ready player one spoiler review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.)

Steven Spielberg has spent nearly his entire career proving his critics wrong. When the filmmaker rose to prominence as a blockbuster wunderkind, there was a prevailing sense among critics that Spielberg was little more than a purveyor of harmless, artless pop – not a serious filmmaker. “If there is such a thing as a movie sense — and I think there is, Spielberg really has it,” critic Pauline Kael said. “But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.” Yet Spielberg did have much else, and he proved it time after time, crafting a lifetime worth of fantastic, heartfelt, downright magical films.

Until now.

It’s taken nearly 44 years, but with Ready Player One, Spielberg has finally proven his critics right. Here, on the heels of The Post – a wonderful, important film that had the 71-year-old filmmaker still firing on all cylinders – Spielberg offers up a muddled, downright hideous catastrophe. It’s official – Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s worst film.

I take no pleasure in this proclamation. I’m a ride or die Spielberg fan – I grew up on his films, and indeed, the whole reason I love movies to begin with is probably because of Spielberg. Hell, I just launched an on-going column re-evaluating Spielberg’s wonderful, often misunderstood 21st century filmography. Simply put, I love Steven Spielberg.

Yet I approached Ready Player One with trepidation. The marketing looked…unpleasant. But marketing can often misrepresent a final film. Marketing aside, Ready Player One also has the disadvantage of being adapted from Ernest Cline’s dreadful novel, which reads less like prose and more like a laundry list of pop culture references colliding into each other. Still, I hoped for the best. After all, Spielberg has taken shoddy books and turned them into masterpieces before. Peter Benchley’s Jaws is a poorly written beach read, loaded with nonsense subplots about local mobsters. Spielberg worked that novel into movie magic. There’s no reason he couldn’t do the same with Ready Player One.

Alas, that’s not what happened. To be clear: Spielberg does improve upon Cline’s formula, but not nearly enough. The end result is a hodgepodge; a garish, headache-inducing slog that’s less a movie and more a 2 hour and 19 minute video game cutscene.

ready player one spoiler

A Movie, Not a Film

How does one even begin to approach Ready Player One? I’ve seen some suggest that Spielberg needed to make a film like Ready Player One – a return to blockbuster filmmaking after a long sojourn into smaller, more intimate films. This is nonsense. Spielberg doesn’t need to do anything. He’s the man who invented the blockbuster – he has enough clout to get pretty much any project he wants off the ground. He’s not a struggling indie filmmaker cruising for a hit. He’s Steven freakin’ Spielberg.

Spielberg himself has said in the past that he’s not really even interested in the blockbuster format that much anymore. Around the time The Terminal hit theaters in 2004, the filmmaker mused:

“Well, how much more success do I want? I’ve had enough to last me three more lifetimes. I turned down Harry Potter and I turned down Spider-Man, two movies that I knew would be phenomenally successful, but they offered no challenge to me. It would have been shooting ducks in a barrel, a slam-dunk. I don’t need my ego reminded and I don’t need to race anybody to make the biggest hit movie anymore. I’m just trying to tell stories that [I’m] interested in.”

Why then did Steven Spielberg make Ready Player One? Perhaps he just wanted to have some fun. “This is not a film that we’ve made,” Spielberg told an audience at SXSW. “[T]his is — I promise you — a movie.” This rather mystifying description perhaps gets at the heart of what Spielberg was going for here. After the prestige of The Post, perhaps he just wanted to blow off some steam. In Spielberg’s eyes, his other works are films – art to be studied, and dissected, and appreciated. Ready Player One, in contrast is a movie. It’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Except that’s bullshit. There’s no reason a film can’t be both art and entertaining. And if you need a good example of this, just look at the filmography of Steven Spielberg. He’s spent decades doubling-up, and telling stories that are both emotionally resonate and also full of whiz-bang entertainment. There’s no reason Spielberg can’t have his popcorn and eat it too.

Ready Player One is set in the not-too-distant future, where a virtual reality world known as the OASIS holds sway over everyone’s lives. The real world has become such a miserable hellscape and people need escape (hey, I can relate). That escape is the OASIS, created by weirdo video game genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday is dead, but his legacy lives on through the OASIS, where players spend nearly every waking moment living as video game avatars primarily plucked from pop culture. You can do anything in the OASIS, and be anyone. But there’s more – before Halliday died, he hid three keys – or easter eggs, if you will – somewhere in the game. Whomever finds all three keys will inherit the OASIS. Halliday is a virtual Willy Wonka, the OASIS his chocolate factory, and the three keys the fabled golden ticket.

Which makes Wade Watts the Charlie Bucket of the story. Wade lives in the Stacks – a colossal trailer park where the trailers are stacked on top of one another, towering into the air. It looks kind of hellish, but that’s okay – because everyone can escape the grime of the real world for the slick, fake virtual world of the OASIS. In one of the film’s few genuinely captivating scenes, Spielberg follows Wade climbing down through the stacks, giving us the opportunity to peek into the windows of the residents. It’s like a futuristic update of Rear Window, when Hitchcock panned through the courtyard to gaze into the windows of Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors. Here, we see the occupants of each trailer strapped into the OASIS, VR headset in place, blissfully tuning out the real world.

Wade exists in the OASIS as Parzival, a “Gunter” (which is short for “egg hunter”; ugh), who, along with his pals Aech, Sho and Daito, is on a quest to find Halliday’s keys. Along the way, Wade/Parzival befriends/falls in love with Art3mis, who cruises around on the motorcycle from Akira. Meanwhile, the nefarious conglomerate Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, has dropped billions of dollars into trying to find Halliday’s keys themselves. The company is lead by the greedy Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn sporting a giant, inexplicable set of false teeth. 

None of these characters connect with the audience, at all. The script, by Cline and Zak Penn, does the bare minimum in introducing us to these individuals, and then expects us to simply care about any of them because they’re taking up the most screen time. Truly gifted actors might be able to sell this, but – with a few exceptions – Spielberg has populated the film with bland, feckless players.

The worst offender is Tye Sheridan, who, as Wade Watts, may be the most boring protagonist in Spielberg history. Sheridan’s flat, emotionless voice guides us through this film, his sleepy line delivery doing very little to get across the wonder the film is trying to sell. There’s virtually nothing to Wade as a character – there’s certainly no reason why we should give a shit about him. Why is Wade our hero? What makes him so special? Who even cares?

Olivia Cooke has delivered strong performances before, but she’s lost here as Art3mis, aka Samantha. Her character has an axe to grind with IOI, because she holds them responsible for the death of her father. But Cooke never really conveys this rage, and we certainly never feel her plight.

Ben Mendelsohn and Lena Waithe are the lone standouts among this group, mainly because they’re both such strong, unique performers to begin with. Yet they’re still sidelined by a messy, liefless script. Mark Rylance also makes an impression in a limited role as the late weirdo-genius Halliday. Waithe’s character inhabits the OASIS as a hulking male orc-like figure, and it’s meant to be a twist when we later discover that in real life, she’s female. Yet besides a throwaway moment, this isn’t explored at all. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, does the best he can, playing yet another bad guy. He can do this sort of thing in his sleep at this point, but he still makes the most of it all. His big, false teeth, however, do him no favors. (Seriously, if anyone knows why his character is wearing false teeth, feel free to let me know.) 

Since so much of the movie is set in the virtual world of the OASIS, Spielberg would’ve been wise to perhaps cast performers with a strong background in voice acting. One of the reasons Andy Serkis is such a great motion capture performer is that he’s also an excellent vocal performer. Just look at his work as Snoke in the Star Wars films. Snoke is a very underwritten character. We know virtually nothing about him. Yet Serkis brings such weight, such menace, to the part with his voice that it all works. The majority of the cast here spends the bulk of their screentime not acting, but voice acting. A cast made up of people who’ve trained in voice acting maybe could’ve made this work. Instead, the cast here seems – and sounds – bored as their voices emanate from cartoony avatars.

About those avatars – they’re hideous. Wade’s avatar in particular is abysmal to behold, a blue-skinned, floppy-haired individual decked out in jeans and a t-shirt. If we must spend so much time looking at these characters, would it have killed the designers to craft something slightly more appealing to the eye?

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista has contributed to /Film, CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net