With Steven Spielberg, sometimes, most of the time, you get E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Sometimes, though, you get 1941. It’s not that READY PLAYER ONE rivals the sheer ineptitude of the latter, but it is definitely skirting the shoals. With Spielberg, one has come to expect much, and so when presented with is flick that is only intermittently fun, and never buoyant, one comes away disappointed, and feeling just a little bit cheated.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn), it takes us to a dystopian near future in Columbus OH, and to the bleak life of the orphaned Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), so named by his deceased father so that he would sound like a super hero. In the real world, Wade is anything but, staying with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her string of loser boyfriends. As the rest of the world does, Wade spends all his non-sleeping, non-eating, non-bathroom break time in the Oasis, the virtual world created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), the socially awkward genius who devised a way for the world to escape the economic and societal collapse around them and live a virtual life as anyone, or anything, that they want. We learn all of this, along with specific tidbits such as the corn syrup debacle, in the extended voice-over that starts the film and that gives us the first hint that all is not well, cinematically speaking. Sure, the visuals over which Wade speaks are noteworthy, stacks of mobile homes piled a dozen high providing living space in Wade’s particularly depressed neighborhood, and the introduction to the wonders of the Oasis are introduced via a spectacular race through a virtual New York, but there is more than a whiff of that extended crawl at that kicked off THE PHANTOM MENACE. And we all know where that led.
The short version, and that seems to be what we have here, is that Halliday created a competition for his devoted gamers to play after his death. The winner, after obtaining the three keys, solving the ancillary riddles, and finding the Easter Egg, inherits Halliday’s company worth trillions, which, even accounting for inflation in the year 2045, is still a notable sum. Of course, there is a rival company with evil designs on Halliday’s company, and an even more evil CEO Sorrento Nolan (Ben Mendelsohn), albeit one who is a sharp dresser.
Got it? Good. Because the rest of the film it an extended iteration of that as it jumps between the real world where Nolan (a reference to gaming pioneer Mr. Bushnell) is plotting world domination, and the virtual world where Wade, or rather his avatar, Parzifal (definitely a reference to grail questing), is out-thinking Nolan’s army of minions whose sole purpose is cracking the game. Not that Parzifal is alone. In the virtual world he has a best friend, Aech, a hulking robot with a gift for mechanics whom he has never met in the real world, a state of affairs Aech shares with Sho, an ninja, and Dalto, a samurai, But wait, where’s the romantic interest? Why there she is, in the person of Art3mis ((Olivia Cooke), a punk warrior with her own reasons for wanting to win Halliday’s game
On the face of it, this is fine fodder for Spielberg’s playful side. It’s full of plucky kids, corporate bad guys, and a fantasy world without limits. It’s also drowning in pop culture and gaming references. Catching them before the story reveals them, and particularly catching the ones left for the cognoscenti to discover, has its charms. So does the virtual trip our heroes take into a classic horror film, or watching Parzifal, in his DeLorean, zoom past a T-Rex and King Kong, or visiting the virtual mind of Halliday in the form of a library of holographic clips of his life presided over by a caretaker as imperious as he is condescending and snarky.
If only the care taken in bringing that virtual world to life, and in aging and youthifying Rylance and Simon Pegg as his erstwhile business partner, had been taken with writing the script. One senses that there was much more detail in the book, from social criticism to fully rounding out the supporting characters and their backstories. Instead, it’s a gloss with a lead actor that is pleasant, but never compelling, and a villain who chews the scenery. With underwritten characters, and action moving to swiftly for there to be the emotional payoff that a predictable plot can provide. When Spielberg can’t manipulate his audience with the sloppy sentiment cued by the ersatz John Williams score, there is something deeply, deeply wrong. As are the preposterous interludes that find those plucky kids being able to hide in plain sight, among other failings. The exception is Rylance, whose doddering, sweet-natured introvert has a complex layering of emotions from childlike delight to a heartbreaking resignation over his inability to break out of his self-imposed shell. This is no one-dimensional caricature of a nerd genius.
READY PLAYER ONE’s biggest problem is how flat it feels. There is a notable lack of energy, with only a few flashes of Spielberg’s mastery of visual storytelling. The result is a mildly interesting film that rallies in its attempt to celebrate the cult of gaming, but doesn’t quite make it.