Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

May 2018

Ready Player One (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan
March 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Premise

A young man attempts to win fame, fortune and the affections of a young woman by solving the mysteries of a virtual reality game.

The Evaluation:

Seems like it’s been ages since Steven Spielberg directed a live-action action movie—since mo-cap
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) doesn’t count, the last such film was Indy IV, which was released a decade ago. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One taps into our society’s obsession with video games and genre entertainment. The plot revolves around a VR game called the OASIS, which was created by eccentric game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). As with computer games like Second Life or Turf Wars, real-world money can purchase loot (weapons and equipment) inside the OASIS. And just like in a video game, when you run out of lives the game is over. In the OASIS, however, you also lose all of your currency, which other players can scoop up. In a riff on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Golden Tickets, Halliday concealed three keys inside his VR world. Once discovered, these keys will help one player unlock the secrets of the OASIS, become the envy of millions, and, of course, earn a boatload of cash. Parzival/Wade (Tye Sheridan), the common denizen of a Columbus, OH “stacks” (mobile home towers), has aspirations of being the winner. But in order to achieve that goal, he’ll have to enlist the support of other skilled players, like Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe). More importantly, he’ll need to look at things in radically different ways than any other player who’s ever played the game. Despite its promising premise and cornucopia of creativity, RPO never exceeds its YA trappings or overdetermined themes: rags-to-riches idealism and little guy vs. corporate overlord populism. There are plenty of nitpicks here too…since the OASIS is populated with millions of players from all around the world, how is it possible that Wade’s team of five players all live in the same neighborhood in Columbus? Character complexity, even for adults like Wade’s deadbeat guardians and lispy villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is egregiously pedestrian in the movie and the jeopardy never reaches a level of intensity above standard teen peril. The action sequences are overblown and appear as if they were designed solely for the purpose of conveying the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of a video game to the big screen, which they’re only marginally successful at doing. RPO is afflicted by a debilitating dichotomy—the teen characters and pulse-pounding action sequences are intended to attract a younger crowd, while the ubiquitous allusions to 80s pop culture are meant to reach an audience 40 and above (their parents). Since the film fails to fully connect with either generation, it might be disregarded on that basis, even by those who would normally enjoy this type of film. As a mash-up of the sci-fi, fantasy and gaming genres, you’d expect far more imagination than what’s on display here. The Doom environment, where two sprawling armies (comprised of every type of avatar, creature or character imaginable—including the Iron Giant) charge each other on a verdant plain, is like a massive Hobbit-style melee. However, the battle sequence is all eye candy and fails to build any genuine suspense since we know none of the main characters will die (not in real-life anyway). The movie isn’t completely devoid of innovation, though. One clever creation is the Zemeckis Cube, which looks just like a Rubik’s Cube and is named after the director of the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis. When solved, the eponymous cube resets the clock 25 seconds so that you can go back in time and undo a catastrophic event (of course, this creates a snafu since how many people can solve a Rubik’s cube that quickly, especially when caught in the middle of a firefight?). Even though it’s a frequently employed in sci-fi stories—ranging from Galaxy Quest (1999) to a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery where Mudd keeps looping time—the time rewind gag still provides a fun moment here. It’s ironic that a movie focused on an Easter egg is filled with them. From the Buckaroo Banzai costume to a toy model of the original Battlestar Galactica, and the ST:TMP poster in a window to the life-sized model of Robby the Robot from Lost in Space in the corner of a room, the movie is packed with enough pop culture references to overload your flux capacitor. The movie’s resolution contains another quotation of Wonka (inheriting the company), but the denouement is overlong and overplayed. Though this is a return to form for Spielberg, the movie is a shallow, and occasionally self-referential, pastiche. RPO is full of empty mind calories and is, sadly, devoid of heart. In the end, the only relevance the movie has is that it’s a cautionary tale regarding the frightening implications of our impending VR existence. So, will there be a Ready Player Two? As a hero of mine (James T. Kirk) once said, “I certainly hope not. I found one quite sufficient.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- After a string of historical dramas—War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017) (with 2016’s kiddie pic The BFG thrown into the mix)—Spielberg has returned to his action/adventure roots. But has he matured beyond this type of film? No one can fault his craftsmanship here, but the movie just seems incongruous with his recent works and is completely beneath him. Still, RPO must’ve been a nostalgic trip for the director since it contains many references to his early life and career.

Acting- Sheridan is decent as the hero, but it’s Cooke who shines as the worldly-wise, no-nonsense sidekick. Mendelsohn, who was serviceable as the villain (Krennic) in Rogue One, is utterly laughable here as a greedy, selfish tycoon who pays his employees to find the three keys just like Mr. Salt (Roy Kinnear) pays his factory workers to unwrap chocolate bars to obtain a Golden Ticket for his daughter in Wonka. Rylance, Spielberg’s touchstone of late, is the backbone of the story and conveys the only genuine emotions in the film as the lovelorn programmer who just wants to go back to when games were fun…before designers ruined them by making the graphics so realistic that nothing was left to the imagination. Simon Pegg underwhelms in a role that neither suits his energetic personality nor his comedic sensibilities. Maybe he accepted the part just to work with Spielberg.

Story- The story by Zak Penn and Cline is a mixed bag. The way they introduce the OASIS is extremely odd—it’s like a documentary/infomercial about the history and conventions of the VR world. The intro contains way too much preamble…we just want to watch the movie/play the game. Plus, the writers need to show us, not tell us what’s going on in these scenes. Case in point, instead of mentioning the option to climb Mt. Everest with Batman, the writers’ should’ve incorporated that plot possibility into the story (and if licensing was an issue, they should’ve selected a different hero). These amazing concepts feel like secondhand descriptions rather than firsthand experiences. RPO’s expositional opening is like playing the demo of a video game and getting enough of a feel for it that you get bored at the thought of playing the actual game. Some of the challenges are far too easy for the characters to solve and many of the clues are telegraphed (like the ones obtained while watching just the right moment of Halliday’s expansive video library). In short, the writers try to cram too many characters and too many action sequences into a story that’s overstuffed with iconography, styles and themes from the pop culture grist of a bygone era.

Costumes/Make-up- Though diverse and colorful, many of the stylish outfits seen inside the OASIS are rendered on a computer, which means they qualify more as FX than physical costumes. The VR bodysuit is an impressive creation and is destined to be a household item in the future.

Cinematography- Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) is as masterful as ever. However, since the majority of the film is composed of CGI characters and environments, the visuals grow tiresome after a while (like watching a feature-length podrace). The epic battles are well staged and filmed, but come off looking like a LOTR-style fracas with cosplayers subbed in for orcs and trolls.

Music- Alan Silvestri’s score is full of energy and whimsy and hearkens back to his work on the Back to the Future movies.

Visual FX- Mind-blowing CGI that, unfortunately, equates to empty calories for the brain…like many video games. The OASIS is pure artifice. The CG never slows down long enough for your eyes to assimilate the many details inside the VR world. Is that because the CG artists cut corners? Though they serve as the actual star of the movie, the FX aren’t nearly as impressive as those seen in last year’s Valerian—another action-packed, teeny sci-fi adventure.

Production Values- Unquestionably a top-dollar production. The film attempts to create a cinematic video game experience. It achieves just that…for better or worse.

Movie Magic- Totally subjective. Teens may like the action and video game aspects and adults may like all the references to 80s pop culture. Many people will dislike the movie for either or both of those reasons.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars