Movie Review: “Ready Player One” – A Pop Culture Love Letter

Written by Jeremiah Greville April 09, 2018

Ready Player One

I wasn’t prepared to like Ready Player One. The first trailers made it look like a cringe-worthy, overproduced mess. And I feared that the references would overpower the narrative and insult the source material. Then there was the danger that fan culture could be harmed through emulation. Or worse, that a film about fan culture would be filled with gatekeeping and misplaced machismo. Basically, I didn’t have high hopes going in. But the film won me over with honest, earnest affection for the things I love. Ready Player One is a love letter to video game and movie fans everywhere. And it’s a meta narrative about Steven Spielberg and his contemporaries.

It’s the year 2045, and everything sucks. The environment’s ruined, poverty is rampant, and everyone escapes online to find happiness. Their destination? The Oasis, a cross between Second Life and World of Warcraft that’s become the world’s leading economic resource. After the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday, an Easter Egg hunt is created to transfer ownership of the Oasis to the first person to complete the hunt. Ready Player One stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts AKA Parzival, a “Gunter” (Egg Hunter) trying to find the Easter Egg before an evil corporation does, and ruins the Oasis forever. Yes, it’s a film about Easter eggs released on Easter weekend. He is risen!

“I’m a dreamer. I build worlds.”

Tye Sheridan is joined by Olivia Cooke as Art3mis, a famous Gunter, and Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of the evil corporation they’re fighting against. Describing Ready Player One is a bit like describing a video game—it’s best if you just experience it yourself. No, it doesn’t sound good on paper, but on screen it works surprisingly well. The Oasis is a vast and incredible world, an uncanny valley of experiences that fit in ways they really shouldn’t. And Ready Player One shows it off in style. Most of the film is a CG extravaganza. It doesn’t always look lifelike or real, but most of the time it doesn’t have to. The artifice is part of the appeal, and sometimes it’s the entire point.

Ready Player One

It wasn’t until about halfway through Ready Player One that I finally ‘got’ what director Steven Spielberg was going for. For a filmmaker as talented and respected as him, it seemed like a strange choice of project. But without spoiling too much of the film, it’s clear that Ready Player One gave Spielberg the chance to pay homage and respect to his fans and contemporaries. He shows real love to George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Zemeckis in particular. This film is as much about Spielberg playing in their worlds as it is for the characters. And that excitement shows. That love shows. This isn’t a film about critiquing pop culture, but celebrating it wholeheartedly.

“Bill & Ted did it.”

And it wasn’t until later in the film that it won me over entirely, with a reference to 1981’s Excalibur. I was never really in it for the references until that happened. Then suddenly, there it was. Something I loved being loved on screen. At some point I’ve tried to convince literally every person I know to see Excalibur, and nobody ever has. Nobody ever cared. But sure enough, Spielberg cared. And holy shit, it was validating. Ready Player One is filled with loving little tributes like that one. The movie may not appeal to everyone, but the references just might. They’re not obtrusive or overbearing in most cases—just things that the characters love.

Ready Player One

Then there’s James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance. Instead of the Easter Egg hunt being framed around nerd-culture ephemera, it’s framed around Halliday’s life. Halliday—a reclusive, soft-spoken, passionate creative—can be a clear stand in for Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas. But by the end of the film, he’s a stand-in for Spielberg as well. He’s a benevolent, loving creator thanking the fans for enjoying his product. And frankly, so is Spielberg. He thanks the creators who inspired and drove him, while thanking the fans who made him what he is. Ready Player One isn’t cynical about loving pop culture or those who create it. If there’s a message to the film at all, it’s that it’s okay to love these things too.

“Thanks for playing my game.”

But it’s not a perfect film, of course. The plot is a classic chosen-one cliche, and the implications of the setting aren’t fully explored. There’s too much focus on male-centric and eighties pop culture, and not enough time spent exploring the world. There’s lip service paid to the idea that not everyone is completely like their avatar, but apart from a single instance…yeah, they pretty much are. The attractive avatars are really attractive people, the Asian-inspired avatars are really Asian people, etc. And while the slower character moments are great, some of the more hectic action scenes are incomprehensible. Spielberg is clearly flexing, but not always in the right direction. But the pacing is good, the performances are solid, and the film is really entertaining. Its faults ultimately don’t undermine this.

READY PLAYER ONE

Ready Player One was a blast to see in theatres. You may find yourself eagerly pointing out little references to your friends and gasping when your special bit of fandom gets a shout-out. It’s a rewarding, loving tribute to films and games, creators and fans. And it’s a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick in its own right. The moment I realized why Spielberg chose this project was the moment I was sold on the film. And the moment one of my favourite films got an unexpected shout-out was the moment I fell in love. It’s easy to approach a film like this with cynical detachment, and the marketing campaign has almost encouraged people to find fault wherever they can. But trust me, it’s good, and on the service seems to have sincere intentions. Ready Player One is a surprising success. If you love games and genre films, go see it.

My Rating: 8/10

Ready Player One - Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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