By Anthony Romanelli, opinion editor
When I went into the theater to watch Ready Player One, despite its direction by Steven Spielberg of all people, I wasn’t too sure what to think. It’s a book-to-movie adaptation, which tend to be hit-and-miss. For every Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s a Hobbit trilogy. Ready Player One manages a 74% Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics noting its over reliance on referential humor and predictable storyline. But Ready Player One manages to deliver a fun movie with memorable characters that I would definitely watch again, though I must admit the criticism isn’t coming from nowhere.
Most movies adapted from books tend to be confusing, and as someone who had not read the Ready Player One novel and had seen precisely one trailer, I was going in blind. The movie begins with an avalanche of exposition delivered by our protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan), and while it does its job explaining the world fair enough, it slows the movie’s first act to a grinding halt. The movie’s characters are introduced far more organically, making me wonder why the different aspects of the setting couldn’t be handled the same way.
Most of the movie is set in the Oasis, a virtual reality paradise created by the recently deceased James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance in what is undoubtedly the best performance of the film. Wade and his friends are wrapped up in the search for Halliday’s Easter Egg, which contains the rights to the entire Oasis, pitting them against a sinister corporation led by a greedy CEO played by the always-excellent Ben Mendelsohn. It’s just a shame that Sheridan’s Wade fails to provide a suitable foil to his antagonist’s creepily smooth corporate veneer. Wade’s allies Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) end up far more interesting as characters, and Art3mis in particular receives more character development than Wade by the end.
But despite its flaws, Ready Player One is a film with lots to offer. The Oasis itself, rendered entirely digitally, is downright gorgeous. Its architect, the eccentric Halliday, is slowly and believably given an aura of legend through dialogue and scenery, along with Rylance’s portrayal itself. The movie explores themes of corporate culture, hero worship, and the dangers of escapism, all supported by the nostalgia-filled hunt for the Easter Egg. A particular sequence involving a scene from The Shining stands out as the most memorable in its imagery and its camerawork. While the movie is thick with references from the 80s to today, it never uses them as a crutch for its storytelling. Nor does the pop culture within the Oasis feel like an advertisement, in fact, quite the opposite. Spielberg handles the properties with the respect they deserve.
Rylance’s Halliday, idealized by the main characters, is a man who wanted to make people happy with his handmade creation, and through his challenges Wade and company realize just how devoted he was to this mission. The movie’s villainous corporation, IOI, bears all the hallmarks of what people hate about big business, particularly in the gaming industry. IOI’s similarity to major video game companies like Electronic Arts and Konami is so striking it’s terrifying, from their ad marketing strategies to their product packaging. It’s too on the nose to be unintentional, but whether that was the author’s doing or Spielberg’s is unclear. The scene where Mendelsohn’s character speaks to Wade while corporate lackeys feed him pop culture references through an earpiece is a perfect allegory to businesses trying to “relate” to their customers.
The film is not anti-business (Wade and his friends take over the Oasis by the end) but it sure doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to exploitative tactics. The best part is by far the final battle, where a disorderly horde of Oasis users in all sorts of avatars, including many familiar faces, face off against an army of identical, faceless IOI drones, all to the tune of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. What with net neutrality being repealed and business practices reaching new lows in the game industry, it gave me something to smile about long after the movie had ended.
This third act is a good summary of the movie as a whole; Colorful, crazy, and filled to the brim with references and tributes to the titans of pop culture. Overall, as a refreshing splash of optimism in a lovingly crafted world, Ready Player One manages to teach us valuable lessons while giving its target audience the authentic nostalgia it craves.