I had no set expectations for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One because I do not have very fond memories of the novel. I disliked the novel when I read it years back because all that I remember of it was that it felt so alienating being unfamiliar with the pop culture icons references at the time, and looking back through Ernest Cline’s writing; that seemed to have been all that he struck me as. With the fact that Steven Spielberg was set to direct a film adaptation set on this novel, I was uncertain. I was uncertain because of the fact that Spielberg and Cline have different understandings that both creators have of pop culture for Spielberg was a key figure in defining the era commonly referenced in Ready Player One whereas Ernest Cline grew up during that time. But despite my suspicions, I came out quite pleasantly surprised by Ready Player One.
Set in a future where Earth has become slum-like as a result of overpopulation, a new virtual world has been developed by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance) otherwise known as the OASIS where people engage in whatever they please as a means of escaping real world issues. The story revolves around a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), otherwise known as “Parzival” in the OASIS, as he takes part in a game developed by the creator, and its winner will receive full inheritance on Halliday’s behalf as well as total control of the OASIS – setting off a race between a group of rebels and a corporation that only seeks to monetize off the program. From reading the very synopsis it definitely feels like fan fiction for the very movement in popular culture that director Steven Spielberg helped revolutionize but what he manages to make out of the source material, for what it is, turns out to be a fun time while it lasts.
This film is not innocent of problems that the novel shared, because there are so many moments where you can already recognize its excessive need to shove pop culture in your face. At times it works, but most of the time, you ask yourself why it really is even necessary for the film to be so drenched in that very environment because it also seems to have a very regressive view of fans of that counterculture. It feels regressive in the sense that it almost comes off like viewers should be expected to know everything that is being referenced, which is a specific issue that I’ve always had with Ernest Cline’s writing. But somehow, amidst all the nostalgia that this film throws in your face at any given time, Ready Player One finds itself carrying a strange charm to it.
In a character like James Halliday, you can almost imagine that Spielberg would portray him as being a reflection of his own career, because viewers have become so dependent on nostalgia as being a means of escape. Spielberg, having formed the modern blockbuster as people know it, has also seen what is his greatest contribution to society watered down to a money-making product that only continues to produce for that very sake rather than to create the emotional experiences that he sought to evoke from audiences when he made films like E.T. or Jaws. At this point, he sees himself as so watered down by what people have come to expect from the sort of films that he is making especially at such a late stage in his career, and the players of the OASIS, particularly the Egg Hunters, are those who know how to look high and low for what he means to communicate even through his past achievements especially in this era.
Spielberg’s best qualities and trademarks shine everywhere you feel them as they please, because the visual effects are outstanding. I think that where Ready Player One finds itself working, the awe that he creates as we wander through the world of the OASIS is incredibly inviting. But being the one specific choice to direct a movie that was inspired by the nostalgia of such an era where Spielberg had remained so prominent, what he creates from the prose of Ernest Cline’s writing is able to breathe more perfectly for it now has visuals to accompany the narrative he had created, and under his direction it feels so much more natural. The way Spielberg guides the action sequences still evokes the same energy that made his best work so exhilarating, presenting the very idea that the Spielberg that we loved never really was gone, he’s still here and maybe we’re demanding something else.
What stalls this from being great for me, aside from the excessive nostalgia is the boring exposition. The characters themselves aren’t exactly the best either, because their arcs never feel fully realized, but I’ve never always been on board with how Spielberg presents exposition on behalf of his own narratives. As much as the stock characters work finely within the material that Spielberg is directing, I feel like certain aspects, such as the reality of the world in which people inhabit and escape from is never explored properly. We see everything as being a slum, but never exactly enough of that reality to sustain the message to which the film ends on. It’s a world where everyone has become connected with people through the use of a virtual reality program, because humans all like video games and it seems to leave that very aspect underdeveloped whereas the OASIS has the most inventive world building present and creates a whole atmosphere in and of itself.
But as is, I still want to say that Ready Player One is worth one’s time. It feels like Steven Spielberg wanting to relive his own glory days and showing that to viewers today, and for what it is, I think that it did its job perfectly well. This isn’t exactly a flawless movie but given my opinion of the novel I can’t say that I was ever expecting myself to be in total awe of what Spielberg had created with Ready Player One because the novel presents itself as being in love with that era yet never fully understanding what made such icons as resonant as they are. It feels like an escape as we know we would have expected Steven Spielberg to present, but you know that at this stage he’s so watered down that it becomes everything you think he represents yet that represents what he’s capable of making especially in his best work.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, from the novel by Cline
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 140 minutes