Steven Spielberg’s second film in 3 months is Ready Player One, written by dodgy bearded poet Ernest Cline (writer of the best-selling novel) and Zak Penn, who presumably combine to form dodgy moustachioed poet Sean Penn.
Set in 2045, the action opens in a dystopian USA (can you imagine?) where everyone is addicted to a virtual reality game, like that weird month where everyone was playing Pokémon Go. Accompanied by Van Halen’s Jump, we’re told that the VR game is called OASIS and it enjoys more success in the States than the band ever achieved, as everybody and their mums are plugged in for most of their lives.
One player (Miles Teller or Tye Sheridan, remember to look this up Dan) is determined to find the literal Easter egg hidden in the game by its creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), because the first to find it wins full ownership of OASIS. They’d hate that.
Halliday is essentially the nerd version of Willy Wonka, and like Johnny Depp’s version, he’s seriously miscast. Rylance is a great actor but there’s something slightly unconvincing about the way Spielberg crams him into a Space Invaders t-shirt. Ready Player One takes nerd worship to a whole new level, by literally (it’s a very literal film, though not exactly literary) having its characters worship a nerd, and by stuffing every set piece with as many pop culture references as humanly (as in digitally) possible.
Spielberg didn’t want any of his films referenced in the movie (apparently there are loads in the book), even though that’s never been much of a concern of his before. Several do end up in the film, along with nostalgic nods to so many movies, toys and video games that it’s easier to list the titles that didn’t make the cut: The Human Centipede and Yes, Minister. Although Ben Mendelsohn does look suspiciously like Tony Blair. So that could well have been a Human Centipede reference.
Without subverting or re-imagining these classic properties as, say, The Cabin in the Woods managed with so much wit, this amounts to nostalgia for its own sake. And there’s nothing particularly interesting about just remembering stuff, like the cinematic equivalent of a Peter Kay routine. “Remember white dog poo?!” I’m beginning to actually, yeah. Fans of Stranger Things, the It remake or remembering stuff might enjoy its fond recreations of ’80s pop culture, but personally if I wanted to watch someone play on a SNES I’d go to a bar in Shoreditch. Or better still to its roof, where I’d make like Van Halen and jump.
It seems more a film made by the artists animating all these references and by the lawyers clearing them all than by Spielberg, who uncharacteristically neglects the emotional side of the picture. The heart and drama we’ve come to expect from Spielberg (in excess) are completely missing from this movie, whose characters appear to have wondered straight out of an ’80s video game.
The top players (including an 11-year-old Chinese boy because stereotype) spend the bulk of the film in their avatar form, and for all the dazzling visuals surrounding them, they appear to have no personality nor life behind the eyes. At least they’re computer generated, what’s Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne‘s excuse?
These two-dimensional kids are on a mission to find an Easter egg, meaning the stakes are exactly as high as your bank holiday weekend. Apart from trying to stop Tony Blair from winning control of OASIS (and frankly they’re welcome to each other), they are ultimately just trying to win a game. We didn’t care in the Jumanji movies and we don’t care now. Everything feels largely inconsequential since it fails to really establish the conditions of the real world (where everyone seems to know exactly where everyone else is at any time) the way The Matrix accomplished, nor does it do anything particularly unexpected or unusual or involving Jennifer Jason Leigh like the David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ.
The love interest in this case (Olivia Cooke) is “hot” in the game but “disappointing” IRL because she has a barely noticeable birthmark, which our hero gallantly looks past because he’s such a Nice Guy. I refer you to the aforementioned poem.
There are some giddying special effects and truly spectacular action sequences, crammed with such a multitude of franchise crossovers that it descends into LEGO Batman without the jokes. Interestingly Zak Penn co-wrote the original screenplay for Last Action Hero, before Shane Black rewrote it with some gags. If only Black wasn’t busy making Predator 4 we might have enjoyed a funnier Ready Player One. And been spared Predator 4.
Ready Player One rests on the principle summed up by Mendelson’s character when he explains that everyone plays OASIS because it’s full of things people love. Our protagonist (remember to look up his name Dan) promptly points out that he’s full of shit. Shoving nostalgia down our eyes isn’t that impressive, and what works in a video game doesn’t work in feature films, as anyone who saw Tomb Raider will attest. Including Alicia Vikander. As for getting us to worship nerds? You’re gonna need a better film.