'Ready Player One' Spoiler Review: This Is Steven Spielberg's Worst Movie

(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?

ready player one halliday

Rosebud 

In Ready Player One, others have spent years trying, and failing, to find Halliday's keys. Wade is able to start making some progress thanks to his obsession with all-things-Halliday. Within the OASIS exists a museum dedicated to Halliday's entire life; a place where one can go and watch video excerpts depicting various events from Halliday's history. Wade is one the few people who still bothers to plumb the depths of the museum. Here, he obsesses over every frame of every video like a film nerd obsessively studying the work of their favorite filmmaker (like, say, Steven Spielberg). Here, perhaps, Spielberg is throwing a bone to his fans – a way of saying that all those long, nerdy hours pouring over Raiders of the Lost Ark might pay off in the end and lead to riches.

Or perhaps Spielberg is doing the opposite – telling his fans to get a goddamn life; to stop spending so much time staring at the screen, and see the world outside as well. It's kind of muddled, and the film's conclusion doesn't shed much light on the matter. Perhaps Spielberg is trying to find a middle ground; a way of saying that nerdy obsessions are fine, but it wouldn't kill you to spend some time in the real world, too. There's nothing wrong with that particular message – in fact, I'd say that's even pretty good advice. But Ready Player One is so confused about what it's trying to say that you walk away uncertain of the answer.

One thing Spielberg does seem to be saying, however, is that you really can't separate the art from the artist. By studying moments in Halliday's life – including painful moments, like his split with his longtime friend and business partner, played by Simon Pegg, or his regrets about the girl who got away (more on this below) – Wade is able to solve puzzles within the game world of the OASIS. Halliday has, in effect, used his real-life experiences to create the virtual world. In short, without Halliday's life, there would be no OASIS.

This scenario creates one of the most problematic elements of the entire film. As we learn more about Halliday's history, we learn he was the generic representation of what everyone assumes nerds to be – the socially awkward dweeb who couldn't even talk to girls. He apparently only went on one date in his entire life – with a woman named Kira (Perdita Weeks). The date went wrong, and Halliday lived with the regret that he never got to kiss Kira. As a result, he turns Kira into one of the OASIS's game challenges – to grab one of the keys, the player has to find Kira and ask her to dance. Halliday has literally turned a woman into an object – a puzzle to be solved. "Kira is Halliday's Rosebud!" Wade/Parzival proclaims, comparing a human being to a child's sled. It's icky, and it doesn't sit well, at all. Some clever writing could've remedied this, or even fleshed it out a bit. Instead, the script just presents it as-is, and never once gives an indication of how fucked-up it all is.

The one element of Ready Player One that should work is the world of the OASIS. After all, that seems to be the selling point of the whole dang movie – a world of pure imagination, where anything is possible, and where pop culture figures run rampant. Yet the look of the virtual world almost never inspires. It's all so patently fake, bathed in grey and dull blue, and filled to the brim. No corner of the frame goes unused. The end result feels like we're stuck inside a MAD magazine fold-in, or a comic book splash page. While it might be fun for some to pause the film on Blu-ray and obsess over which pop culture figures are running rampant, on the big screen it's all a blur.

Spielberg is a master of visual language, and can craft stunning, clear, concise moments of action. Yet these moments have always, up until now, existed in the "real" world. Spielberg has employed digital trickery for years now, yet his previous work has always found a way to make it all seem grounded. There's a sequence in War of the Worlds, where Tom Cruise is driving a minivan down a highway, his kids in tow. Spielberg's camera spins in a circle, going in and out of the van as the characters yell at each other. It's stunning to watch, and while it was clearly created with digital effects – the van was stationary on a greenscreen set – it still managed to look like it was happening in the real world. The world of the OASIS, however, isn't supposed to be the real world. As a result, there's a glossy, fake sheen over everything. This sheen robs the world of its power. There are no stakes here – why should we care about what's happening when none of it really matters? Even if a character dies in the OASIS, they can just re-enter the game.

Because of all this, there's almost no sense of wonder. There's a recurring motif in Spielberg's films – the Spielberg Face. It's the moment where a character stops and looks upon something unimaginable with utter awe. Perhaps the most famous example is the moment in Jurassic Park, where the main characters lay eye on a dinosaur for the first time. Think of those tight-shots on Sam Neill's face as he pulls his sunglasses off, or the slightly wider shot of Laura Dern, her jaw agape as she stands up through the open roof a jeep. The Spielberg Face is present in most of Spielberg's work – Richard Dreyfuss seeing the spaceships in Close Encounters; Tom Hanks looking out at Normandy Beach on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan; Harrison Ford seeing a beam of sunlight pinpoint the exact spot of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. With these moments, Spielberg is able to convey the sheer wonder of something with little more than someone widening their eyes. There's never a single moment like that in Ready Player One. Not one moment where we get a sense of how wondrous this all is. What a waste.

The only truly stunning sequence is a lengthy moment where our heroes wander into the Overlook Hotel as seen in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Spielberg and his crew have eerily and accurately created the look of Kubrick's film, and it was during this sequence that I began to perk up and think that maybe Ready Player One still had some tricks up it sleeve. But after spending several minutes recreating Kubrick's film down to the letter, Spielberg then takes an axe to it all, literally. Knife-wielding zombies begin running rampant, and giant axes begin falling from the sky. "This doesn't happen in the movie!" characters shriek. No, it certainly doesn't. And it probably shouldn't happen here, either.

ready player one wade

Moving On

Ready Player One concludes by wrapping everything up in a neat little bow. Nolan Sorrento goes to jail for his crimes – including murder – and Wade and his friends gain control of the OASIS. Wade promptly bans evil corporations like IOI from having any sway in the OASIS, and then closes the system down on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is as close to a message as Ready Player One gets – saying that it's okay to play games, as long as you take two days off. I'm not saying this is a bad idea; it just rings hollow here. Especially since Spielberg has spent the last two hours bombarding us with "cool" imagery.

There's really only one scene where Wade and Samantha acknowledge the real world – a super-quick moment on a rooftop. "It's so quiet here!" Wade says, and then wham, the scene ends to throw more CGI mayhem in our face. Had Spielberg built up the real world just a tiny bit more, and his "take a break now and then" ending might work better. Instead, it falls flat. 

The one truly successful element of Ready Player One is pacing. Like The PostReady Player One almost never slows down, and yet never feels rushed. The movie never feels overlong, even if the events unfolding up on the screen feel tedious. Here, in the pacing, is the true Spielberg poking through – the master of cinematic storytelling, aching to get out. A final scene between Wade and Halliday is also successful, particularly in the way Rylance imparts his sad, regretful wisdom. This moment is the one moment that truly feels like it's speaking with Spielberg's voice. Halliday seems perturbed that the art he's created has mutated into this massive, unstoppable money machine, and it's easy to see Spielberg somewhere in there, crying out. Here, in a sense, is Spielberg's avatar, reflecting on his legacy and not entirely loving what he sees, but not hating it either.

I've avoided harping too much on the pop culture elements in this film. I'll say this much: they come across much better here than in Cline's book, mostly because they exist here as background rather than foreground. That said, there's a curious disconnect at work here. The characters on the screen can recite the titles of films and random bits of trivia, but you never get the sense they care about any of it. It almost feels like work – they memorize this stuff because they have to, not because they want to. At one point, it's casually tossed out that Wade's favorite film is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, but this rings false. It sounds like a good, somewhat obscure title to throw out, and little else. Perhaps the most egregious example is the way the film handles the Iron Giant. Anyone who has seen Brad Bird's film can tell you one of the most memorable lines is when the Giant says, "I am not gun." Yet what does Ready Player One do? It turns the Iron Giant into a weapon to blow up anonymous bad guys. The characters in Ready Player One don't actually like art – they just want to consume it, like so many calories.

I've seen some compare Ready Player One to another Spielberg film: Hook, Spielberg's bombastic 1991 take on the story of Peter Pan. This isn't quite right. The previous Spielberg film Ready Player One resembles isn't Hook – it's 1941. Spielberg's 1979 comedy was the first true flub of his up-until-then successful career. It was an overblown mess; a film Spielberg later admitted he lost control of. As Spielberg made 1941, he could tell nothing was working. His solution was to amp everything up – to increase the madness, and throw everything at the screen, with the hopes that something would stick. It didn't. The end result was a mess. But it was an interesting mess – which is more than I can say about Ready Player One.

Despite how utterly dire Ready Player One is, I'm confident that history will repeat itself. After Spielberg made 1941, he bounced back with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's only a matter of time before the filmmaker puts whatever the hell this mess is in the past, and soldiers one with something great again. Perhaps Ready Player One was simply something Spielberg needed to get out of his system. Now that it's out, it's time to move on.