Ready Player One – movie review

by James Robins / 11 April, 2018

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Spielberg is off his game in virtual-reality extravaganza Ready Player One.

Steven Spielberg’s new movie relishes the chance to open a toy chest crammed with heroes and monsters, scatter them over the bedroom floor and bash them together. Ever fantasised about the Iron Giant squaring off against a Mechagodzilla? Well, in this film anyway, it’s less thrilling than you might suspect.

Ready Player One is set in Ohio in 2045, long after the “corn-syrup shortage” and the “bandwidth riots”. To escape the general distress and decay of reality, humankind has disappeared into virtual reality – an online universe called Oasis, where all dreams are conceivable and all desires possible.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an orphaned teenager obsessed with a challenge laid down by the game’s designer, James Halliday (a delightfully dorky Mark Rylance), who, not unlike Willy Wonka, promises the keys to the Oasis kingdom should his puzzle be cracked.

Watts and his pals are pitted against a tyrannical corporation, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s called IOI, though its massive logo looks unfortunately like “LOL”).

Ernest Cline’s original 2011 novel posited that immersive technology would stifle creativity and people would endlessly recycle past cultures. This is the basis of the film’s barrage of nostalgic creatures and creations – all introduced with a blast of Van Halen’s Jump.

There are cute riffs on John Hughes films and 80s band Duran Duran; nods to sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner and Silent Running; and Batman, Clark Kent, the Tyrannosaurus rex from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and a Back to the Future DeLorean all show up. But Ready Player One isn’t really rooted in popular culture at all – or even nerd culture with its search for virtue in obsessiveness – but rather in contemporary video games. You could be forgiven for looking up, as I had to, what a Twitch stream was.

The action is so convoluted that the cast has to spend much of the running time reminding themselves (and us) of certain plot points. It’s also a pity the characters we’re supposed to care about feel as flimsy as their Oasis digital avatars – thin, flat and artificial.

What’s left is undiluted spectacle and a kaleidoscope of computer-rendered chases and shoot-outs. You yearn for the more charismatic, kid-friendly Spielberg of old, be it the wondrous charm of E.T., the renegade thrills of Indiana Jones, or The BFG’s absurdist gags. They will long hold a special place in every childhood heart. Ready Player One will not.

Video: Warner Bros. Pictures

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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