THREE AND A HALF STARS In a dystopian future, winning a virtual reality game could save the world.
Tye Sheridan, Ben Mendelsohn
ACTION DRAMA #READYPLAYERONE
Everything about READY PLAYER ONE speaks to vintage Spielberg, from the teen protagonists at the heart of the film to the sparkling other-world of OASIS he enters. There’s more than a touch of the adventure movies he either directed or produced (think GOONIES or GREMLINS) in Ernest Cline’s story on which the film is based. Yet those qualities which made Spielberg the unmissable darling of his generation was an innate ability to personalise the drama: we cared about ET because we really cared about Elliott. Same for Brody in JAWS, and as loopy as JURASSIC PARK is, it works because we could relate to Ellie and Malcom’s very human predicament.
Not so much here. Enter a dystopian future and a world on the brink of collapse. Distraction from chaos and poverty can be found in the expansive virtual reality of OASIS, an online game like no other. For some such as Wade (Tye Sheridan), there’s more at stake because at the heart of the game lies a digital Easter egg - whomever finds it first wins the enormous fortune of the game’s eccentric creator. In fact, there’s so much is at stake that IOI, a multi-national run by the evil Sorrento (an on form Ben Mendelsohn), has pitted vast resources to winning and it’s not about to let pesky players like Wade beat them. What ensues is a gripping contest to the death played out in both the real and virtual worlds.
As said, vintage Spielberg. And right there is one of the movie’s greatest irritations. The film (not so much the story) has one foot firmly in 2045 with the other firmly in the 1980’s to mine an endless supply of pop-culture references from John Hughes to AHA. But who are the aimed at? Not the millennial gamers who’ll get most excited about the narrative and its not like the groaning grandparents of young gamer-kids who’ve been dragged to the movies will care either. It’s perplexing, and it’s a seriously distracting fault line that runs right through the heart of READY PLAYER ONE that leaves you ruminating on cultural appropriation replacing genuine cultural experience: mash-ups, and movie mash-ups in particular, are only ever a copy after all. Given the VR background against which all this takes place, the disappointment is amplified.
Perhaps that’s a sly point Spielberg is making: that art has long since eaten itself and is now steadily working its way through the rest of humanity. That the hollow thrill experienced watching READY PLAYER ONE (and to be fair, it is often thrilling but in a high-calorie theme-park kind of way), mirrors the digital world we’re creating around ourselves whee an Easter egg is its biggest reward. If so, it’s far too sly to resonate. Without having created much in the way of empathy for his human characters, a disparate bunch whose emotional core is blocked out rather than finely drawn, it’s hard to generate any real concern for their plight. Back to JAWS and there was always real concern that Brody’s son would end up shark food, even though we always knew he wouldn’t.
No doubt gamers will enjoy the adrenaline rush of READY PLAYER ONE and the shiny world it inhabits. It’s an intense visual experience, more so in 3D. But then, they’d probably prefer to be playing the game itself. And nowhere is that response in the vintage Spielberg play book.