With a collection of well-reviewed films that I have minimal to no interest in out in theaters, choosing which one to see next becomes a tossup, and in this scenario, tie goes to the film guaranteed to infuriated tossers. While the internet hatred towards Ready Player One has mostly died down on account of it being out so long by this point, what’s the harm in tearing up some old wounds. While I get the arguments against the book by Ernest Cline and consequently this film adaptation and I had no desire to see the film based on terrible trailers and the embarrassing anime-styled avatars of the protagonists, the reactions against instead passed instead to the point where the people who wouldn’t shut up about it are the obnoxious assholes, so I damnit, I was going to watch this movie and try to like it. Plus, it’s directed by Steven Spielberg and since I’ve seen all but three of his thirty-four prior films, I knew I was going to see it eventually, so I might as well see it in theaters. But let’s get it out of the way quick, despite my best efforts to enjoy the film, any attempt to defend the film will have to come from someone other than me.
I won’t even chalk up my lack of enjoyment in the film to the bugbear of so many, the references of the film. Sure, Ready Player One can’t decide if it would rather it have a viewer who familiar with all the material its referring to or not as it bounces between the good kinds of references which appear and enhance the experience for those in the know but don’t affect those who don’t, and the bad kinds which require moderate culture knowledge to land impact or which the film has to stop the plot so that it can explain it all away (in a way that fails those on both sides). It’s not that the film can’t decide whether nostalgia is something good or bad and yet seems to constantly be trying (and for me personally failing) to appeal to nostalgia. It’s not even that the film emblematically misses the point of an easter egg (or rather one specific one) so that it can fit its message and puts the entire emotional crux of the movie on this. It’s just that film is so tortuously dull and flaccid with action and drama that lacks any sort of weight.
There’s a lot to be said about reference culture and nostalgia, but this is not the film to discuss it and I feel taking it to task for not adequately deconstructing such issues is pointless. It simply doesn’t engage in them. It just wants so desperately though to be cool and fun and it’s none of those things. I’ve avoided talking about the plot this long, but in the future, VR has advanced to the point where everyone wants to spend their lives living in it in a wait that feels hopeless quaint. I don’t even need to research to be able to tell that the book was written when Second Life and WoW were big things and it certainly shows. Regardless, the creator of this world has created an Easter Egg hunt for three keys, the person who finds them gaining control of his $500 billion company. After years of failed searching, the primary people still searching are an evil mega corporation and some plucky youngsters working by themselves and represented by avatars designed by the people who make midnight informercials. They are some of the laziest and ugliest character designs I’ve seen in a major motion picture and if you had told me they were out of mockbuster or indie animation studio’s attempt to “break into the big leagues” I would have believed you” but nope, it’s two Final Fantasy film reject avatars in the lead.
As far as a cast, we have bootleg Miles Teller and charisma void Tye Sheridan as the protagonist seemingly only because he is merely the character who is as sad and pathetic as the creator of the Oasis, the virtual world so much of this takes place in. Olivia Cooke is stuck as his love interest in a role that the film seems determined to undercut any time it threatens to get interesting. It’s like writers Zak Penn and Cline recognize that everyone will realize she is the more engaging and deserving lead (her real life character that is, not her equally dumb looking avatar) and so every once in a while have to tell the audience explicitly why we are supposed to care about their poor attempt at a Peter Parker knock off (a joke which is even less funny when you then explain it). Ben Mendelsohn adequately plays the John Hughes villain lead (with an avatar that appears to hilariously be a cross between Thanos and Jon Hamm) but he just feels so out of place in a movie like this and lacks any sort of intimidating factor, the film counting on Killjoys’s Hannah John-Kamen and the blisteringly obnoxious T.J. Miller to try and provide the personality. The rest of the cast is fine I guess with Simon Pegg spending most of the movie buried under pounds of Michael Sheen makeup and Mark Rylance doing a Dana Carvey by way of Sam Rockwell impression (which honestly, if you are trying to go for 80s nostalgia, why didn’t you just cast Carvey), but that’s not what you’re here for.
It’s the action that you are all here for. I won’t spoil the big action beats or cameos, but besides a profound case of “is that it?” in the big SCENE, they just look like a bunch of video game cut scenes. What should feel like something special, the culmination of years of childhood fantasies, instead just feels like yet another thing like Sumer Smash Bros., Injustice, or Pacific Rim that has already fulfilled these desires just as well if not better. There is one extended homage, but that sequence feels like the theme park version of that classic movie. Not just in the sense that it tones down a movie to make is safe for all the kiddies, but in the way that it reduces it to the big moments and just a bunch of big action set pieces like Spielberg was designing a rollercoaster based on the film. I’ll give the sequence credit for being the one sequence which actually brings some life to the film (aside from a maybe twenty second portion of the final fight that should have been the headliner), but it’s also the one that fundamentally angered me. The basic premise means the movie struggles to make threats feel real, the design is often intentionally CG looking and means that when it isn’t unintentionally looking poor, it is intentionally looking as such.
It’s hours of unsatisfying action without any sense of catharsis or weight. It’s an emotional trip that’s unsure of what it’s message it’s actual message is supposed to be besides the power of friendship *dry heaves*. It’s a film that generated plenty of hatred and over a thousand words of me tearing it apart but in the end, I find it hard to wonder how anyone could get so worked up over such a lifeless and inoffensive film. Perhaps that is the greatest sin that Spielberg committed then. He’s created a wide gamut of films of varying quality, genre and tone, but it’s been his last two big budget films (along with The BFG) that feel like the least essential works he’s ever made since breaking out, even if he’s made worse (“Kick the Can”, Always, and Hook). I wanted this film to break the narrative so bad and succeed in spite of itself, but I was unmoved and left wishing I had actually seen a tribute to pop culture (not that pop culture needs one).