The internet hype surrounding Steven Spielberg’s latest film Ready Player One has grown deafening in recent weeks. While certain people are waiting for the film to fail, others are blindly celebrating its successes. Luckily, most seemingly agree that Ready Player One looks visually and cinematically ground-breaking, but how does the finished product play onscreen? Ultimately, Ready Player One is like a high school crush: beautiful, problematic, and absolutely dripping with nostalgia. What does this mean? Read on…

Ready Player One follows lost fanboy Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he competes in a reality show-esque competition to take control of “The Oasis,” a ultra immersive, virtual reality playing field. During his adventures, he joins a group of online misfits plotting to take down IOI. The massive corporation is led by the uber-evil Sorrento (the always awesome Ben Mendelsohn). Will good win out on this virtual plane? Steven Spielberg directs the film, which comes from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. The movie is based on Cline’s book of the same name.

Ready Player One is a virtual marvel. While Spielberg is a veteran of prestige pictures and the occasional action film, the movie’s massive virtual scale is a step into unfamiliar territory for the director. However, (as we’ve said before) Steven Spielberg is a legend for a reason. Ready Player One’s ventures into “The Oasis” are stunning to say the least.

The film was screened for critics in 3D, and this medium seems like the perfect way to showcase Ready Player One. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the virtual world, and the 3D highlights the immersive environment. The narrative features a number of intense action sequences, and Spielberg absolutely packs his frame with references. There is a lot to see. Those interested in the movie’s easter eggs might need multiple trips to catch them all. It is that dense. A particular gem involves the characters entering the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. The sequence is so clean and smooth that it makes for a definite high point of the film and is a wonder of modern visual effects. This is just one of a number of fun and well-crafted moments, and Spielberg brings his trademark flair for excellence to each and every one. In fact, for those in the 30-40 age bracket, Ready Player One is a definite love letter to popular culture.

Ready Player One is incredibly fun when it’s allowed to freewheel and roam free. From the opening sequence, fans of 80s music will have an absolute blast. Spielberg integrates the awesome soundtrack unapologetically throughout the movie and uses the music to full effect. The director seems to have let his hair down for this film and is having the time of his life.

However, the biggest downside to this film comes in the screenplay, which is problematic to say the least. What Ready Player One apparently forgets is that nerd and popular culture appeals to more than a stereotypical “fanboy” demographic. In fact, it takes a full twenty minutes before a female character is given a single line of dialogue in the film. Furthermore, the movie’s primary female character, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) falls completely into an idealised cinematic stereotype. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s avatar even looks like a pixie! While her character drops hints at her fascinating backstory (why aren’t we watching that movie?), audiences barely receive any insight into her character. Art3mis exists primarily as a sexy exposition machine. She then transforms into a damsel in distress and finally into a prize for our hero. 

Additionally, the narrative seems unsure how to justify the hip, cool and sexy revolutionary joining romantically with Wade. This begins with a birthmark which covers her right eye. The tactic seems to be standing in for the cinematic trope of glasses and a ponytail to denote a plain Jane. Art3mis is openly insecure about the birthmark, forcing Wade to repeatedly tell her how attractive she is… like this light purple blotch somehow makes the gorgeous woman ugly. Ultimately, we don’t learn enough about this character to truly feel her insecurity, making the moments feel forced. Were the writers trying to take her down a level so she’d believably get with Wade? Or are they just that clueless on how to write a woman? 

These weaknesses in the supporting characters shine a harsh spotlight on the problems with Wade Watts as a lead. Ultimately, Sheridan doesn’t feel like the right casting choice for what Spielberg wants to accomplish with his main character. While the young actor’s performance is fine, Sheridan feels overpowered by his role. He doesn’t bring the power or charisma required by the script. As such, the rousing speeches (and even the intimate moments of the film’s love story) tonally miss the mark, further emphasizing his weakness.

Rather than seeing why Art3mis falls in love with Wade, or why an army would follow him into battle, it magically happens. As such, Ready Player One ends up feeling like an example of self-insert fan fiction, and Wade Watts is our “Gary Sue”. Haven’t you always wanted to drive a DeLorean? Well, Wade Watts is flat enough that you can easily project yourself into his holographic suit (with creepy pressure reading sensors).

The film attempts to inject some diversity into its supporting characters: Aech (a brilliant Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). However, the characters are introduced in their human forms so late into the second act that it’s difficult to get to know them. This is a particular shame as Waithe and Zhao are given some of the best, and most enjoyable material in the movie. While these performers are an absolute joy to watch, there’s not enough of them, simply rubbing in the films lack of structure and they end up feeling like little more than token friends.

Ultimately, the focus of the story is off. Ready Player One weaves some really interesting threads, but nothing narratively comes together. This story could have been so interesting in the hands of Aech or Art3mis. Instead, the film places all its stakes on Wade Watts’ poorly developed shoulders. As such, the audience is forced to make a number of leaps which don’t pay off on-screen. What could be a fascinating, revolutionary film is worse off for it.

Ready Player One is definitely a challenging film. It’s directed by Steven fricken Spielberg, so we know it’s not going to be bad. In fact, the movie makes some groundbreaking strides in the field of visual effects. There’s a lot here to see, and viewers in it for the nostalgia will have a blast. However, the narrative behind the movie is incredibly flawed and problematic. While Ready Player One is an examination of nostalgia (particularly 1980s pop culture), the movie shouldn’t rely on dated narrative tropes from the period as well. Nerds and gamers are more than simply white men of a certain age, guys. Give us all characters we can enjoy and embrace.

Ready Player One opens in theaters Thursday.

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Kimberly Pierce

A film nerd from my earliest years watching Abbott and Costello, that eventually translated to a Master’s Degree in Film History. I spend my time working on my fiction projects in all their forms, as well as covering film and television.
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