‘Ready Player One’ brings thrills, lacks substance

Mixed reception: The early trailer of “Ready Player One” excited fans due to it prominently featuring The Iron Giant, a character from a 1999 animated film who hasn’t been seen in any media since his debut film. Many fans were disappointed when, in the later trailers and final film, the character was seen annihilating people in a huge battle. In the original film, the Giant is shown to be a peaceful character who specifically avoids fighting even though people are very frightened by its extraterrestrial origins.  

Andrew Shermoen

Spielberg is the modern king of pop-culture. Can he handle making a movie in which people thrive in a virtual world literally made of his own pop-culture?

In 2045, the Earth has become increasingly economically disparate. Most people live in slums and, to distract themselves, they log on to a virtual reality massively multiplayer online game known as the OASIS. After the man who developed the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), passes, he reveals that somewhere within the game is a hidden treasure called an Easter egg, which requires three hidden keys to unlock, and which will grant the person who finds it untold riches and full ownership and control over the OASIS. The hunt for the egg becomes a priority and goal for thousands who use the OASIS, one of whom is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) of Columbus, Ohio, who realizes the challenges involved in getting the keys aren’t as straightforward as they seem. Wade and his friends start to make their way toward the egg as they are being chased by the company IOI, whose ruthless CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) uses his army of indebted players to work toward getting the egg. He plans then to use OASIS as a money-making machine filled with advertisements and premium accounts.

It’s important to give credit where credit is due. Spielberg is one of the most visionary minds to ever work in the world of film. He invented the modern blockbuster with “Jaws,” is responsible for multiple cultural touchstones like “Jurassic Park” and the “Indiana Jones” films and he has told stories of powerful human endurance through films like “Schindler’s List” and “Munich.” That all being said, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that, recently, Spielberg has lost the creative spark that made his films so successful and brilliant in the past. In all honesty, Spielberg hasn’t had a truly great film since 2005’s “Munich.” There was a bright spot in 2012 with “Lincoln,” but as good as it is, there isn’t much going for it other than a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. “Lincoln” and many of Spielberg’s movies since 2005 feel devoid of the spark that reminds you that a movie is his. “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln,” “War Horse” and several other films in this current Spielberg time period feel like movies made by an average filmmaker telling average stories.

That being said, “Ready Player One” is the first Spielberg movie in a long time that feels injected with his imaginative and adventurous spirit. It bursts with color and absolutely stunning sequences of interesting visual imagery. Yet, what makes “Ready Player One” good kind of ends there.

Make no mistake, “Ready Player One” is a 140-minute nostalgia trip. An impressive one with a pretty accessible story that has few faults, but it really isn’t as grand or explosive as Spielberg’s earlier movies. The film is pretty much a never-ending cavalcade of pop culture, some used impressively and some that is bashed over your head. It’s pretty much a feature-length version Milhouse from “The Simpsons” reminiscing with Bart about one of his favorite characters: “remember Alf? He’s back in pog form!” Milhouse said. Except, in “Ready Player One,” Milhouse is Steven Spielberg and it’s the Iron Giant and Atari games.

All this blast of nostalgia and hundreds of easter egg references makes for a really great spectacle. It would be hard to say that watching the bike from “Akira” and the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” crash into each other while the track they’re racing on is being destroyed by King Kong isn’t cool, but it is almost certainly more style over substance.

This is the problem with “Ready Player One.” It tries eventually to communicate a point about the importance of staying grounded in the real world while also loving pop culture, yet the movie only exists as a flood of ‘80s and ‘90s (and some 2000s-’10s, since “Overwatch,” “Firefly” and “Mass Effect” references abound) pop culture, never fully committing to the importance of the events at play in the real world.

It’s this disconnect that prevents “Ready Player One” from reaching the heights of Spielbergian greatness. Even though it reaches back to his blockbuster roots, Spielberg’s early blockbusters still had points to make, and they made them well. “Jaws” featured side plots about the willful ignorance of bureaucracy and how people often choose to chase the things that will destroy them. “Jurassic Park” was about how science without ethics can lead to disaster, and that human’s desire to play god is our greatest flaw. Even the “Indiana Jones” films featured a main character less concerned with financial gain than about respect for history and stopping the oppressive and destructive fist of fascism.

The thematic meat of “Ready Player One” attempts to land, but really never does. It does work as a pretty enjoyable blockbuster, though. The references are fun and send a lovely shot of dopamine through the viewer, but they don’t really add much to the overall story. The challenges faced by the characters are varied and entertaining, but in a world where the gatekeeping nature of gamers is constantly under examination, it may come off as pretty stomach-churning to those who find the “true-fan” mindset of late to be more than a little toxic.

The characters are fine. Watts is a pretty uninteresting protagonist with very little depth, but his supporting players are fantastic. Lena Waithe plays a friend of Wade’s in the OASIS named Aech, who does an incredible job as comic relief, but is sadly under-utilized. Olivia Cooke plays the love interest and deuteragonist of the story Samantha. She is often sidelined to just function as the romantic interest of Wade and a capable easter egg hunter, but she honestly feels as though she would function better as the protagonist. Her motivations has much more emotional weight behind it compared to Wade’s and overall her personality is much more charming.

Rylance’s Halliday is a minimally-used character, but, in typical Rylance fashion, he gives the character true gravitas and weight. Sadly, most of the other characters are developed shallowly and do very little to advance the overall plot, especially the villain and the female love-interest, who are less characters of their own, functioning mostly as foils for the protagonist.

The end result of “Ready Player One” is not a bad film, but one that is more style than substance. It’s certainly appealing based on its exciting, action-packed and visually-stunning story and imagery, but the story lacks the usual extra thematic and emotional punches that Spielberg’s scripts usually have. This is clearly a film from a capable director, but it doesn’t feel like that director is the same man who made and produced the great films that this movie references.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars