It’s been a long time since I’ve walked out of a movie in physical discomfort. But I came out of Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the blockbuster Ernest Cline novel of the same name, with a pounding headache, a clenched jaw, feeling like my body was covered in bedsores from being pinned against my will to my seat in the cinema for two and a half
Ready Player One is, without a doubt, the worst film of the year so far – it beats out strong contenders Tomb Raider and Molly’s Game in the process, and nearly pips last year’s spectacularly awful Justice League to the post – no, scratch that, it’s worse than Justice League, which at least had a singular scene that I can remember liking. Ready Player One is a truly meritless piece of garbage, and a shocking break from form for Spierlberg.
Steven Spielberg is a director who has defined pop culture more than anyone else in the industry: he invented the blockbuster with Jaws, then perfected it with Jurassic Park. He has punctuated a career of enormous, wildly popular franchises (Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Paranormal Activity as a producer) with era-defining serious movies (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). I’d wager a bet that no other filmmaker has had the impact on the current movie scene that Spielberg had, and it’s not come from nowhere: he’s an excellent director with a crisp, firm, but not staid grasp on the industry as a whole, proven just a few months ago with his generously Oscar-nominated The Post.
And this is a movie about pop culture. The entire premise of Ready Player One (which is actually all the movie ever is) revolves around a world in the not-too-distant future where people basically live out their fantasies in virtual reality, where they collect and brandish pop culture memorabilia as status symbols: the motorbike from Akira, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python & The Holy Grail, amongst literally far too many others to come close to quantifying. If there’s anyone who has a handle on pop culture, it’s the man who helped define our cinematic interpretation of it. And yet.
Look, I haven’t read the Ready Player One book, but if this movie is anything to go by (the script is co-written by Cline), I can’t imagine anything worse. It’s not that pop culture can’t homage or draw on previous works – hell, Stranger Things made a blockbuster hit out of just that – but Ready Player One isn’t homage. It doesn’t build on any of the pop culture it references. There’s Batman. There’s Mechagodzilla. Here’s an entire fifteen minutes of this saggy second act that takes place in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, with long recreations of scenes from that movie featuring Ready Player One’s cast. It’s so painfully empty that I found myself getting actively pissed at the movie as it progressed. You can’t just blurt a bunch a pop culture references, add nothing to them, and call it a day. This isn’t Family Guy. That’s not a film. That’s not a setting. That’s a gallingly cheap attempt to cash in on nostalgia without actually connecting with what makes the originals engaging.
I write fiction as well as running this esteemed blog, and this is the kind of movie that makes me wonder why the fuck I even bother putting in a crumb of effort when I could just be taking a great lazy shit of “here, a thing that you are aware of” on to my audience and call it a billion-dollar day. Steven Spielberg, of all people, should understand what draws people to movies and fiction, considering that he’s made so many films that have done just that – how does Ready Player One feel like such a disastrous missing of the point from the moment those credits roll?
But it’s not just those agonizingly tortured references that bring the film down – no, there’s so much more wrong with it, too. Most notable in these problems is the movie’s leading character Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan. Now, the movie is set into motion as James Halliday (a solid but underserved Mark Rylance), the creator of the virtual utopia that the film is mostly set in, dies and leaves behind a series of challenges that players can overcome in order to gain control of the virtual world: only thing is, the clues to those challenges are hidden in his own memories, which are left open to be accessed by anyone who wants to take a shot at the treasure. We follow Wade as he attempts to crack the puzzles and pull himself out of poverty, which is a decent motivation for a leading character. And of course, Wade being the straight, white man dealing with geek culture, he’s somehow the most important thing to have ever come near this world.
Well, at least that’s what the film wants you to think. Over and over again, characters announce to Wade how fucking special he is, how no-one could complete these challenges but him, how no-one knows more about Halliday than he does, but continually contradicts itself as it shows, over and over again, that there was no way he could have completed the challenges without the far more knowledgeable people around him. At the start of the movie, it’s been five years since Halliday’s death and hundreds of people have been working tirelessly (even professionally) on cracking his code, and Wade strolls in and figures out the meaning behind the first major challenge within minutes? Never come at me saying that Rey from Star Wars is a Mary-Sue again, unless you recognize the garbage contrivances in place to make Wade The Most Special Boy in the Whole Wide World.
Tye Sheridan, for what little time he isn’t represented by his LiveJournal profile picture of an Avatar, is a black hole of charisma, consuming even the usually-excellent Ben Mendehlson and Lena Whaithe in the supporting cast as they try to find something, anything to work with in his performance. Wade’s Aunt is violently murdered by the villain of the movie, and, Luke-Skywalker-esque, he all but wanders away and forgets it in the next two minutes. There’s no weight to anything he does, says, or feels, and with no decent leading character to hook into, the film feels all the more weightless.
But it’s Olivia Cooke, as love interest Art3mis (yes, spelled with the number 3, to account for all the times I prayed for a bus to smash into the cinema I was sitting in and leave no survivors), pulls maybe the shortest straw in Ready Player One. It’s not that the film is egregiously sexist (I mean, it does have Wade turn up to a date dressed as Buckaroo Banzai, a name it repeats no less than three times to really amp up that geek cred, while Art3mis is allowed a navel-cut, chest-baring, slit-to-the-thigh dress which she proceeds to grind all over him in, but whatever), but she’s an odd mix of both the character the film should evidently have been about (she is passionately pursuing the prize in order to avenge her father, who was worked to death in a camp run by the evil corporation also after control of the utopia, a much more intriguing motivation than Wade’s), and painfully, awfully characterized love interest. Cooke and Sheridan have slightly less chemistry than me and my cat, and, as a result, she just feels like she’s there to be generally better than Wade at the actual work of breaking Halliday’s code and yet forced to play second fiddle to him, an uncomfortable mix that leaves the film lopsided as a result.
But then, it’s not like any character gets a fair shake in this movie. Rylance’s Halliday, for all Rylance brings his usual nuance and oddness to the roll, is mostly there to nod and wink straight down the lens about what his secret codes mean and how Wade Just Gets Him, Man – Simon Pegg, who plays Halliday’s partner, similarly just sort of rocks up at the end to tell Wade How Bloody Great he is. The story is fine in theory but grossly saggy in practice (the film spans nearly a full two and a half hours, and it feels like it), and the action is occasionally, briefly neat, but mostly just a chance for some oblique fans to have their fantasies of Mechagodzilla fighting a Gundam suit, but honestly, just the briefest consideration of that in their imagination would have done better than this CGI clusterfuck of a movie could have. The final act features the phrase “There’s nothing more real than reality” more than once, which terrifyingly implies someone thinks that’s a deep philosophical notion and not just something someone might cough up along with a lungful of pot smoke.
As Ready Player One heartlessly jams another classic movie reference down the throats of the viewer – in this instance, Wade pulling out a Saturday Night Fever dancefloor to impress his date – one of the characters coos “Ooh, so retro!”. And that’s the best summation of the movie I can think of. Retro, for the sake of retro. Nostalgia, for the sake of nostalgia. Back-patting in-jokes between fuckwad geeks who think that simply knowing about a piece of pop culture is the same thing as having meaningfully engaged with it. It’s been a long time since I’ve really, honestly felt like a film was a waste of my time (for reference, the last one was Suicide Squad), but Ready Player One left me actually pretty pissed – because I expect better from Spielberg as a purveyor of pop culture, and from cinema as an art form in general. Ready Player One is a disservice to both director and medium, and the worst part of it is that they’re probably already planning a sequel.
If you enjoyed this review and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon, or checking out our current series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe to take a look at some nostalgia that’s not just a cheap trick to sell more tickets.
(header image courtesy of USA Today)
By Louise MacGregor