By Preston Wilder
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is based on a book by Ernest Cline, but a better title might be ‘Comic Con: The Movie’. Here, as in those geeky gatherings, is the sentimental view of pop culture as extended family, with a jumble of movie and videogame references flashing by like briefly-glimpsed cosplayers. Some of those references are veiled, most are out in the open; the film has a welcoming vibe, almost a party atmosphere. If only it were more inspired.
The setting is futuristic, but the sensibility is retro; we’re in the year 2045, but we open on the unmistakable first bars of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’. “These days, reality is a bummer,” explains our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), 2045 being a dystopian time when the world seems ravaged by poverty and overpopulation – so everyone escapes into Oasis, a virtual reality where you walk around in avatar form and do whatever you like. “You can climb Mount Everest – with Batman!” marvels Wade by way of illustration, though in fact this kind of in-your-head theme park is pretty old-hat; Neal Stephenson had something similar (he called it the ‘Metaverse’) in his novel Snow Crash, and that was 25 years ago. Ready Player One struggles for ideas, even though Cline’s book has won awards and been translated into 20 languages.
Spielberg helps, to be sure; not so much his filmmaking skills, which seldom get out of second gear here (his biggest talent is perhaps for flow; the film is grossly overlong, yet the 140 minutes fly by), but just his presence. The not-very-complicated plot centres on a treasure hunt, pitting Wade (a.k.a. ‘Parzival’) and his crew against the corporate world, as typified by a “colossal douchebag” named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – but there’s also a third side, the nexus between fanboys and corporate douchebags being James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the now-deceased techie who created Oasis and posthumously prompted the treasure hunt. “I’m a dreamer. I build worlds,” says Halliday, or his hologram – and by far the most intriguing aspect of Ready Player One is this cryptic character, especially in relation to Spielberg himself.
Halliday is eccentric and socially awkward; “His biggest fear was kissing a girl”. Rylance plays him as Andy Warhol, with a stray soupçon of Stephen Hawking. Spielberg has never been geeky in that sense – but he too ‘builds worlds’, and much of the 80s pop culture referenced here (like the ‘Zemeckis Cube’, taking its user back in time like Marty McFly) bears his imprimatur. He’s surely down with the fans, as opposed to the corporate types – yet he’s also nothing if not industrial, having actually co-founded a studio (Dreamworks) and turned himself into a brand name.
The whole point of Ready Player One is the role of the auteur (the “creator”) in pop culture; Wade (ahem) wades through details of Halliday’s life – his favourite song, restaurant, movie quote – because the man’s work is infused with his personality. The film feels like 71-year-old Spielberg’s bid to assert himself as just such a personal filmmaker, insisting to the world – and the Comic Con crowd – that he’s not an industry man, he’s a geek, just like them. With another director, Ready Player One might be lightweight science fiction; with this one, it’s weirdly self-referential.
All well and good; but endlessly name-dropping pop-culture classics isn’t the same as making one. Here, like the bulging shelf of VHS tapes from our collective misspent youth, are King Kong, Alien, John Hughes teen movies and Mechagodzilla; here’s Chucky the doll, Buckaroo Banzai, Bill and Ted, the Iron Giant. Here’s a long and rather ill-advised riff on The Shining, not just taxing this film with a much better film but reducing that enigmatic psychodrama to a ‘scary movie’. Here are other 80s name-drops, like steampunk and Thriller and the video for ‘Take on Me’. We segue from movies to manga – then, like in any good Comic Con, we move to the gamers’ pavilion for the grand finale.
The film is never boring – yet it’s no great shakes either. The visual design is unremarkable, peaking with the image of vertically stacked homes in a futuristic ghetto (a club with its dancefloor on the ceiling is also quite amusing). Oasis is brought to life with motion-capture animation, hence the $175 million budget – yet there’s not much that sticks in the mind, just a general busy-ness. The characters are consistently dull, even the requisite comic relief (a cyborg-looking type named I-R0k, who babbles about tabbouleh). The climax toggles between two dimensions but never feels exhilarating, maybe because ‘real life’ seems just as fake as the fake reality.
What to make of this likeable nonsense? Ready Player One is both Spielberg’s most personal film in many years (in the sense of being partly about his own legacy) and his least distinctive; he just doesn’t seem terribly invested in this story, as if using the “emotion-suppressing software” Wade also employs at one point. “A fanboy knows a hater,” warns our hero – but I’m not actually hating, just struggling to find anything first-rate in this fleet but shopworn farrago. It feels pretty minor, then again, full disclosure: I always get bored at Comic Cons too.
DIRECTED BY Steven Spielberg
STARRING Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
SCI FI ACTION
US 2018 140 mins