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Ready Player One Movie Review

Ready Player One (2018) movie poster Ready Player One

Theatrical Release: March 29, 2018 / Running Time: 140 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg / Writers: Ernest Cline (novel & screenplay), Zak Penn (screenplay)

Cast: Tye Sheridan (Parzival/Wade Watts), Olivia Cooke (Art3mis/Samantha), Ben Mendelsohn (Nolan Sorrento), Lena Waithe (Aech/Helen), T.J. Miller (I-R0k), Simon Pegg (Ogden Morrow), Mark Rylance (Anorak/James Halliday), Philip Zhao (Sho), Wihn Morisaki (Daito), Hannah John-Kamen (F'Nale Zandor), Ralph Ineson (Rick), Susan Lynch (Alice), Clare Higgins (Mrs. Gilmore), Laurence Spellman (Lame Tattoo Guy Reb), Perdita Weeks (Kira), Joel MacCormack (Sixer #6655)


Steven Spielberg built his reputation on fun adventures. After Jaws established him as a master of suspense and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made clear his childlike curiosity with the universe, the 1980s arrived and cemented the bearded Baby Boomer as a director with a commercial track record unrivaled. That decade saw Spielberg helm three Indiana Jones movies and the box office king E.T. in addition to producing hits like Gremlins, The Goonies, and Back to the Future.
That Spielberg, the filmmaker who could draw and please big crowds with his wide-eyed storytelling and technical know-how, has faded in recent years in favor of Spielberg the serious director of historical dramas, a class we can trace back to 1985's The Color Purple but which became more of a fixture in his slate after 1993's Best Picture winner Schindler's List.

The 2010s Spielberg has been mostly about monochromatic, talky dramas based in American or world history: War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post, all four of them Best Picture nominees at the Oscars. There have been some lighter diversions reliant on motion capture animation: 2011's The Adventures of Tintin and 2016's The BFG. But those have not won over American moviegoers with the zeal of his earlier works. After his last adult drama didn't perform quite as successfully commercially or critically during the awards season it was seemingly tailor made for, Spielberg returns to having fun for most ages in Ready Player One, a movie based on a book enamored with late 20th century pop culture, something Spielberg shaped as much as anyone.

Adapted from the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready is set in 2045. Our protagonist is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned 18-year-old who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in "The Stacks", an impoverished neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio where small, simple, dirty trailers are literally stacked high amongst metallic ruins. Like most of his neighbors, Wade escapes the hardships of reality by signing into the Oasis, an extremely popular virtual reality game where people can be anything they want.

The protagonist of Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" is 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), better known by his Oasis handle Perzival.

Before dying, the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, officially ready to be called Spielberg's good luck charm), devised a plan to pass along ownership of his creation to any player who could complete three challenges and collect three virtual keys. Wade and his fellow players all have their eyes on the prize, but so too does IOI, Innovative Online Industries, the giant video game conglomerate who naturally wants to inherit control of the most popular game ever.

Wade and his clan of friends he only knows online are competing not just against other players, but with IOI's asshole CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is hellbent on getting to the finish line first.

Ready Player One is very much a product of the 2010s. It's also very much the creation of someone who grew up in the late 20th century. Cline, who also picks up his first screenplay credit since 2009's Fanboys, was 3 years old when Jaws opened in theaters. His co-screenwriter, Marvel veteran Zak Penn, was seven. Accordingly, like Cline's text, the movie is full of 1980s culture and homage: music excerpts, film references, video games. Wade's avatar drives the time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future in the opening race. He dresses like Buckaroo Banzai on his Oasis date with his love interest Art3mis (voiced and eventually played by Olivia Cooke). And for a movie in which Easter egg hunting is kind of the theme, you can surely discover countless little nods to other things.

In the Oasis, you can be whatever you want, as the diverse avatars of Wade and his friends demonstrate.

Some are not really hidden: the eponymous Iron Giant of Brad Bird's 1999 animated film, which doesn't really fit with the rest chronologically but was surely easy for Warner Bros. to legally clear, is something of deus ex machina. For film buffs, the highlight of the movie may be the sequence in which the avatars of Wade and his friends journey to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining for a round. The setting is meticulously created and you're almost surprised that 1980 Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson don't turn up via digital magic.

Ready Player One certainly has fun paying tribute to pop culture and gaming, from John Hughes discussions to a real 8-bit game's historic easter egg functioning as a pivotal plot point. It is entertaining in the same way that seeing classic video game characters in Wreck-It Ralph or toys in Toy Story is. Look, there's Beetlejuice! Look, there's David Bowie! Look, there's a Re-Elect Goldie Wilson poster! Alas, the whole isn't quite as strong as the sum of the parts. The thrills of entering the world of
The Shining are the best to be found here. There are other enjoyable moments: that early race, a powerful emotional conclusion (reminiscent, like much of the film, of Willy Wonka), plenty of breathtaking visuals (not all of which are CGI). But the narrative and journey never quite reach the level of greatness that many of the works celebrated here do. It's a bit generic, with some lulls here and there. It's never bad, but it just never quite sizzles the way you want it to.

Nonetheless, there is much to like, if not quite love about the movie, including the fact that Spielberg is reconnecting with his past and testing whether his long-golden commercial touch still applies to four-quadrant popcorn entertainment. I suspect it should. While this won't perform on the level of a Marvel blockbuster, it should do well, buoyed by strong critical marks and broad appeal. And if nothing else, this tentpole is, in theory anyway, a standalone movie and not simply one piece of a cinematic universe that time has rendered familiar.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Isle of Dogs Black Panther Red Sparrow Unsane Game Night
Wreck-It Ralph Edge of Tomorrow Tron: Legacy Transformers Toy Story Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Steven Spielberg: The BFG The Adventures of Tintin Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Bridge of Spies
Tye Sheridan: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse The Tree of Life Last Days in the Desert
Olivia Cooke: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Bates Motel: Season One

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Reviewed March 29, 2018.

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