Ready Player One* (Steven Spielberg, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Adapted from Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut sci-fi novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One – his 31st theatrical feature – delivers on the promise of the book, despite lackluster trailers that had me very worried. I loved the source text, and, much to my joy and surprise, I also loved the movie. Set approximately 25 years from now, both book and film tell the story of Wade Watts, a poor kid who lives in “the stacks,” a slum of what look like cargo containers stacked the one on top of the other. Like most of the rest of humanity on a planet plagued by environmental and financial crises, he escapes, daily, into the “OASIS,” a virtual-reality world that combines the best/worst features of Amazon, Google and a Sony PlayStation (or any other advanced game system).
When the inventor of said OASIS–James Halliday–dies, he leaves behind a hidden quest, with clear instructions that whoever should triumph will rule his company. Naturally, the competition is fierce, but Wade and his online friends have a deep advantage: they have spent years studying the 1980s culture that was Halliday’s own obsession. Perhaps, just this time, the meek shall inherit the earth. Of course, if you’ve seen any other Spielberg film, you know that they usually do. Or, at the very least, they become strong by banding together and overcoming the hubris of villains (the director loves a good tale of arrogance brought low by hubris). Happy end foretold this film may have, therefore, but its sharp execution and inventive visual effects still offer plenty of pleasant surprises.
As someone who was in high school in the 1980s, I found particular pleasure–as I did in the book–watching my childhood plundered for delightful mayhem. For example, Wade Watts’ online avatar, Parzival, drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Another time, we find ourselves immersed in a crazy repeating series of scenes from The Shining. Almost every arcade game of the period, it seems, is borrowed and transformed. And more. And more. Icons from later decades, such as 1999’s The Iron Giant, also show up. In lesser hands, this could be a derivative mess, but since Spielberg helped invent the era he is spoofing so gleefully, it all somehow comes together in perfect harmony. Yes, ultimately, it’s nothing more than a great action-adventure movie, but that’s no small thing.
With a cast that includes Tye Sheridan (Detour), Olivia Cooke (Katie Says Goodbye), Lena Waithe (showrunner of Showtime’s The Chi), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and Ben Mendelsohn (Darkest Hour), to name but a few, the film showcases as much fine acting as cutting-edge CGI. Filled with intense action scenes leavened by humorous interludes, it’s an entertaining ride from start to finish. Despite how good the actual movie is, perhaps my favorite moment of the experience came at the premiere screening on Sunday, March 11, at the SXSW Film Festival, when the sound system went out at the start of the big climactic battle. We all thought the sudden silence was intentional, but when we realized it wasn’t, we just started making up our own sound design. We were that into it. So, too, will you be. Get ready.
*This review adapted from a shorter one I wrote as part of my SXSW festival coverage.