Before we get into just how much Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One misses the mark, it’s worth noting that its badness has nothing to do with video games and the people who enjoy them. Critics often come down harder on movies about subcultures they disapprove of or simply haven’t taken the time to understand, which will no doubt happen here. There are good stories to be found in the world of gaming, and liking or disliking games should not be used as a defining character trait.
What kills Ready Player One is twofold. On the one hand, there are the same sorts of problems that would kill any movie: dead-end narrative, uninteresting and often unlikable hero, dangling plot and thematic threads and a pervasive feeling of who cares? that permeates every puzzle, action sequence, pop culture reference and character interaction. On the other hand is its posturing as the most mainstream representation of what games mean to those who play them, when in fact it’s not much more than a series of overwrought references and lifeless cameos from games and movies applied in a way that perpetuates the idea that there is a right way to watch movies and play games. For what is supposedly a statement of pride in gaming culture, it’s surprisingly exclusionary and paints a picture of itself that is not particularly flattering.
Ready Player One
PG-13, 139 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
The story follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a kid (or teen, or adult, who’s to say?) who, like most of the people in the world at this point, spends most of his time inside a virtual universe known as the Oasis, the creation of legendary game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance, easily the film’s highlight). After Halliday’s death, he sends out a living will in which he reveals that he has hidden an Easter egg in the Oasis, which can be found after discovering three keys, the location of which are described in mysterious riddles. Whoever finds the egg first will inherit his share of the Oasis, valued in the trillions.
Detailed dissection of the minutiae of Halliday’s life and interests becomes a worldwide obsession in order to better understand the clues, which is convenient since everybody in 2045 apparently has the same encyclopedic fixation on pop culture from the 1970s through the 1990s. Wade—in the form of his avatar, Parzival—and his friends find themselves in a race against evil corporation IOI and its CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), to solve the mystery of Halliday’s egg hunt, which all boils down to things like who knows more about The Shining.
Based on the book by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, Spielberg’s take on the story is little more than impossibly layered references that don’t aspire to more than a grunting acknowledgment by those familiar with it. The Iron Giant is great and all, and its presence is not inherently bad, but pop culture knowledge should not be an obstacle to liking or even understanding what is going on. With so many chaotic cameos and references that have nothing to do with each other, it’s like Finnegans Wake of the game world, if James Joyce pounded Monster Energy instead of booze.
Spielberg has been on a massive hot streak for almost a decade, making some of his most interesting, thought-provoking work 40 years into an already storied career. Yet it seems that the closer he feels to the subject matter, the less empowered he feels to take it somewhere interesting. There was a dead-end Jaws joke in the appropriately forgotten 1941, which is echoed here with a Jurassic Park gag. It would still be a bad movie even if it weren’t patting itself on the back for its knowledge of what movie or game came out what year and what the best way to consume it is, but the fact that it has no idea what to do with it all makes a pointless exercise into a headache-inducing one.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, The Death of Stalin, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Labyrinth, Pacific Rim Uprising, Sherlock Gnomes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, I Can Only Imagine, Love, Simon, Midnight Sun, Pacific Rim Uprising, Sherlock Gnomes, Tomb Raider, Tyler Perry’s Acrimony, Unsane
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
A Wrinkle in Time, Annihilation, Black Panther, The China Hustle, The Death of Stalin, Game Night, Love, Simon, Pacific Rim Uprising, Sherlock Gnomes, Tomb Raider, Unsane