READY PLAYER ONE Review
Director: Steven Spielberg
READY PLAYER ONE is the Sparknotes of cinema. I don’t mean this in a cutesy “recap” kind of way. I’m talking lobotomized all-flash-no-value. After all, READY PLAYER ONE posits itself as fan service first and foremost—it’s really the film’s entire selling point. But at the end of the day, it’s a film primarily geared towards an audience that doesn’t consume film enough—or at least not in any capacity that breeds real empathy. I mean, look, I get it. READY PLAYER ONE is fun. Spielberg will always be fun—doubly so when he’s this untethered. But the proof is in the pudding. I like trivia as much as the next guy, but predicating quality on it seems like a backwards tactic. It is, for all intents and purposes, a two-and-a-half-hour rendition of ROGUE ONE‘s Darth Vader hallway fight.
Right off the bat, I feel I need to clear the air on a few topics. First off, I love Spielberg. I always will. Even when he releases a dud (and boy has he released duds), I get giddy with excitement, knowing that the man’s always out to show me how it’s done. Spielberg will always, regardless of his reputation, remain known as a filmmaker that directs films to prove himself to us. It’s something I greatly admire, especially in a cinematic climate where directors of his stature can easily become complacent and newbies working for Marvel find themselves in a creative rut. But none of this changes the evaluation one must make for each individual project. In the case of READY PLAYER ONE, Spielberg has presented us with a dire dystopian future, and I’m not really sure if he’s in on the joke.
When you release a game about an Easter egg hunt on Easter
Painting worldwide decay en lieu of a virtual reality revolution, READY PLAYER ONE reimagines Earth as a place where SECOND LIFE is not just the next big thing: it’s literally the only big thing. It’s a world that Spielberg never fully articulates, hoping that viewers will strap in for the ride regardless—a brisk, voice-over-laden intro makes sure of that. Why everyone young and old became obsessed with virtual reality, how being in the Oasis pays the bills, and how much of this fantasy replaces real life necessities is never fully explained. Inside of this virtual universe, the plot holes intensify, the most notable being why a creator who loves his world would create an item that would kill all of its existing characters. To fans, this probably won’t matter, because READY PLAYER ONE is entirely concerned with its destination, not the logic of its journey. Here, the M.O is an in-game Easter egg hunt: a three-part challenge whose winner inherits the fortune of the Oasis’s late creator.
It is in this conflict that we are introduced to Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts, a kid whose cardboard identity makes him an easy blank canvas for viewers, but a deeply underwritten character for those seeking some depth and nuance. What grows ever more clear in the viewing of READY PLAYER ONE is that nothing really matters in this narrative. The end goal is the only point of interest, both to Spielberg and his viewers. Style becomes substance, each reference appropriated so that it no longer bears any thematic weight. Forget that THE IRON GIANT was a loving commentary on ‘50s Red Scare paranoia, because in READY PLAYER ONE, its titular character is just a two-legged tank. Sure, Spielberg really sells his action, and he does his best to elevate the source material into something sentimental, but the end result is loosely cobbled together fan fiction, a film that has forgotten that art uses aesthetics for a higher purpose.
In 2045, people still remember OVERWATCH and THE IRON GIANT, much like everyone on Earth currently stans for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Adapting READY PLAYER ONE is a whole can of worms unto itself. I still remain uncertain as to where I stand on it. Taking intertextuality to critical mass is certainly a novel concept, and the fact that Spielberg (the man who so many of these video games and films owe their legacy to) is the man behind the wheel certainly offers a dissertation’s worth of cultural analysis. It’s unquestionably the weirdest project Spielberg has ever stapled his name to. But what’s stranger is that it’s arguably the dumbest thing made in eons. A project that apparently celebrates the gaming community, directed by a man who has gone on record to say that games cannot be art. It’s almost as if we’re already living in the dystopia that Spielberg is presenting. That fact that the film isn’t more self-aware of this only makes it more frightening.
There’s no escaping the fact that READY PLAYER ONE reads like the ramblings of an idiot savant. It’s no surprise that it became such a sensation. Let’s face it, people hate reading, and the most reliable way to get someone to pick up a paperback is to plaster all of their childhood heroes into some Frankenstein patchwork. It’s a book written through Wookiepedia entries. A work of fiction that hints at understanding the populism of the gaming community, but really only exists as a peculiar attempt to get illiterates to pick up some paper. Where Spielberg could have pulled a Paul Verhoeven, snarkily commenting on the novel’s folly by way of STARSHIP TROOPERS, he instead embraces this lifeless fun, tastelessly wiping the floor with the legacy of THE SHINING in the process. As a close friend of Kubrick’s, this reads as doubly gauche.
What happens if you cum in this suit? I need to know!
And this isn’t meant as some holier-than-thou criticism of people who don’t read. I really don’t read all too much myself. But I have a fundamental problem with READY PLAYER ONE’s ethics. As much as Spielberg can romanticize what he’s doing here, he’ll never escape the fact that his film (much like the book) is not just a nostalgia throwback, but an extended advertisement. Sure, it’s drowning in ‘80s references, but for anyone even half-invested in gaming, the cutaways to HALO, OVERWATCH, and WARHAMMER characters will be hard to erase from memory. It’s a feature-length, pre-rendered cutscene that should have been left on the Comic Con floor. But nerds are cool now, so READY PLAYER ONE gets that wide release, c’est la vie.
All that is to say that READY PLAYER ONE is Spielberg’s THE EMOJI MOVIE: a sacrilegious brain fart that doesn’t understand the subtexts of art, only its base aesthetics. Unlike the latter, it’s also a film that entertains some lovely sensibilities of artists surrendering ownership of their creations to a populous. Its sappy finale takes a few steps towards the populism of FURY ROAD, DUNKIRK, and THE LAST JEDI, but it never reaches the levels of profundity that the aforementioned do, its innate, juvenile name-dropping hampering it greatly. Sure, watch Spielberg’s latest and appreciate the artist while he’s still kicking, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is anything but the silliest turd polished by the world’s greatest jeweler. For every fun set piece that Spielberg gives us (the first challenge is delightful in how accurately it captures the wonder of stumbling upon in-game Easter eggs) he ultimately negates his core thesis—arguably by no fault of his own since most of it rests with the source material. After all, for an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist narrative, this sure as Hell is one big advert. And while we’re at it, what is Spielberg’s thesis? Is it that, “Technology is good, but in moderation?” Is it a march of solidarity for net neutrality? Whichever we wish to tackle, it’s a horribly boring declaration, the type of blasé statement that you surely don’t need two-and-a-half hours to preach.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend