Ready Player One is one big ad for the ’80s


Turn on the TV, watch a movie, and it’s easy to deduce that the ’80s are back in a big way.

But, like all good things, too much can be enough. Ready Player One is the cinematic equivalent of stuffing your face full of candy on Halloween night. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline and directed by everyone’s favorite staple of the ’80s, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One treats its audience like babies.

It throws Iron Giant and Freddy Krueger-shaped balls in front of their face, hoping they’ll ignore the train wreck behind them. Make no mistake, Ready Player One is for and about ’80s fanBOYS. If you aren’t one, you’ll remember why the decade was known as the era of excess. Greed is good, if it makes you a profit.

By the year 2045, poor people live in vertical trailer parks known as “The Stacks.” One such stack dweller is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). He spends the majority of his time in Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can be whoever they want. Wade’s goal, like many others, is to find the hidden Easter Egg left behind by deceased Oasis creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

Whoever finds the Egg will become the new head of the Oasis. As Wade gets closer to finding the Egg, he attracts the eye of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a competing company who wants to turn the Oasis into a world based on capitalism and corporate greed.

The initial problems with Ready Player One boil down to Zak Penn’s script that, for nearly half the runtime, sounds like a vomiting of exposition. The plot is already an unabashed copy of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Laid on top of that is a thick ooze of storytelling focused on telling, not showing.

If you were to play a drinking game every time the word “Halliday” was used in the first 25 minutes you’d be legally dead by the midpoint. Complicating this is the phrases have no meaning. Good world-building requires telling the audience necessary plot lines, but not overloading them with information. At times Ready Player One acts like a 2.5 hour advertisement on the movie that comes after this one with all the history laid out.

Steven Spielberg making a movie about video games sounds inherently bizarre. Best known for his old-school adventure pictures hearkening back to the studio era, it’s hard not to watch Ready Player One and see a director trying to get “down” with “the kids.” His views of nostalgia, for all his attempts to erase himself from the narrative — outside of one T-Rex — sound limited and misplaced. It’s unclear whose nostalgia we’re supposed to remember.

Is it Spielberg’s? If so, why are there stray references to Brad Bird’s 1999 feature The Iron Giant? (Maybe because Bird cited Spielberg as an influence? Just saying.)

Is it nostalgia in general? If so, the ’70s is where nostalgia started, considering the Bee Gees are as far back as this film goes. In fact, for how much the marketing and stray references want you to believe this is a trip down ’80s lane, there are as many long stretches where everything looks like a substandard video game movie.

Like other Spielberg motion capture features, Ready Player One lives in an uncanny valley where the locations surrounding the characters is photo-realistic, yet the characters themselves aren’t. A 45-minute detour into an actual movie — one better than this one, not a good sign — is visually astounding because it looks as if the characters are inhabiting those same sets. Conversely, the effect is ruined when video game zombies and dead women appear, clashing with the photo-realism.

But this movie needs to throw as many shiny things with nostalgic value at you as it can to cover up how boring the entire affair is. The characters seemingly spend all their time with VR goggles strapped to their faces. As for the audience, we’re watching motion capture characters who lack just as much chemistry as their human counterparts.

Tye Sheridan comes off as completely uncomfortable reading Penn’s dialogue. Terms like “serious coin” roll off his tongue with all the grace of a boulder. Too often it sounds like he’s reading the audiobook and has trouble properly emoting with the motion capture. It doesn’t help that Wade Watts is the most mediocre of protagonists, acting like his being an orphan is a mild inconvenience. When his last living biological relative dies there’s no emotion to it.

Olivia Cooke, as literal manic pixie dream girl Art3mis, does a better job. She’s likely too good for this feature. Cooke’s voice work is solid and when she’s in the real world, she’s compelling. However, the script sells her as little more than a sex object. She talks about fighting as part of a rebellion but that’s always limited to about five characters.

Her relationship with Wade is supposedly real because he can ignore a presumably hideous birthmark on her beautiful face. Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki are also great, but we’re given barely anything to make them memorable. At one point Morisaki’s character performs karate in the real world in a way that screams racism.

The lone light at the tunnel is Ben Mendelsohn as Sorrento, continuing the actor’s trend of being the best part of terrible big-budget action features. His Sorrento is little more than a smart boss baby who knows nothing about pop culture but knows how to make money (sound familiar?). He and his Girl Friday F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) are a bumbling, corporate take on the Beagle Boys. Thankfully Mendelsohn has fun with the role.

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Ready Player One knows it’s a cash grab. The film hopes that audiences will be dumb enough to go along with it. The story is both overly convoluted and woefully underwritten, reliant on nostalgia to patch the holes in the Swiss cheese-like script. It’s a Netflix movie in budget, prestige, and, sadly, quality.