Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One, is visually amazing and narratively empty. It mostly works on its own terms, even if it barely holds up to even the barest scrutiny. Mostly, it is an excuse for over the top action scenes and references to video games, comics and other movies.
The movie stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, a young man who is trying to win a contest to gain control of the OASIS, a virtual reality game that everyone plays. Its creator, James Halliday, left it to whoever could solve his riddles when he died. He is opposed by the IOI corporation and their CEO Noah Sorrento. What starts as a game quickly escalates to become deadly, while Wade gets closer to fellow player Art3mis. The contest consists of finding 3 keys hidden in various locations, with puzzles based on Halliday’s favorite bits of pop culture and his own personal history.
The plot is mostly a vehicle to deliver references, which are all over the place. Some are just recognizable characters in the background. Look, is Harley Quinn! Over there is Chun Li! They don’t add much to the movie, but they don’t detract anything either. Then there are the more in depth ones, like the second challenge taking place within a virtual version of the movie The Shining or the last challenge having to do mostly with the Atari game Adventure. Only The Shining one really engages with its subject, the others are all mostly just surface. Adventure is a fitting final challenge, but how they get there is pretty clumsy.
Clumsy is how I’d describe the movie overall. The more prominent references get problematic. Like the Iron Giant. I loved seeing that in the movie, but not when it was used in some fighting. The Iron Giant is a movie about how that robot refuses to be a weapon, it gives me no joy to seem him being a weapon. Some of the other surprise characters work a lot better, but just as often the references are as clumsily inserted as Iron Giant. It doesn’t make Ready Player One unentertaining, Spielberg still knows his business even when he is working with lesser material. It is clear, though, that he is working with lesser material here.
Ready Player One almost feels like everyone made a hellish dystopia without realizing it until the last minute. It is a movie about a terrible future, where everyone would rather play a virtual reality game instead of working to fix society’s problems. The movie is about who gets to control that game, mostly by playing the game. No one seems to care that world is shit. It could work, it’s not like Blade Runner is about how terrible that world is, it mostly a noir mystery. But Ready Player One doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the state of the world, it is an unimportant detail. That is kind of my biggest problem with the movie; it is almost always focusing on the wrong things. It is a movie about the power of imagination that almost seems to have none.