All spectacle and no substance in this shallow adaptation.
Ernest Cline’s pop-culture-packed novel Ready Player One always seemed destined for the big screen, and with legendary director Steven Spielberg at the helm, it had all the ingredients for a surefire success right?
Well not quite.
Rather fittingly, Cline’s novel propones to be the Holy Grail for modern sci-fi literature; a veritable smorgasbord of references and indeed the trailer for Ready Player One promised to make all your nerd dreams come true. In a dystopian future, we meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who finds himself and his destiny in the OASIS video game, and in the virtual “world of pure imagination”, he is the heroic Parzival. The brainchild of reclusive genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS offers users the chance to be whoever they want to be, and following his death, a hunt begins for the hallowed “Easter Egg”; the prize hidden within the OASIS itself which will see the successful player inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and the keys to the OASIS kingdom.
The Willy Wonka comparisons are of course apparent from the off, but there is no golden ticket for Ready Player One, and indeed the taste it leaves afterwards is sour rather than sweet. Whilst the book is fairly dense and changes were needed in order to condense the runtime, the result is the story feels hollow and empty, the characters are criminally underdeveloped, and the narrative is the thing which struggles the most. The world of limitless possibilities feels incredibly small, and barely any time is spent exploring the wonders of the OASIS, save for a few visually impressive action sequences. Failing to fully utilise both the expansive world of the OASIS and transfer the threat into any real-world consequences, Ready Player One ultimately falls flat.
Incessantly vomiting pop culture references with reckless abandon, Ready Player One lacks coherence or a purpose for all the references. It feels like references for the sake of references, and the criticisms of the book become even more apparent. Rather than offering open arms into geek culture, it feels shallow and alienating. There’s only so much “look at this thing you recognise” and “there’s a reference, did you get that?” you can cope with before it becomes tiresome, and the film drags its heels through a series of dull and unfocused set-pieces. Geek culture can often be seen as hierarchal, and Ready Player One has an undeniable sense of condescension about it. Failing to explain key parts of the plot and whizzing through exposition at breakneck speed doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience and the “them and us” mentality is difficult to shake.
There are some sequences which are pretty great however. The race seen in the trailers is visually spectacular, even if unnecessarily noisy and cluttered, and there’s lots of fun to had with it; Spielberg even gives a couple of nods to himself! The highlight of the film is a set-piece based around The Shining; the attention to detail is really quite fantastic and it is almost guaranteed to delight fans of the original film. The music cues and everything are so spot-on and it feels like a bright spot in an otherwise dull film.
Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke as the leads do an admirable job but they lack all believable chemistry and unfortunately suffer from their OASIS counterparts being far more interesting than they are. Ben Mendelsohn is a sufficiently menacing villain and there were some surprisingly funny moments involving his ineptitude as well, which at least gave one of the characters depth. Mark Rylance isn’t seen a lot, but his performance as Halliday was likeable and full of the quirks you would expect from this great character actor.
Ultimately, Ready Player One fails to make the most out of its rich and textured source material, and whilst it succeeds in being visually spectacular, it fails in having anything to show for it by the end. The endless barrage of references feels grating and forced, and the weaknesses of the script, narrative, and characters leave it feeling empty. It’s adequate surface-level entertainment but not a lot more. Game over for this one, sadly.