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Ready Player One fixes problematic source material with spectacle

By Leigh Monson 

  Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One is something of a mess, a wandering diatribe about the virtues of nostalgia and a wish-fulfillment fantasy for every nerd who has encyclopedic knowledge of their childhood pop culture ephemera, an affirmation that geeks will inherit the earth by gatekeeping against posers and those who aren't true enough fans, whatever that means.
  It is essentially over-glamorized self-insert fan fiction, which makes a cinematic translation seem like little more than a cynical excuse for Warner Bros. to slap as many recognizable intellectual properties into a single package before calling it a lazy day.
  However, for whatever reason, Steven Spielberg decided this was a project worth tackling, and he isn't nostalgic for the properties Ready Player One reveres; he and his film school buddies were the progenitors of all this stuff. So why would one of the greatest blockbuster filmmakers of all time decide to take on a fetishization of his generation's artistic accomplishments? Well, it's for the special effects.
  For those unfamiliar with the book, the basic premise of Ready Player One is that, in the near future, life has become dominated by a virtual reality video game called “The Oasis,” wherein people are able to create avatars of their choosing and adventure about to their hearts’ content. The reason the game has such immense popularity though is because upon the death of the game's creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), his will proclaimed that his half-trillion dollar inheritance would go to the person who could find the hidden Easter egg within the game.
  Many hunters devote their lives to understanding Halliday's pop cultural predilections, and one impoverished young man by the name of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) may just be the one to beat out the corporate big wigs who want to take control of The Oasis to gut it for profit.
  Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn have essentially rebuilt the plot of Ready Player One from the ground up, so while the film still features plenty of visual references to pop culture of the past forty years, they aren't so much intrusive as they are just…there.
  The annoying smugness of Wade Watts book persona is supplanted by turning him into a cipher, serving to deliver plot and exposition to the audience while they project their feelings onto him, which is about as good a fix as any considering what was left to work with. The real rebuild, though, comes in the form of centering Halliday's life, and not his fandoms, as the central focus of the challenges that lead hunters to the Easter egg. Mark Rylance once again proves himself to be Spielberg's secret weapon, delivering a performance that reflects Spielberg's fascination with little boys who never grew up without ever dipping into over-theatrics.
  But you can really tell that Spielberg came to play with the big special effects toybox, effectively making an animated spectacle thriller with intense car chases and overstuffed battlefields acting as the glue that holds the thin plot together. One sequence in the middle of the film is a brilliant callback to a film that would be just outside the egg hunters' scope of pop culture knowledge, but is still recognizable enough that it functions as a fun metatextual nod in its own right.
  At two hours and twenty minutes, Ready Player One is absolutely an unwieldy amalgam of childhood whimsy that is likely to leave one more than a little exhausted by the time it's over. But considering that no one does childhood whimsy quite like Steven Spielberg, it's not a total loss. And if you've read the book, you'll know it could have turned out a lot worse.
3/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.