Review: Ready Player One

Spielberg finds the surface level fun in Ready Player One, a digital effects bonanza that assembles iconic pop culture references to give you a sentimental buzz. It’s a lot of fun but ultimately lightweight.

There’s a moment in Ready Player One, a three year production odyssey for now 71 year old Steven Spielberg, where, after a plethora of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from iconic 80s and 90s references, I began to question what the actual point of them being there was. Outside of the joyous nostalgia hit that the film gives you, their presence serves no purpose to the plot at all. I kept thinking: this is giving me the fondest memories of other films – not this one. And once that notion rode on its black horse across my nebulous conscience, it stuck. I was having oodles of fun as icons popped up, but as a cinematic meal, it was fleeting.

The YA dystopia of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One sees us in a future America, once again a wasteland of abject poverty and spent natural resources.  For escape, people log into the virtual reality world of the OASIS where they build their own avatars and interact in a digital universe that allows them to upgrade, gain wealth and be whomever they want to be (which, in this world, is heavily representational of 80s and 90s pop culture icons). Upon the OASIS’ creators death, a quest was issued to find three keys hidden in the virtual world that would see the victor become the owner of it.

16 year old Wade (Tye Sheridan) may reside in the slums but he ‘lives’ in the OASIS as Parzival along with his other avatar buddies Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Shao (Philip Zao), and Daito (Win Morisaki). They, like everyone else in the OASIS, are hellbent on finding the keys. Enter insidious digital company IOI and their nefarious head Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who are also looking to win to take control, implement digital advertising in the OASIS and make gazillions for their shareholders.

Gentlemen & Women, get ready to play…

Ready Player One is a ride. A carnival confection if you will. It’s fun while you’re on it, but once its unnecessarily long 140 minute circuit is over, it doesn’t hang around as memorably as the references it makes. There’s lots of peppered moments in here where it touches on the possibility of where they could go with the concept (the centrepiece around Kubrik’s The Shining is the best example of this) but it never takes the ball and runs with it.

Given how effects heavy this is, it’s quite easy to get the same feeling you got when you saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, you know the one where you’re sitting in a room watching someone else play a video game. That’s not to say great swathes of Ready Player One ain’t fun, they sure are: The car race sequence, the nightclub dancing, the aforementioned The Shining are all giddy fun. It’s just that the stitches that thread it together aren’t – I wanted more human connectivity. I wanted an emotional connection.

Coming at you with all the bounce, bluster, havoc and bright lights that a big studio tentpole can muster, Ready Player One sees Spielberg finding the fun again for a broad audience whilst still not reaching the heights he’s aiming for here. There’s lots of fun to be had but with little purpose to the nostalgia hit you’lll get, it’s a very plush lightweight affair.

★★★1/2

READY PLAYER ONE is in CINEMAS NOW!