timey morals about balancing technology with reality, as well as some underdeveloped themes that feel out of place. However, the assorted large-scale segments set in the OASIS depicting car chases, battles and all sorts of other activities are wonderfully realized.
“Ready Player One’s” extravagant action sequences are a whole lot of fun, especially that guns-a-blazing climax that keeps on escalating in an absurd mayhem. Sequences set in the OASIS are entirely populated by CGI characters voiced by live-action actors, and such digital creations are some of the better CGI characters I’ve seen in a while that smartly avoid the uncanny valley effect by making these CGI characters heavily stylized in design. When you’ve got a virtual reality world at your disposal, why not go nuts with some stylized visual choices? That’s the kind of creative sensibility, paired up with a refreshingly traditional approach to blockbuster storytelling, that makes “Ready Player One” a highly enjoyable outing, even if it very much lacks the thoughtful substance that the best Steven Spielberg blockbusters have in spades.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com