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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4%
Worth A Look: 32%
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3 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Ready Player One
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by Jay Seaver

"More than its references, less than its parts."
3 stars

It can be hard enough to take a movie (or other piece of art) for what it is and talk about that rather than what you want it to be, especially in a case like "Ready Player One", which features a guy as incredibly talented and successful (and yet somehow still polarizing) as Steven Spielberg adapting a novel that has been accused of being little but a shallow exercise in unthinking nostalgia. The result seems to be something of a Rorschach Test that reveals as much about the viewer as it does stand on its own - or that may just be me trying to impose my own conflicted opinion upon it, trying to find a reason why I don't like it quite as much as I want to and feel a little guilty about the reflexive smile that appeared on my face throughout.

Start with the opening scene - Van Halen's "Jump" plays on the soundtrack while Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) makes his way through "The Stacks", a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where trailers and prefab homes are piled atop each other in a huge jumble, making his way to a little nook where his virtual-reality gaming rig is located. On the one hand, it's the sort of casual world-building that's never as easy as it looks, with Wade's narration about economic malaise and the population's retreat into the virtual reality of "The Oasis" reinforced by sight gags seen through windows while octocopter drones delivering pizza and the throwback logo of the chain on the box show how both street-level automation and a 1980s aesthetic permeate its 2045. Structurally, it's kind of clever as well - Wade crawling through his neighborhood like it's a Nintendo platformer foreshadows his skills within The Oasis and maybe wedges itself in the viewer's head just enough that when fellow gamer "Art3mis" (Olivia Cooke) tells "Parzival" that he's always lived in the game, it's got a little extra oomph; it's also introducing secret rooms early on in a movie that will see Wade and his friends continuously questing for keys that unlock hidden chambers within hidden chambers.

It's oddly muted, though - there's not a lot of expression on Wade's face as he does this; it's not a speed-run or the joy of exploration and puzzle-solving of parkour, and "Jump" is just the first of a half-dozen up-tempo 1980s cuts that just seem to lie there on the soundtrack, not exactly adding to a scene's energy but not serving as an ironic counterpoint, either. It's tempting to say that integrating pop music into a movie is just not something that Spielberg has done that often - why bother, when you've got those great John Williams scores? - but it's fair to wonder if he and writers Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (adapting his own novel) are maybe trying to talk a little bit about pop culture stagnating at some point and just being remade, revived, and re-released forever, but without making it less fun for those - including this writer - who genuinely love many of the things referenced in ways big and small, all over the screen. It's a balance that's almost doomed to be off at some point, because it's difficult to be sincere in one's love for something and simultaneously know that hanging onto something from one's youth (or someone else's!) without occasionally reconsidering it does oneself and the art little good, even for those who seem like they'd be clear-eyed about it.

Indeed, there's something simultaneously sad and horrifying about watching the flashback scenes with Mark Rylance as the Oasis's late creator, whose will specifies that whoever finds an easter egg in the game will inherit the company; Rylance speaks his lines with an introversion that's acutely uncomfortable to watch, especially when contrasted with Simon Pegg as his game-development partner. Even Rylance's comic lines seem to be off in some way, but more than the performance, there's something odd and egocentric about the whole process that requires Wade and the other egg-hunters ("gunters", they call themselves) to minutely examine a life unlived and beat challenges built out of other people's creations.

It's an issue that can seep into the rest of the characters as well - the nature of the challenge and the fact that much of the film takes place in a virtual world means that a lot of the characters are kind of the same, quipping and making similar references and enthused about the same things. There's some good bits of satire hidden under the obvious jokes about how many ads can be put on a screen before causing seizures - as much as executive Nathan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is the villain, he and the "IOI" corporation he works for often work as good pokes at how gold-farming has become Bitcoin mining, how catering to the nerd audience often plays as clear, but obligatory insincerity, and folks who puff themselves up online but are not much outside - but the referential top layer is often kind of clunky. Surprisingly, it seems pretty good as far as gaming is concerned - for a guy who often feels old-school, it's interesting to note that Spielberg makes the mechanisms of interfacing with the virtual world as intuitive here as he did in Minority Report, and doesn't have to explain every gaming-oriented bit the way that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does - but there's a seeming need to explain any reference that makes it to the foreground, and it's worth noting that two that get the biggest shout-outs are the property of Warner Brothers, the same studio releasing this movie. Among those two, one in particular seems kind of tone-deaf, not just because inserting the characters into a terrific horror movie diminishes it a bit into iconography that is familiar more than scary, but because that filmmaker at one point put his legacy in Spielberg's hands.

But for all that this mashing-up may have the effect of diminishing some of the original work, and sometimes be designed to feel a little hollow, there's also an undeniable sense of fun about how the filmmakers go about it, from an early race that blends Back to the Future, Akira, and King Kong to a finale that is going to be a ton of fun to freeze-frame in Ultra-High-Definition, especially since it's never a "who would win" thing but people having fun in the same sandbox. And while there's probably no one sequence that will make the all-time lists of Spielberg's best action beats (a pretty high bar to clear), they are all expertly executed; a reminder that this director is just as good working with digital animators as he is people on set, and he finds entertaining ways to jump between the real and virtual settings to boot. Credit to composer Alan Silvestri, too - a soundtrack that initially sounds like it's mainly meant to evoke his work on Back to the Future winds up integrating a lot of outside themes without being consumed by them.

Those nifty action/adventure bits and the occasional moments when the satire shows a tooth or two are good enough to balance the stretches when it seems the filmmakers don't exactly heed their own warnings about the dangers of being swallowed up by passive fandom, at least from one perspective; another might see the cynical moments as not quite souring a loving romp through late-20th-century media. The kind of calculation necessary to be both keeps "Ready Player One" from being outright excellent in either direction, and lucky that Spielberg is good enough at this sort of adventure to make it a fun ride.

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originally posted: 04/02/18 07:25:36
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User Comments

9/27/18 morris campbell not bad but nothing special 4 stars
9/08/18 sevarian5 reasonably entertaining--but that's all 4 stars
8/05/18 the giver of the law Nobody will admit it but this is actually Spielbergs best film. 5 stars
7/08/18 Loopy Enjoyed it more than expected, though understood gaming references 3 stars
6/19/18 oz1701 enjoyed the book but the film is a hollow shell (like an Easter egg) 2 stars
4/02/18 the truth Unlike PIXAR, emphasizes the artificiality of its characters. Unengaging premise and boring 2 stars
4/01/18 Bob Dog The flashy adhd foreground doesn't alleviate the boredom of the story. 2 stars
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  29-Mar-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2018


  DVD: 24-Jul-2018

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