Steven Spielberg has been making headlines lately. He called Netflix movies ‘TV movies’ and said that they shouldn’t qualify for Oscars; at the premiere of “Ready Player One” he claimed that there was an important distinction between the words ‘film’ and ‘movie’ when referring to his newest work. Were Spielberg still inventing the modern blockbuster like he did with “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park”, it would be easier to ignore this pompous attitude and focus on his art—the Kanye West Effect, if you will.
But like Kanye, Spielberg’s last few years demonstrate that his greatest achievements might all be behind him. In the last thirteen years, the prolific director has released one or two great films—and more than a few efforts that don’t hold a candle to the better Netflix movies. Does “Ready Player One” launch him into the modern blockbuster hall of fame?
Well, it’s certainly modern. The screenplay—based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name and written in part by Cline himself—is a cornucopia of contemporary culture. It’s 2045 and most of the world has rejected real life for the OASIS, an astonishingly detailed and immersive universe accessible via virtual reality gear. James Halliday, its late creator, has left Easter eggs (a video game term for hidden secrets) scattered throughout the game that grant complete control of the OASIS to any player that finds them all.
Naturally, this prize attracts a number of interested parties: players seeking glory, obsessive fans of Halliday looking to discover his ultimate secret, and a nakedly evil corporation attempting to control the world’s most powerful economic resource. The works.
Remarkable visual work and world building create quite the intriguing backdrop for “Ready Player One”, but straightaway it starts over-explaining everything—and never stops. Watching this movie feels like trying to read the book while its biggest fan sits in a nearby armchair, shouting all of their thoughts and opinions of each page at you. It kills the magic. Not every piece of virtual reality wizardry has to have a stupid-sounding term and lengthy explanation to accompany it. We can see that it’s a super futuristic game with our eyeballs.
Spielberg shoves a plethora of pop culture references into the movie, even going so far as to include symbols from his own classic films. It’s an embarrassment of riches, emphasis on the embarrassment: “Ready Player One” often throws in a reference or ten where there should be humor or heart. At least the Russian roulette of retro references is bound to provide a nostalgia bullet to the head, if you weren’t raised Amish.
There’s a plot somewhere amidst the glitz and gloss, but only barely. It’s a hero’s journey in which we know next to nothing about the hero. All the central characters are paper thin—midway through the movie, a player named Art3mis mentions her backstory and its connection to real-world consequences, and I realized that I had little reason to care about her (or anyone else) before then. “Ready Player One” spends seconds asking for sympathy and hours smashing cool things together.
The narrative flaws don’t end there. An egregious case of young people instantly falling in love; stakes that are as vague as they are high; protagonists that always know far more than the audience, eliminating any chance of suspense; characters suddenly losing resolve, common sense, or peripheral vision when the plot needs to skirt around logic—it’s telling that the movie’s shining moment occurs when the characters enter a famous Stephen King film.
The cast is game, but most of their performances fade into the CGI cacophony. At least Lena Waithe and Simon Pegg are having fun. Battle scenes are as entertaining as watching someone else play a video game, which is either a compliment or an insult depending on the viewer’s tastes.
“Ready Player One” does one thing quietly: its depiction of Asperger Syndrome is subtle and graceful. It’s never spoken about or emphasized, but it’s an understated heartbeat that might be the best thing about the movie, and it deserves recognition that it won’t get. Otherwise, I’ve never been so bored during a movie that looks this impressive.