Second Sight: The Wasteland of Ready Player One

Ready Player One was a marquee event for genre lovers and children of the ‘80s.  Its source material, a novel by Ernest Cline, is packed with gaming references, science fiction homages, and a deceptive dystopian vibe that has not aged well.  

Be it the dubious connection to the Gamergate controversy or the fact that the text, despite initially appearing as a good natured nostalgic romp, does not hold up upon revisit, Steven Spielberg's latest entry misses every opportunity to subvert audience expectations or comment on the subject matter's prophetic representations of our smart phone inundated culture.  Additionally, and perhaps even more damning is the fact that the film is one of Spielberg's safest efforts, outright refusing to delve beyond the basest of surface levels with respect to character development, special effects, and adaptational license.

In a pre-apocalypse world, the OASIS, a virtual reality computer game, holds society together as millions of hopeless souls seek to escape the harsh realities of the world around them.  A rag tag group of gamers ban together to compete against a megacorporation for the right to control the program, and the future of the world.  Ernest Cline and Zak Penn's script starts lukewarm and slowly devolves from the beginning.  Everything about Ready Player One is spectacle, purely for the sake of spectacle and while this may have been a sly move on Spielberg's behalf, the concept of a hollow existence is never explored, let alone even mentioned beyond the film's short introduction sequence into online gaming obsession.  The characters are all archetypes: the hero, the sidekick, the corporate villain, etc.  Everything; from every quasi-fight scene to each heroic plea for assistance, is a flat retread of the things that inspired the story's creation in the first place.  Even the inclusion of '80s rock anthems are almost eye rolling, as if the film is attempting to cash in on the latest MCU soundtrack trend. 

Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is uninspired, flooding the optics with muted grays and blacks, wallowing in the ambiance of mediocrity.  There are a few flashes of visual greatness, such a neon-soaked nightclub sequence and the notorious The Shining homage that dominates the second act.  However, these flashes of inspiration also serve as somber reminders of what could have been.  The divide over the source material, its place in gamer culture, and the offensiveness of certain narrative choices (which are mostly excised) is never explored, with the narrative refusing to commit to any sense of provocation.  If the intent is to experience a mindless techno-adventure, then the film partially succeeds, but this Pyrrhic victory is achieved at the cost of any lasting relevance.  There's a moment in the introductory sequence and again in the finale where the opportunity to explore the duality of reality and fantasy is hinted at, but sadly nothing more is offered.  Spielberg built his career, not only on creating the blockbuster prototype, but also on producing fantastical adventures with young protagonists.  This was a golden opportunity to reflect on how his initial creations, along with other pop culture icons have altered the landscape of entertainment as consumable media and these dangerous ideas are cast out in favor of yet another familiar hero's journey populated by a graveyard of half-baked personas and a world that is barely explored.  Both reality and the OASIS have rules and yet, all the viewer is treated to is one expository sequence after another, each of which never explains the world in which the film exists.  There's simply no time to breath as the narrative jumps from showcase to showcase. 

Even the CGI effects are lackluster.  A film with a premise such as this begs for an Avatar-esque treatment, with groundbreaking ideas given life and yet, the fight sequences are on par with the latest world ending climax of the next superhero bonanza at their best, and yet, when compared to the technical genius of The Planet of the Apes retread and Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One simply doesn't register.   There are moments of levity sprinkled throughout, but the specter of lost potential looming over the proceedings is simply too strong to escape.  The sidekicks are cardboard standees and the ultimate battle for the fate of....a dying world that no one seems to care about is plucked straight out of another blockbuster from any year in the 21st century. 

In theaters now, Ready Player One is a travesty.  Featuring middle of the road visuals, abominable character development, and a children's pool level of depth, this is the first disappointment of 2018.  Art can be made to entertain for the sake of entertainment, but the fact that this statement is being used in conjunction with a film directed by one of the greatest directors of all time is perhaps the film's most unforgiveable crime.  

--Kyle Jonathan