It’s tough to review Ready Player One (the film) on its own merits when so much has been said about Ernest Cline and Ready Player One (the book). I never read the book, so I can’t comment on the minutiae that sets Spielberg’s adaptation apart from the original, but I do know some of the broad strokes.
Cline’s novel obsesses over 80s pop culture, while the film is a free-for-all, referencing everything from Atari games to The Iron Giant and Overwatch. Cline’s novel also gets into some messy territory, mishandling its female characters, dipping its toe into transphobia, and just generally being kind of creepy. The film, conversely, strips out most the problematic details, striving to develop its primary female character with more purpose and agency.
With these changes and streamlining, writer Zak Penn and director Steven Spielberg have crafted a crowd-pleasing, mostly inoffensive adventure (Asian stereotypes notwithstanding — this is Hollywood, after all) packed with surprisingly well-done CG action sequences. They’ve also streamlined to the point of absurdity, presenting a poorly-realized world that makes it difficult to get invested in anything that happens.
Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where things are supposedly very bad. The world is said to be in such a bad state that the only escape for most people is The Oasis, a virtual world where you can be and do whatever you want. Yet outside of the visual of trailer park-towers in Columbus, Ohio, the film does very little to establish that its world is particularly worse than our own.
Then there is the concept of The Oasis itself, a fully-immersive world that players engage with through a virtual reality headset. Over the course of the film, we are shown users jumping around their living rooms or even walking through the streets with VR goggles on. The concept is played for laughs, but it’s also so ridiculous that it hurts the credibility of an already shaky world.
The heart of the film is the quest to recover three keys within The Oasis and win control of its future. This quest was designed by Oasis inventor James Halliday, who announced the quest upon his death and left behind a series of riddles revolving around his life. This leads our hero, Wade Watts (a.k.a Parzival in the Oasis) and his friends to dig into Halliday’s past for clues.
This prompts many references to Halliday’s favorite pop culture touchstones, as well as the film’s only real character development. Everyone is so interested in Halliday’s life that they learn about how he lived, what he learned, and his regrets along the way. In true Spielberg fashion, each clue in the quest is a stepping stone to an ultimate life lesson that the film tries to impart on us. Unfortunately, Ready Player One’s world, themes, and intentions are so half-baked that the final words of wisdom come across like a wet fart.
That thematic failure is a microcosm of how Ready Player One fails to provide substance at every turn. Sure it might be fun to see your favorite characters engaging in a massive mash-up race or battle, but nothing about the references actually add anything to the story. They’re just there for “a-ha” moments, same as they were in the trailer. Ready Player One occasionally starts to comment on its premise and ideas, but it never follows through.
My favorite scene occurs about halfway through the film (the movie theater sequence, for those that have seen it), and while it put a huge smile on my face and briefly endeared me to this movie that wasn’t winning me over, it was still just a visual gag. Again, Ready Player One aims to please crowds. It’s fun, it’s not boring, but shouldn’t we expect a bit more from Steven Spielberg? After all, Spielberg is arguably the king of the crowd-pleasing blockbuster with heart and substance. Ready Player One only checks off a couple of those boxes, and they aren’t the ones that matter most.