Retro fix–Spielberg takes audiences on an adventure in nostalgia and virtual reality in Ready Player One

Review by C.J. Bunce

After its second week in theaters, Ready Player One is still chalking up sold-out screenings nationwide.  Whether or not you’re a video game fan, and whether or not you read Ernest Cline’s novel the film is based on, it’s a fun way to spend 2.5 hours.  Although his producer credits are hit-and-miss over the past few decades, director Steven Spielberg tends to take on films he loves, and handles them with due care.  Same goes for Ready Player One.  Along with his Oscar-nominated film The Post, Ready Player One proves there’s no slowing down for the director’s success in making good films.  Even if Ready Player One is not as great as the films from the 1980s that it honors (Spielberg’s choice to ignore references from his own films leaves a big, obvious gap throughout scene after scene), it’s a nice story, and a progression of the kind of coming-of-age story the director first created long ago with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Yet the backbone of the film doesn’t flow from the 1980s, but from a 1971 film classic: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

In the year 2045, Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), and a group of people he has only met as their avatars in a giant MMPORG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) called OASIS, embark on a quest to solve the late OASIS founder’s puzzle in three steps, which would reward the winner with control of the OASIS and the hundreds of millions of dollars the company behind it (called IOI) is worth.  The big win is the authenticity of relationships between Sheridan and his co-stars, including Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) as Art3mis (pronounced Artemis), Aech (sounds like the letter “H”) played by Lena Waithe (Master of None), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) as they work together on their journey.  Cooke’s character comes alive as the high point of the film.  The villains are more textbook bad guys, led by Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), with his hulking minion i-R0K (“I rock”) played by T.J. Miller (Deadpool), and a seriously underutilized Hannah John-Kamen as F’Nale.  i-R0K carries the bulk of the film’s best comedy lines.  Surprisingly the story misses the opportunity to give the viewer enough information to solve the three riddles of the film.  Instead we watch the characters move through a great big fictional world only they know about.  But the adventure is a good ride.  Look for Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) and Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Shaun of the Dead) as an interesting odd couple of Gates/Jobs-inspired visionaries.

Get ready for dizzying races and chases with the latest CGI and motion capture special effects–so much so that much of the movie feels like an animated movie.  We’ve come a long way from the 1980s version of the subject matter in Disney’s Tron–the first foray into a video game world.  But Ready Player One is similar in tone to Tron and another video game movie of the era, The Last Starfighter–all good family films with positive themes.  Here that’s the importance of community, leadership, and personal responsibility, and the negative side of new and emerging technologies like drones and having more than merely virtual social relationships.

As much as you’ll want to see everything on the big screen, Ready Player One will be just as fun to watch on home video.  Never before has this reviewer wanted to rewind a movie more, to be able to hear avatar dialogue over action effects or to see something that flashed by too quickly.  It definitely is a candidate for watching Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, shouting out missed opportunities with a group of friends.  Nearly every production set in the real world of the movie could have used a dozen pop culture whizzes on standby to review each day’s footage and fill in empty shelves, nooks, and crannies, with the 10,000 popular references from the 1980s that didn’t make it into the movie.  Yet two of the production sets in the finale almost make up for it.  Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen will likely be an Oscar nominee next year for the re-creation of an entire classic film set, which Ready Player One will be long-remembered for.

Like any film, everyone who watches Ready Player One will have his or her take on the 1980s.  Those who lived it will have a different take from those who didn’t and within those groups are millions of views about what works and what doesn’t in this film, what’s nostalgic, and what’s worth an entire 15-minute scene.  The film begs to be its own video game, where the moviegoer could be able to plug in those nostalgic bits that really strike home to the individual, in a subjective sense.  Until that exists we’ll just have to play along with Spielberg’s vision.  One choice was selecting Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri over John Williams, the creator of the biggest volume of 1980s hit film scores.  Silvestri’s best selections are sneaking in cues from other productions, like Williams’ rousing Amazing Stories theme.  The added Williams emotional punch might have taken the film to another level.  Even better than the musical score is the use of key pop song selections from the 1980s peppered throughout.  Still, the film is fun and a must-see for any movie fan.  Even if it doesn’t hit all the marks perfectly, Ready Player One is ambitious, a movie for anyone who loves movies.  If you love finding Easter eggs, even better.  You’ll identify hundreds of pop culture references in the film, but it’s unlikely anyone will catch them all.

Of all the hyped movies in the past few years, Ready Player One tries the most to satisfy the widest range of fans.  A good romp and a load of fun, Ready Player One is in theaters now.




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