In selecting Steven Spielberg to adapt the so-called “Holy Grail of Pop Culture,” Warner Bros. Pictures “chose…poorly.”
At this level in his legendary career, Spielberg is playing it safe. The risk-taking and inventiveness that made him a household name and defined his early films are no longer needed. He’s more than made it.
Unfortunately for the ‘80s-admiring, future-set “Ready Player One,” a youthful spirit and impassioned craving to buck the standard approach are exactly what the film needed. A wiser choice for directorial duties would’ve been Spielberg imitator J.J. Abrams—who’s at least quasi-competent at copying the icon’s once-adolescent approach—or Edgar Wright, the wildly crafty filmmaker who infuses pop-culture principles into his quirky, action-oriented pieces.
At two to three decades their senior, not Spielberg. He’s just cashing that Social Cinema Security check.
The film that started his downward, or at least plateaued, trend, with a few classic spikes in between—see “Saving Private Ryan,” “Minority Report,” and the incomparable “Munich”—was “The Lost World.” The director rejected the novel’s thoughtful, science-centered storyline to make a B movie with monsters. He does the same with “Ready Player One.”
The book spends time making you care for the loner, parentless, overweight Wade Watts. Not the movie. In introducing us to Watts (played by the miscast Tye Sheridan), his present-day 2044, and the virtual videogame known as the “OASIS,” “Ready Player one” on screen looks and sounds surprisingly flat. And the use of narration to open the film is a lazy, tensionless, emotionless way to dispense with creating the story’s needed exposition.
Indeed, in the novel, Watts’s early experiences in the OASIS include going to school, hanging out in chatrooms, and exploring the vast, retro-referring online network. It’s not slow; it’s strategic, building stakes and unimaginable scope in the players’ quest to solve a parting challenge by OASIS creator James Halliday (depicted by the Oscar-winner but also miscast Mark Rylance): Find the three keys that unlock his game’s “Easter Egg,” and win half-a-trillion dollars and control of the OASIS.
Whereas the novel’s Egg hunt commences with an Indiana Jones-esque search in a cave-like environment deep within its page count, Spielberg replaces that challenge with a high-octane, CGI-laden, automobile race through New York City—all within the first 15 or so minutes—complete with a tyrannosaurus rex and absolutely no heart.
It’s fitting, in that our first cinematic introduction to Spielberg’s T-Rex 25 years ago took 45 minutes to reach. During that time, we got to know and care for the people the dinosaur would eventually meet—and, in one case, eat. Effects are only effective insofar as how they affect the people we care about.
And it’s hard to care for the people in “Ready Player One.” Watts’s love interest, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), is not the shy, yet strong, teen she is in the book—something we all, in one aspect or another, can understand. In the film, she’s some type of militant resistance leader.
And speaking of resist, Hollywood needs to stop casting Ben Mendelsohn as a villain. He’s great, make no mistake, including in his “Ready Player One” role as the corporate kingpin out to control the OASIS. But his typecasting is becoming boring. (Mendelsohn’s next mainstream movie will be this year’s “Robin Hood.” He’s playing the Sherriff of Nottingham.)
Book bias aside—from which the film is quite different—“Ready Player One” is not a bad movie. And for all the Spielberg criticism, he’s still one of the best, whose lesser movies—like this one—are far more competently entertaining than most. But a classic it is not.
That’s because it’s stripped of both the dread and sense of discovery—for the mission and the young man—that give the book its depth.
For the overall idea and action, “Ready Player One” is fun enough. But compared with what it could’ve been—either by being tied more closely to the book or employing a more ambitious director—this OASIS is pretty dry.
3 out of 5