Ready Player One review

Steven Spielberg has has a fruitful few years, with a new release every twelve months since 2015. On the strength of Ready Player One, his latest, let’s all hope he takes a little break to get his mojo back.

  • Release date: 29 March 2018 - out now
  • Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
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Based on a hit novel by Ernest Cline (who also co-wrote the screenplay), this virtual reality romp is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of references to other films, games, music, and more, a movie so busy reminding you of that other thing you liked that it never bothers to do anything to actually make itself enjoyable - not enough to succeed in a year already crowded with blockbusters.

The year is 2045, and in the wake of the ‘corn syrup drought’ and ‘bandwidth riots’ the world is looking rather worse for wear. That’s led most people to retreat from reality into the Oasis: a VR hub where you can be and do whatever you want, from a bloodthirsty warrior to a race-car driver. The only limit is your imagination.

Except imagination is exactly what this film is lacking, envisioning a dazzling digital future in which clothing, slang, gameplay, and pop culture apparently haven't advanced a bit from today. Gamers still randomly replace vowels with numbers in their usernames, in-app purchases dominate the virtual economy, and Batman is apparently still the height of cool (well, maybe that one's fair enough).

The film picks up with Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), one of the last remaining ‘gunters’ - Oasis enthusiasts desperately hunting for three hidden easter eggs, left by the late creator of the VR world. The first person to find all three inherits the whole company, worth billions - which is what attracts down-on-his-luck Wade, but also the sinister corporation IOI, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

It’s a classic setup for a McGuffin hunt, with faceless corporate goons, a series of mysterious clues, and a race to reach the finish, with more than a few structural nods to Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are flashes of the sensitivity to spectacle that has defined Spielberg’s blockbusters - an early car chase is a particularly manic feat of CGI choreography - but all too often it’s lost underneath the weight of references.

Take that car chase. No car can just be a car - it’s got to be a DeLorean, or the ‘60s Bat-Mobile, or the motorbike from Akira, or any number of other things you might recognise for a fleeting second. It’s fun at first, but diminishing returns kick in quickly, and by the time the final act groans into position it’s just wearying.

Most of the references are just dumped on screen to do their thing, but by far the most interesting segment of the film sees Spielberg go for a deep dive into one horror classic, painstakingly stitching his CGI characters into original footage.

Technically speaking it’s hideously impressive, but Spielberg can’t hold his nerve, and before long he’s remixing the old footage, throwing in effects-heavy flourishes and mashing together every iconic moment into one messy smorgasbord that loses everything that made those scenes iconic in the first place - a microcosm of the same crisis that affects the film as a whole.

Sheridan is a bland lead, but he’s propped up by Mendelsohn’s sneering villain, a corporate shill who only cares about the VR world so long as he can use it to turn a profit. Meanwhile Olivia Cooke’s spiky (literally, when it comes to her avatar’s hair) female lead seems to offer all the depth and rich motivation that Sheridan’s Wade lacks, right up until she falls into line and quite explicitly steps aside to let him be the hero.

Mark Rylance is the undeniable highlight as Oasis creator James Halliday, a hybrid of Willy Wonka and Palmer Luckey who’s as whimsical and charming as he is deeply pathetic.

At moments, Ready Player One seems to verge on using Halliday as a cautionary tale - a man who lived a long life defined only by his penchant for ‘80s movies and Atari games, now regretting it all - but the script just isn’t bold enough to risk upsetting it’s target market, instead throwing out bland aphorisms like, “A fanboy can always recognise a hater,” or splurging another Overwatch character on screen.

Even the score can’t avoid sounding like Now That’s What I Call Music: ‘80s Movie Hits, veering wildly between old pop hits and ‘borrowed’ elements of better films’ scores. Steven Spielberg resists diving into his own filmography (beyond a single T-Rex) but poor Alan Silvestri is forced to raid his own Back to the Future score, which just feels cruel.

SHOULD I BUY READY PLAYER ONE MOVIE?

If all you want from the cinema is some shiny effects and the chance to remember a string of other things that you like (The Iron Giant! Ninja Turtles! Gundam! Halo!) then Ready Player One will probably deliver. For the rest of us, Ready Player One is infinitesimally less than the sum of its many, many parts. Hollywood has never made such a convincing, and expensive, argument for staying home and browsing Netflix.