Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
There’s a moment in Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop culture-tastic movie, when one character transforms from human looking avatar into MechaGodzilla – a moment that should make all people gasp, laugh or do both. It’s followed, however by someone shouting “it’s MechaGodzilla”, as if the giant lizard monster made of metal didn’t give it away. In one moment, everything that is right and everything that is wrong with Ready Player One is displayed.
The story is very simple: in a fairly bad future where most people live in favela-like caravan slums, everyone (rather curiously) manages to own a VR headset that allows them into ‘The Oasis’, a role-playing-game alternate reality where you can do anything and be anyone. When its creator James Halliday dies and leaves a cryptic message about eggs and keys, the hunt is on for the three keys that will give the winner the ability to control the Oasis – but evil forces are also moving in on the keys.
From the off this seems like an ode to 80s pop culture, and it is, not just in its video game references but in its movie , tv , music and fashion references, too. It therefore seems a little odd to have Spielberg direct it, a man for whom the references are made largely from the wellsprings of his previous work.
In recent times the 80s stable of filmmakers who really left their mark on cinema have been routinely referenced – John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, John Hughes and of course Spielberg. But, Spielberg has made a conscious choice to try and ignore the references to his work, which for a film steeped in 80s culture is a problem.
Right away we meet the various characters who all appear to be cast based on who they look like or channel the energy of. Our hero Wade “Parzival” Watts – Tye Sheridan, X-Men: Apocalypse – is a dead ringer for a young Robert Zemeckis (director of Back to the Future), while Lena Waithe as sidekick Aech looks like a The Colour Purple era Whoopi Goldberg, and Philip Xhoa could be mistaken for Short Round from Temple of Doom, all of which is fine, but when the lack of clear references to his own movies is bothering you, the film seems not to be working.
Unlike heroes of classic 80s movies, Tye Sheridan’s Wade / Parzival is not as charming, he’s not as hyper and fun as Michael J Fox, nor is he as smarmy as Matthew Broderick, he lacks the arrogance of Judd Nelson, he doesn’t even have the hapless schmuck charm of Anthony Michael Hall, he just seems to be a bland hero who falls in love rather quickly and lacks the street smarts he’s meant to have. Though Olivia Cooke as love interest Art3mis actually has some of the edge seen in other film’s strong female characters (of which there is only one, here) have going for them, even she seems a little hollow.
Similarly, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs stand-ins appear to be bored out of their minds, Rylance in particular looks as if he has just woken up from a nap between takes and can’t shake the grogginess.
Leave it to Ben Mendelsohn and Hannah John-Kamen then to snarl away as the villains. Though Mendelsohn seems to have big fake teeth in, he still scowls like he’s Alan Rickman in the 90s. The besuited corporate villain is an easy trick to pull for most actors, and Mendelsohn makes no concessions to make him human, nor John-Kamen as his second in command, the brilliantly named F’Nale Zandor who spends her time in the real world being a rather nasty piece of work.
While all of this acting largely is hit and miss, the film soars when it’s making references. There is one pervasive problem, which is that Halliday was a massive geek, he loved movies, books, comics, TV, games and music, he was a real nerd in the best sense, but: so is everyone else. Everyone in the game can make their avatars into whatever they want: Batman, Batgirl, Freddy Kruger, RoboCop, the Ninja Turtles all get cameos, and yet our central five heroes go for generic looking types. Not only this but for five die-hard geeks they feel the need to explain everything.
There is actually a line of dialogue so annoying it ruins the scene: “A creator who had his creation – Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining was made into a film which he hated, it was Halliday’s eleventh favourite horror film!” Admittedly it does lead to a fun The Shining riff with an emotional payoff, and looks as though the CGI people are put into the actual movie, but the pervasive need to explain every little reference wears thin.
Similarly, I feel there was a missed opportunity to make a Speed Racer / Wacky Racers gag in the mad speedway race, in which people get to pick their car – hello DeLorean! Hello Adam West-era Batmobile! And yet no Mystery Machine, no Dumb and Dumber dog-van, no Pussy Wagon… even the appearance of a giant T-Rex brings no “must go faster” lines which surely would have boosted the fan appeal.
Luckily Spielberg isn’t completely lost in this high tech world. He created the summer blockbuster and perfected it, and now in this motion capture age has done far better than his Tin Tin adaptation by making the story feel right. A bigger fanboy would have turned a nightclub scene into an extended Star Wars reference, or the climactic ice battle into a Lord of the Rings homage, but Spielberg seems to want to get past the nostalgia and tell a story about people creating their own legends.
Once again, father figures play a key role, and this does sit in the cannon of Spielberg films, but it feels like a film that would have better suited a filmmaker like J.J. Abrams, a man not afraid to wear his love of the Berg and pals’ work on his sleeve. Still, for a man with fifty years of filmmaking under his belt (he’s three years off sixty years), it’s incredible that he’s still able to crank out two movies a year – The Post only just left most cinemas. There seems to be very little sign of Spielberg slowing down, he just might want to accept he’s a pop culture icon, and not shy away from it so much. It never did Tarantino any harm.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.