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Ready Player One - Review

Ready Player One

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

GIVEN how influential the films of Steven Spielberg have been on countless contemporary filmmakers, it’s somewhat odd to find the master director now gleefully referencing others for his latest blockbuster offering.

But then Ready Player One is something of an oddity. At times absurdly enjoyable, it’s not without disappointments and there is some confusion over who it’s aimed at. The result is a film that dazzles as much as it perplexes.

Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, which has been co-adapted by Cline himself with Zak Penn, the film is set in 2045 as American society is struggling to exist in a new reality defined by having survived drought and bandwidth riots.

The majority of citizens are leading a slum-like existence and seek solace in a computer game world known as the ‘OASIS’, in which they can change gender and appearance and take part in a game that invites them to discover three keys that could give them the power to control this virtual reality alternative world.

Primary among these players is underprivileged teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose devotion to late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) unables him to unlock the clues and get further into the world than any other ‘gunter’ has gone before.

Helping him overcome the various challenges that Halliday places before them are a team of rebel players led by Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), while standing in their path – and hoping to win the game for its own ruthless ends – is a global corporation led by their unscrupulous CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Needless to say, the future of mankind rests upon who wins.

Given the wealth of plot and characters in Cline’s source novel, it’s hardly surprising to find that the film version of Ready Player One demands that you pay attention, particularly as Spielberg works hard to ensure that his film doesn’t ever become too bogged down with exposition at the expense of action.

Rather, he hits the ground running and employs voice-overs to fill audiences in, while simultaneously dazzling them with the worlds he has created, the references he wants to include, and the action he has made a career out of excelling in.

And it’s in the visual department that the film really excels. Early on, a race involving the DeLoran from Back To The Future is an eye-popping delight that is overloaded with blink-and-you-might-miss-it pop culture references, which range from King Kong and the T-Rex from Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park to vehicles such as the Batmobile from the cult TV series.

A mid-film sequence that pays fun – and occasionally terrifying – homage to a Stanley Kubrick horror classic is also great, showcasing Spielberg’s long-held ability to excite and scare in equal measure.

But as brilliantly conceived and executed as this sequence is, it does beg the wider question of just who the movie plays best to. While clearly aiming at the kids’ market with a 12A certificate (some of which is certificate-stretching), a fair few of the ’80s references, not to mention the horror ones, are likely to fly over the younger audiences’ heads. For a film that relies so heavily on them, it feels like a strange mix.

Spielberg could be anticipating a surge back towards the films he’s nodding to (from The Breakfast Club to The Iron Giant) but that’s a gamble.

Ready Player One

Similarly, some of the more games-based material is just plan nerdy and may be a turn-off – something that Spielberg himself has clearly anticipated by making the need to live in [and enjoy] the real world one of the film’s key messages. Those that do already may well embrace such ideology, but the gamers will doubtless carry on searching for the next cool virtual experience.

It’s another of Ready Player One‘s shortcomings, however, that Spielberg opts for the upbeat and hopeful rather than really taking time to explore and tread the waters of some of the more complex issues the book itself raised. The film very much exists to entertain and is largely devoid of the layering inherent in his more serious work.

The characters, too, are fairly basic in that they are either heroes or villains. As such, their arcs are fairly basic, which in turn deprives the film of any worthwhile emotional investment. Sheridan therefore struggles to make his Wade Watts that charismatic… the film is screaming out for a leading man as roguish and/or flamboyant as Indiana Jones or the central trio from Jaws.

Conversely, Cooke does a lot more with her Samantha, providing a more kick-ass alternative to Watts, who is genuinely worth rooting for. But while certainly striking a notable blow for the feminist movement, there are still elements of her character that feel lazy or derisory (she does strip down to a vest, for instance).

Mendelsohn’s villain is suitably pantomime but – again – lacks depth or nuance. He, like the film as a whole, would have benefited from being more challenging. While Rylance feels curiously muted as Halliday, struggling to convince as a computer nerd in the Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg vein.

If the above criticisms sound overly harsh for a film that wears its popcorn sensibilities so unashamedly on its sleeve, then they also contribute to the third act’s struggle to engage as much as it should. Rather, the inevitable big battle climax feels mostly work-manlike, with a sense of inevitability attached. There’s very little that’s innovative or not seen before in some superhero movie, or Lord of the Rings-style battle. For a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature, that’s also disappointing.

That Ready Player One works as well as it does is down to Spielberg’s knack for knowing how to crowd-please on a massive scale. There are plenty of moments where the film feels alive with invention (even in the way that it references pop culture) and it has a boundless energy befitting the likes of past works such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (in its problem-solving, dodging the traps elements), or Minority Report and AI: Artificial Intelligence in the way that it envisages a believable future.

For all of its many flaws, Ready Player One is hugely entertaining without ever coming close to the masterpiece status of Spielberg’s earliest and genre-defining work.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 20mins
UK Release Date: March 28, 2018