I like many was skeptical about Ready Player One from the first trailer. The film centered around a contest taking place inside the virtual reality world of The Oasis seemed to mark the point where 80s nostalgia went too far. After the success of Stranger Things, and It, a book based entirely around 80s pop culture seemed like a no brainer to adapt into a feature film. The difference is Stranger Things and It used nostalgia as more of backdrop to tell a unique story with lovable characters, Ready Player One one the other hand seemed to use it as a crutch. However, despite its lackluster script and performances, Ready Player One proves that Spielberg still knows how to direct an charming, fun and entertaining action film.
Ready Player One’s biggest issue is undoubtedly the script. The first third is especially irritating as an over reliances on narration takes away from the masterful cinematography, staging, effects and soundtrack. The way this dispotian future and The Oasis functions is presented in such a clear and entertaining way yet is always undercut by the main character Wade, played by Tye Sheridan, over explaining what is incredibly clear to any audience member who is paying attention. Luckily once all the necessary exposition is dumped on the audience, the film improved tremendously. Now that’s not to say the writing problems go away completely after the first third. Awkward and cheesy dialogue plagues many scenes that are clearly meant be impactful and the so-so acting doesn’t do the script any favors. While the fantastic pace keeps the two hour and twenty minute film interesting throughout, many emotional moments go by so fast it becomes distracting. A specific scene had me holding back laughter thanks to how fast Wade got over what should have been the biggest tragedy of his life. Seeing as how unnecessary long certain scenes feel, a few re-writes could have balanced the film perfectly while not adding to the already long run time.
The performances, while not terrible for the most part, never leave a lasting impression and are certainly not going to be what you remember about Ready Player One a week after seeing it. The protagonist Wade Watts goes from passable to laughable throughout the course of the film and is about as bland as they come. He is so uninteresting in fact that I wonder if Spielberg wanted you to project yourself onto his character, but even if that was the case it still doesn’t work. The side characters and villain have slightly more depth and deliver better performances, but their characters are barely explored so they still don’t leave any sort of lasting impact. These lackluster aspects have made me realize that Ready Player One had the potential to be fantastic film, but falls just short.
While the script is the clear weak link, it actually does a good job at adapting the source material. In the book, many of the challenges the main characters are faced with during in virtual contest involve playing a retro video game. These sections work better in book form as vivid details can turn this mundae act into a nail biting experience, but anyone who has seen the arcade game Joust knows it’s no spectator sport. The movie replaces the first challenge with a race through a city filled with ramps, hazards and monsters. This opening action scene is fast paced, frantic yet easy to follow thanks clean camera work and effective editing. One of the other challenges from the book has the crew jump into the world of War Games, a 1989 movie that hasn’t aged well. The film replaced this with a classic horror film that I won’t spoil, but it leads to by far the best sequence in the whole movie. The script cuts and alteres the source material so well that I wish other movie adaptation would take a cue from Ready Player One and realize what works in a book won’t always work in a movie.
What ties Ready Player One together and makes it worth watching on the big screen are the special effects. The Oasis feels like a living breathing world that exists outside of the main character’s story. The choice to never recreate a realistic human goes a long way when it comes to avoiding the uncanny valley. There are no digitized Marty Mcflys or Luke Skywalkers running around The Oasis, only unique designs and famous characters from video games or animated movies and tv shows. Almost every background character, vehicle, weapon and robot are from a piece of pop culture. Many have criticized this reliance on nostalgia, however similar virtual reality games that actually exist have players running around as their favorite fictional character so it’s a not like the world inside The Oasis isn’t realistic. The biggest benefit with working almost entirely in cgi is that the cinematography during action sequences can be as smooth as possible unlike live action, where fight sequences and car chases can often divulge into an overshaky mess that is nearly impossible to follow. This has been a huge issue with recent Marvel movies and I was so happy to finally see some clean action on the big screen.
Speaking of action, the last action sequence of Ready Player One is everything you’d expect it to be and I loved it. I know it’s pandering to nostalgia and in the end it’s just mindless actions, but it’s done so well and is so satisfying to watch that I didn’t care. I ended up just turning my brain off and enjoying a fun finally. So despite the flawed script, mixed performances and lacking of character development, Ready Player One is one of the best popcorn flicks I’ve seen in awhile, but unfortunately I can’t say it’s anything more than just that, dumb fun.