There was once a time where the name Spielberg went hand in hand with thoughts of exciting, high quality blockbuster entertainment. ‘Jaws’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘E.T’; the list goes on and on. Over the past few years, this has become less the norm as Spielberg has instead worked with lower (though still insanely high) budgets and seems to prefer working on more emotionally charged passion projects such as ‘War Horse’ or the critically acclaimed ‘Lincoln.’ It is therefore perhaps a bit of a surprise that this year he returns to his roots with a high action ‘popcorn flick’ that doesn’t so much pay homage to geek pop culture, but rather force feeds it down the audiences throat for two and a half hours.
‘Ready Player One’ is based off of the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline of the same name. Cline was clearly ahead of his time for video game predictions as, in a time where the main gaming revolution was the abominable Xbox 360 ‘Kinect’, he saw that the future would be virtual reality. Indeed, the driving narrative of ‘RPO’ is hilariously relevant to the gaming industry today and one of the great strengths of the film is how is holds up a mirror to the industry, with some actually pretty clever and amusing jibes at soulless mass corporations. If you’re even a casual gamer, you won’t be able to miss the obvious satire of the parallels between the primary antagonist and game developer ‘Electronic Arts’ (EA) as the film takes delight in imagining a dystopia where EA essentially rules the world.
While Spielberg’s direction will clearly get fans excited (you only have to see his name plastered all over the marketing to see that), the other ‘hype generating’ element of this film comes in the form of an insane amount of references to pop culture. As a self professed gaming geek with worryingly obsessive interest in gaming, movie and tech culture from the 70’s onwards, many of these did indeed resonate with me. This also applied to musical cues, as composer Alan Silvestri, whose work is always excellent, is clearly having a lot of fun making call-backs to past soundtracks, some even his own, such as the fan pleasing use of the ‘Back to the Future’ cues. However, waving things that we’re aware of in front of the camera for a feature length run time does not a movie make. While I appreciate some of the references and there really are thousands to spot, some of them feel a bit ‘try hard’. It’s odd to think that Spielberg directed this, as so many of the pop culture beats that consume the look and appeal of the movie will be completely alien to him. With the exception of ‘King Kong’ and ‘Godzilla’, I doubt that he grew up with and therefore has little interest in, many of the properties used here. Do we really think he was demanding the inclusion of characters from ‘Overwatch’, ‘Halo’ or ‘Spawn’? That’s not to say that his direction is poor, but perhaps as a result of this disconnect, while the wide action scenes are good, the use of references generally is handled in a pretty disingenuous and obvious way.
So the main draw of the movie is obviously the massive use of various intellectual properties. However, without a strong narrative and engaging characters, no film will be able to hold an audience and unfortunately, ‘RPO’ doesn’t have either of those. The premise, I will concede is interesting; a dystopia where everyone lives in a VR world called ‘The Oasis’ and the now dead creator has left a series of clues and tasks for the whole world to try and find. Whoever finds the three keys he’s hidden by following his clues will become the new owner of ‘The Oasis’ and will gain unparalleled fame and fortune- that’s the basic gist. Unfortunately, despite being a fun premise, it’s narratively all over the place and doesn’t stick to one plot point for long. It ambles along, starting with a fairly good pace with an exciting race scene, but soon starts to drag and nearing the end of the third act I was checking my watch hoping starting to quite literally get to the finish line. This is largely due to the characters being the most bland and uninteresting people I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. The two leads are fine, but never present anything inherently interesting or likeable about each of them- they are as stock as they come. Even the comic relief characters are given no interesting lines bar the odd game reference that makes you chuckle just because you understand what they’re referring to. The only character with some semblance of personality and development is Halliday, the creator of ‘The Oasis.’ The clear portrayal of a man with autism is handled well and Mark Rylance brings a warmth and likability to his quirkiness despite not having many lines to do it with- bravo.
All in all, you probably think I hated ‘Ready Player One’, but actually, I found it pretty entertaining. That could of course be because I am literally the target market for this film and certain references really got my nostalgia clock ticking making me beam from cheek to cheek. For example, the entrance of ‘MechaGodzilla’ using the classic 1960’s Toho ‘Godzilla’ theme had my ‘fangasms’ going off the chart. Credit where credit due too, the film is a visual wonder; the CGI world actually works pretty seamlessly with reality and the action scenes are exciting and engaging. If nothing else, seeing the ‘Arkham Knight’, ‘Master Chief’, ‘Chun Li’, ‘The Iron Giant’, a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’ and a ‘Gundam’ robot in the same action scene was damn satisfying and not something I ever thought I’d see. I think this is the best version of this film that we could’ve seen, without changing the core story of the source material. Many of its issues come from the poor writing of characters and weak narrative motivation to move the plot forward, which I assume (I haven’t read it) originate from the book. ‘Ready Player One’ is certainly nothing ground breaking, but its harmless fun and a proper summer blockbuster. It’s got more to it than something like the Michael Bay ‘Transformers’ movies, but is a far cry from the Spielberg works of old.