Ernest Cline’s pop culture love letter/empty geek pandering is brought from book to screen by the man who, if Peter Biskind is to be believed, probably started the plasticity of modern cinema and culture in general: Steven Spielberg.
In 2045, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertically stacked trailer park but truly exists inside MMORPG The Oasis. When the Jobs-esque creator of this virtual world dies and reveals a series of challenges that will grant control of the arena to whoever completes them, Watts finds himself up against murderous company man Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his efforts to seize control of The Oasis.
If you’re wondering which Spielberg will be showing up here – I don’t mean the man who somehow directed Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same calendar year, I mean “Is this Raiders or Crystal Skull Actionberg?” – then an entertaining and hyperkinetic car chase that sees King Kong chasing a DeLorean and its flux capacitor around a simulacrum of New York as designed by a Rollercoaster Tycoon modder should let you know what you’re in for. That unfortunately is also pretty much the default template to describe the film; icons from other, deeper works interacting with each other whilst visual effects studio Industrial Light and Magic does their thing. You’ll notice no actual characters are included in that rough guide, which is apt as the film doesn’t bother with them either.
That’s not to say that this isn’t entertaining – this is “The Beard” – but it rarely feels worthy of either the genius who conjured up the PT Barnum-style showboating of rolling boulders and marauding T-Rexes, or the sombre auteur behind the girl in the red coat and a D-Day landing sequence that changed how cinema views war, violence and the concept of verité. Go with me here, but in a way the execution is reminiscent of Wolf Of Wall Street, in that a veteran director of Hollywood’s seventies golden era is resting on his innovative laurels by instead turning everything he’s already got up to eleven.
Yet perhaps I’m asking too much of a film whose plot is effectively settled by an Easter Egg in a forty year old Atari game. At least there’s no nuked fridges.
There are delights here: as well as the aforementioned New York race, the final sequence where our heroes and their army attack a snow bound series of towers throws in just about every bit of pop culture eye candy you can think of (UNSC Spartans represent). Although it’s disappointing to see Spielberg resort to a generic CG final act – though he kinda did help invent them – it’s also a goddamned blast seeing him bust out a punch-up between
Mechagodzilla, The Iron Giant and (oh, yes) a Gundam. Less successful is one of the major departures from the book, which sees the main character’s avatars goofing around a facsimile of The Overlook Hotel. It feels not only tonally off having characters from an adventure film surfing in the crimson blood from those famous lifts, it also feels sacrilegious – though, then again, Spielberg was besties with Kubrick, so if he wants to piss on a horror masterpiece, I guess he can. And sadly has.
That aside, the best way for cynics to approach this film is as a series of Easter Eggs for those raised on the works of post-Star Wars Hollywood. Everyone else can enjoy the ride. It’s never less than energetic, but much like its source material, it offers little of substance beyond what is right there in front of you. And sometimes that’s ok.
Ready Player One is on general release in the UK