'Ready Player One' Review: A Lightweight But Fun Adventure In Nostalgia [SXSW]

"This is not a film that we made. This is, I promise you, a movie" director Steven Spielberg said to the audience at the surprise premiere screening of Ready Player One at the SXSW Film Festival. He continued on, mentioning how this "movie" needs to be seen on a big screen. Spielberg made it clear: Ready Player One is a pop culture experience. Pair that statement with the cult '80s poster recreations and other nostalgia-centered marketing, and you see that the team behind this production also views the movie as such.

And while it is indeed an experience, it is not always a positive one. But it's mostly a good one.

Based on the 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, the film centers Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), a young adult living in Columbus, Ohio in 2045. He, as well as many people living around him, actively participates in OASIS, a virtual society created by tech genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday passes away, his will reveals an Easter egg in the OASIS that, if found, will grant access to his fortune and stock, valued at half a trillion dollars, to the lucky treasure hunter. Wade, plus his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Shoto (Philip Zhao), Daito (Win Morisaki), and newcomer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) all compete to find that Easter egg.

With a premise that is deep in virtual reality, it's critical to make sure the society on screen captures that otherworldly and futuristic feeling. It is a pleasant surprise to see how the CGI does not cut corners, effectively giving us an enthralling world for most of the film. And because these are virtual world avatars we're taking about, they do not have to be realistic, but sharp: it needs to look like a video game. The avatar movements, action and dialogue carries the film and is a standout in all the best ways. Because Spielberg is no stranger to relying heavily on iconography in his films, his direction of both the virtual and "real" world serves both equally well. It's impressive to see that, even in 2018, Spielberg's direction is not rusty in the virtual/CGI-leaning environment he helped create in the first place.

All the actors, from the gunthers (Easter egg hunters) to the IOI (Innovative Online Industries, AKA the "corporate baddies") big wigs, provide solid performances that do not stand in silos, but help drive the story forward. The most comedic standout performance is one that is laced in valid controversy: T.J. Miller as i-R0k. In the novel, he's a minor character, but the film version sees him working as a hitman of sorts for IOI official Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). It was discouraging to watch the biggest laughs that were given to Miller's character kept in the final cut of the film, especially considering the sexual assault allegations levied against him. In a film that's all about the blurring of virtual and reality, it's extremely disappointing for Spielberg and his collaborators to not be tethered to the reality of the TIME'S UP and #MeToo movement. All The Money in The World has become the blueprint for replacing talent at any stage of filmmaking. It would have benefitted Ready Player One (and Miller's other nerd-genre film, Deadpool 2) to follow suit.

As the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday is obsessed with pop culture references and the film heavily leans on that obsession. Nostalgia drips on every corner of this movie to varying success. In some cases, it's a piece of dialogue, a throwaway line. In other cases, it's an entire action scene centered around a cult classic film that literally recreates iconic beats. The intentions are well meaning, but the script is just basic enough to cause these references to often feel like a shallow plucking on nostalgic heart strings. Halliday loving pop culture isn't a strong enough reason for all of this familiar iconography to be so heavily woven into the film.

While the nostalgic visuals can err on the side of heavy-handed, the film's score accomplishes what the visuals sometimes cannot.. Composer Alan Silvestri is a perfect choice for this material, especially since his resume includes the Back to the Future trilogy. We get that same "young boy in an adventure" sound, one that is eager and energetic during the action-heavy sequences. There are also plenty of '80s songs that help set the tone; the film begins with Van Halen's "Jump" as a reminder of what you came for. Other songs like, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," pop up throughout.

This movie attempts to reach across multiple fans: the gamers and hardcore nerds of the novel, the non-gamers who will love the nostalgic callbacks, the sci-fi fans who loves quest stories, and many others. And while it doesn't all work, there are enough elements that do work to provide satisfaction. The stellar visuals carry this film beyond its simple script and its simple ideas, making it a fun adventure. It does not exist to stretch your mind (it does stretch your time, running a bit too long in the third act) but like the OASIS, it's a wonderful piece of escapism. Sometimes, a vacation from anything meaningful does make for an interesting ride.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10