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Been a fan for a while, glad to see this kid breaking wide.

Spielberg isn’t a master because he managed to turn a mostly terrible book by Ernest Cline into a mostly good movie. He’s a master because he managed to keep this masturbatory, self-congratulatory and self-referential engine of self-promotion from being a nonstop cringe-fest. I don’t know how he did it. Scholars will study Ready Player One to unlock the mysteries of director’s making movies that are really just nonstop commercials for the 80’s and themselves (at their peak) and this somehow being… fun? Even if this is the only time it ever happens, it’ll be fascinating to look back on Ready Player One a few years from now as a wash of projects try and fail to ape this or that aspect of its success.

I expected Ready Player One to be better than the book by sheer virtue of being a movie. I think it stumbles over some of the more difficult aspects of adapting a book as expository as this one, resulting in an overly-expository movie that doesn’t dot every i or cross every t to quite the extent it could have. But in general, it boils down the trashier and more wheel-spinny aspects of the novel into simpler, essential elements that are at once surprising in their lack of cynicism and cheerfully cheesy in the way that Amblin movies usually have been.

I don’t buy everything Ready Player One is selling, not by a long shot, but it’s hard to deny that Spielberg knew exactly how to give such a broad cartoon enough oomph, crunch, and basic emotional depth to keep it from being just a commercial. It’s no Lego Movie, though, and has a pat, old man’s ethos which I’m sure will turn off the more astute and socially aware audience members. Especially those who aren’t pacified by repetitive inclusions of video game or comic book characters bought and paid for by huge corporations like Activision and DC much like ad-space on a NASCAR track. There’s probably a greater portion of the audience that will respond to the pandering in exactly the way they’re intended to, but I hope this very obvious ploy can be looked past so that Ready Player One is understood as deeply self-contradictory along with all the other ways it revolves around itself. The list could get longer than it already has. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s raw ability as a filmmaker that this doesn’t sink the movie, that the specific scenes and nuts and bolts storytelling are strong enough to rise above the emptiness at the heart of it all.

READY SPOILERS MANY

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The original character designs look awful for the most part, especially when still, but really come to life in motion. They also feel like the kinds of avatars the characters would create, which is a nice touch.

Through an overlong and probably misguided VO infodump, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) tells us all about himself, the OASIS digital world everybody mostly lives in, his character in that world (Parzival), and the big plot point that will drive the rest of the movie: a hunt for a mysterious easter egg implanted in the game by its eccentric creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). IRL, it’s 2045 and Watts lives in a ridiculous trailer park called The Stacks, where trailers and caravans are literally stacked on top of each other in a kind of ghetto skyscraper forest. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, dumpy future rednecks and escapes into the OASIS to study Halliday’s life and try to solve the puzzles he left behind.

As Parzival, Watts barely scrapes by but refuses to “clan up” and cooperate with others who are trying to hunt the egg. His closest friend is Aetch, a Vin Diesel-like cyborg he doesn’t know in the real. When he finds out that Aetch is a thirty-something year old black woman named Helen (Lena Waithe), there’s a colossal missed opportunity in really bothering to explore what identity means in a post-digital world. Like, Aetch makes a really contemporary joke about not knowing if people are the stereotypical middle-aged basement-dwellers. Pay attention to stuff like this, because it hints at the true point of view that the movie, and its writers and director, have on all this “virtual identity” stuff.

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When in the digital surroundings, the movie does look like a particularly expensive Japanese CG anime. However, there are enough scenes where these characters are in real-looking places that the full spectrum of the artistry being employed here is clear.

All the “gunters” work independently or together to try and get ahead of IOI, an evil corporation that wants to monetize and corporatize the OASIS for their own gain. IOI’s main face is Serranto (Ben Mendelsohn), one-time intern of Halliday and his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) who probably never got over his capitalist ideas for the game being rejected. Now he’s a grown up Business Man with a megalomaniacal streak. In an inconsistently executed streak of “adult” darkness, IOI periodically resorts to some pretty vile methods to get what they want. Bombings, murder, drone surveillance, etc.

That Serranto is eventually arrested by police makes this shit laughable since it doesn’t take a political science degree to line up what IOI does with companies like Amazon, let alone the American government with its killbots. You’re like, where were they this whole time the company was bombing people and threatening kids? It’s part of the way the end of the movie goes full Amblin, and it’s so cheesy and encapsulated in its own Spielbergy vibe that it’ll probably register to different viewers as either self-parodying or just a genuine slice of the classic Amblin cheese. For what it’s worth, that shit has always been real cheddar and not the “cheese food” rubber slices appropriately called “American cheese”.

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A trend I am noticing and digging is that bad guys in genre movies are increasingly portrayed as petty, small men with delusions of grandeur and deep insecurities they’d rather turn outward than deal with.

Serranto’s ally in the OASIS is I-R0k (TJ Miller), the MVP of the movie. Like a Shane Black goon, I-R0k consistently humanizes himself and is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the movie. That the character is a setup of stoic, overdesigned badasses who do nothing (cough, Boba fett) is icing on the cake. In the real, Serranto’s dirty work is accomplished by the improbably named F’nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen). Though they never share screentime as a trio, they are nontheless endlessly watchable villains who bring a lot to the movie. Serranto’s brand of desperate corporate sleaze was particularly fun in this incredibly corporate movie. I think Mendelsohn probably gets the irony of the “we’re not so different” scene when he’s trying to convince Parzival that he’s a Halliday and pop culture fan, too, man. What’s it mean that Spielberg, who helped create a fuckton of the pop culture on display here, is writing the ultimate love letter to it? Again, future scholars will study this!

On Parzival’s side, there’s a loose clan that eventually becomes a real clan (in a scene they cut, I suppose) called The High Five. It started with Aetch, Parz, and two top players they sometimes cooperate with. Then Art3emis (Olivia Cooke) joins and brings her personal crusade against IOI into focus. More on her later. Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zao), the two ancillary members of the team, are a couple of Asian OASIS players who show up in game and IRL when the movie needs them to and while I like Sho being eleven years old, Daito plays like an Asian stereotype right down to the bows, earnest speech, and martial arts moves (caveat: it could be argued that it does make some sense that these virtual reality players know how to fight) when he inexplicably fights improbably named F’nale. The big payoff for him is that he brings all the Japanese influences on pop culture and video games to the yard. The big fight where he turns into a Gundam and fights Mechagodzilla is a wonderful surprise in a huge battle sequence that looked cool in the trailer but winds up kind of lifeless in the actual movie.

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This wonderful shot from the trailer isn’t even, as far as I can tell, in the movie.

It is admittedly weird to see the Iron Giant being violent, but mostly the issue is that it’s just a CG cartoon with tons of references that whiz by too fast. The action has some stakes, which is nice considering it’s a video game, as Spielberg wisely cuts it against dangerous stuff happening IRL, but it definitely has some of that sloppy “action figures smacking together” feel. This may be the first time that is intentional, though, so mileage is gonna vary. To me, the best parts of the big battle were small fun moments and times where we cut away from it. The focus on Art3mis during the battle (and the movie in general) is especially great since she, more than Parzival, acts with a lot heroism and daring during the entire third act. So much so that it renders even her acknowledgment of Parzival as the “hero that can unite the OASIS” kind of flat. The scene where that happens is weird, by the way, as he’s staring off into the distance and she just dubs him the big hero while he appears completely distracted. Moreover, the romance between them is fairly limp and forced, delivered through a whole wheel of brie’s worth of soppy teeny-bopper dramatics. This stuff kind of drags both characters down, with Wade’s characterization basically complete around the halfway point. There’s a few dodgy decisions about Art3mis/Samantha and I feel like the way they get her into IOI headquarters is a tad undercooked (there’s no reason for her to stay behind and “delay” them only to get captured, necessitating an immediate rescue subplot).

That the big battle scene is a mixed bag doesn’t hurt the movie too much though because by then, the spectacle has probably won you over or left you cold. Some are going to hate how much the third act relies on contrivance (Daito and Sho showing up in the real out of nowhere, for example), but I get that it’s a product of streamlining the way more contrived book story. Anyway, the best setpieces in Ready Player One occur earlier on. The first is the big car chase that is Halliday’s first puzzle. That shit is spectacular and convinced me that Spielberg knows how to leverage the weightlessness of CG against the crunch we expect from practical effects to great effect. The second is an extended sequence in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining which is a great, personal (for Spielberg) part of the movie. It’s got riffs on both Kubrick and Sam Raimi and you can tell that this was the sequence that maybe got the Beard interested in the first place. Whether that’s the case or not, he clearly had a blast with it and that sense of fun, which permeates the movie, is the exact antidote to the lethal doses of nostalgia-baiting, shallow iconography references, and outright advertising that goes on throughout. I’d love to know how they justified the inclusion of Tracer from Overwatch, a game that won’t be relevant in 2025, let alone 2045, but is here treated like a lasting artifact of pop culture. I call bullshit. My feeling is that Activision paid a hefty sum or let the IP be used gratis, knowing this is better advertising than ten whole origin story short films on Youtube.

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I don’t mean to be cynical, but in some ways this is a very cynical movie.

Which brings me to Ready Player One’s ethos and themes, which don’t quite ruin the fun but still feel disappointing in 2018. The movie’s great big contribution to the nascent discourses on digital identity, escapism, pop culture, and video games going mainstream is that we… all need to get outside more. Here’s a movie that celebrates every single thing we do in the dark, in front of a glowing screen, washing away the world that is sometimes scary and hateful and hard with dreams of something better. That’s out the one side of its mouth, with the other giving an old man’s sage wisdom about “reality being real”, a condescending and tone-deaf simplification of not only the allure of the digital but also its very fucking real consequences on our lives. I don’t think most people are going to care that this movie winds up the equivalent of your handyman dad buying you that game you want and then passive-aggressively bitching about you not playing outside with “real people” while he watches old concert recordings on the flatscreen. I do, though, because I want some fucking integrity even in my pop art. Spielberg has long been a banner-waver in the struggle to legitimize pop art in the eyes of cultural gatekeepers, but now he is one and his thesis on the activities portrayed in the movie are about as out of touch with his thesis on “TV movies”.

If that’s not enough, Ready Player One walls itself off from the cultural moment its landing in with one other decision in its ending. The book ends, if I remember right, Willy Wonka-like, with control of the Oasis being handed over like a hereditary title. The movie ends very similarly. A futuristic neo-monarchy that we’re supposed to accept because it’s the “good guys” getting to be kings and queens of an entire digital universe. One where, the movie slyly suggests, “real” death is not even the end. This is a colossal missed opportunity to say something about net neutrality and the fight against self-serving corporate entities that want to divvy up the internet with the same colonizer mentality that made Africa what it is today. We’ve seen how it works when rich assholes carve up territory and decide its value, often selling it back to the people who actually populate it and make it valuable in the first place. It makes sense that infamously IP-obsessed Hollywood would avoid making a movie that decried those values, but it’s a decision that limits what Ready Player One could have been. Instead, it’s going to wind up being remembered as great fun but also soulless and forgettable.

I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by the movie, though. At the end of the day, it was a lot better than I expected. The little things that most tent-pole movies fail to convincingly land are executed well on average in Ready Player One which maybe makes all the difference. I’d say watch it and treat it like the amusement park ride it is. Notice the condescending, regressive themes and refuse to buy into them. Pretty packaging and solid product design is no replacement for depth or meaning.

 

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