Spoilers need you to blow on the cartridge and put it back in the console.
This movie is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name. For full disclosure, I have not read it. I intend to review this movie as a standalone. Some people love it, some people hate it and I don’t think I can neatly fit in on neither camp. The movie is going for the jugular of a certain particular group, and to do that it has amassed a truckload of IPs. The story itself is cookie-cutter eighties nostalgia: the underdog teenager versus the corporate tyrant. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have plenty to chew on. Press any key to continue…
Director Steven Spielberg knew what he was getting into with Ready Player One. He knew there was little time for anything other than showing off properties and bringing the action to the big screen. That means that we’re going to start with limiting very much the way the initial characters are introduced, hence… Narration. I get it, there’s no time to introduce anybody. Everyone has to come up on the screen ready to rock and roll. Here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guy, here’s the best friend, here’s the girlfriend-to-be and here’s the goal. I get it, we’re on the clock here. It’s still lazy, but we’re movie not a book and we don’t have time to introduce each character.
The goal of the game (and the movie) is an easter egg. Easter eggs in games are just little secrets that have nothing to do with the main plot and are not objectives in a game. They don’t give you anything but a secret insider’s reference. Easter eggs in movies are not supposed to be noticed. There’s nothing in this movie that is an easter egg, you’re meant to find everything.
But then again, we’re not a normal movie. We’re a video game more than we are a movie, and that’s how it simply skips over doing any character development. And yet, as we meet Wade aka Parzival (Tye Sheridan) I couldn’t help but see him as the blank slate type of every main character in video games: he’s bland, uninteresting and devoid of any personality. He’s there as the placeholder to be replaced by the actual player when playing the game. His only talent is that he’s obsessed with the game, which also describes everyone else in the world.
When Parzival is showing Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) all the stuff in Aech’s (Lena Waithe) workshop, I had the same question that Aech: “How come you are showing off my stuff?” As a matter of fact, Aech’s character is a lot more interesting: One of the best modders of the OASIS, drives a monster truck, works on an Iron Giant… This is by far a more interesting character than Parzival. Wait, why isn’t Aech the protagonist in this movie?
Art3mis / Samantha (Olivia Cooke) actually has a bit of a character arc: she gets captured, put in a virtual prison to pay off her debt and instead of escaping manages to spy on Sorrento, learn the spell that unlocks the shield and escape. She also saves Parzival a lot. Art3mis only flaw is that she thinks that birthmark on her face makes her ugly. Actually, why isn’t Art3mis the protagonist in this movie?
Now let’s talk about the unavoidable toxic byproduct of geekdom: gatekeeping. This is the practice of interrogating the newcomer to the nerd/geek hive in a variety of “worthy” topics to see if they know their stuff. In this case, 80’s pop culture reference, classic video games and the beloved game designer of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The movie avoids the usual trope of the geek guy gatekeeping the girl by doing it the other way around: It’s Art3mis / Samantha grilling Parzival / Wade. Doesn’t make it less cringy.
It’s even more cringy when the bad guy, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), tries to show off his geek knowledge to Wade while being fed lines through his earpiece. There’s actually one little tidbit in Sorrento’s office that gives him away as a “hater”, as Wade dubs him, faster than anything else: Sorrento keeps his password on a piece of paper by his gaming rig. I wish they’d just leave that as our only clue, because that in itself tells us he’s the stupid corporate overlord more than anything else. Still, Mendelsohn does a decent job in playing the bad guy. If the movie would’ve switched the point of view to the villain’s perspective… Ok, I may be overdoing the whole why-isn’t-someone-else-literally-anybody-but-Parzival-the-protagonist thing.
In fiction imitating fiction, gatekeeping is the biggest mistake that the movie does. Ready Player One seems compelled to give us the same credentials test than Sorrento is doing for Wade. The movie is showboating its gaming cultural references. It’s supposed to tick all the boxes for every single classic 80’s reference and gaming culture. The movie does love to show us a ton of stuff from movies, comics and video games but forgets that a lot of people would be fans of the same thing. Case and point, the race for the first key. Do you really think you’d only see the flying DeLorean once? How are we not seeing a thousand people play as Batman? Also, spoiler alert, nobody thought about going backwards before? Nobody even did it accidentally?
To get their clues, players consult the video archives at Halliday’s Journals. This is the equivalent of that moment in the movie in which the good guys have to go to the library, except that moment doesn’t make sense anymore because everything is on the internet. Now, obviously, the OASIS is literally the internet, but the idea that the way you search through stuff is traveling to a place, asking the Curator for each piece of media and then walking to a particular room is time consuming. Google / YouTube have a much more efficient interface now than Halliday’s Journals in 2045. Of course, the idea of archive is to a) give the good guys somewhere to go, and b) have the hero interact with the Curator.
There’s a few tidbits that deserve props. Leave it to Spielberg to use the freakin’ Charm of Making from Excalibur (1981), a reference that only people as old as me will get. I liked the character of i-R0K (T. J. Miller) who despite selling his soul to the company store, he’s actually got a personality and a decent design. I liked the fact that going to prison still puts you inside the OASIS to do hard labor virtually, that fits in well with the video game theme. I appreciate that Daito / Toshiro, the one japanese character left in the story, gets to pilot the Gundam.
All the pop culture references that appear in the film ignore their nature. Batman is an urban crimefighter that climbs buildings, not mountains. The DeLorean gets up to 88 mph to travel through time. The Iron Giant did not wanted war. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch has to be thrown after counting to 5 – I mean, 3. All the beloved properties are not here, they’re just skins. Just like the Goro costume that Art3mis wears to scare Parzival, they’re all disguises. Forget the Zemekis’ Cube, use the DeLorean for a scene involving time travel – you already have it in the movie. You might think now this is me gatekeeping the movie, but I did not choose the IPs involved and claimed to know all about them – the movie did.
Recommended with reservations. Yes, chances are if you are watching this movie you will be rewarded with a ton of cameos from some your favorite movies, TV shows, games and comics (not every IP can be licensed for a cameo) which should be the reason for you to immerse yourself in this one, even if the IPs rarely behave like themselves. I know very well and accept that a bland protagonist is the default for most video games but I silently wish for the day that the less bland and far more interesting character takes the spotlight instead of being relegated to best friend, quirky sidekick or romance interest.
That will do for now.