Movie Review: Ready Player One
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Director: Steven Spielberg
by Jason Koenigsberg
Last year before The Post came out, I wrote an article about the highs and lows of Steven Spielberg’s career. The good news is that I do not need to revise that article, Ready Player One is certainly not one of his worst films, but it is a far cry from being one of his best. It opens up with the sounds of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ from their album 1984 and the opening shot is “The Stacks” of Columbus, OH in 2045, a future urban ghetto. These are sounds and images that have been in every promotional spot for Ready Player One. The opening narration from out main character played by Tye Sheridan had an attention grabbing quote about how in the future people stopped trying to solve the worlds problems and just live longer with them, and that is something that could eerily come to pass. We also see how everyone in their trailers is living their own isolated virtual reality lives. Virtual reality has taken over and become the new reality for most people in this picture is a blatant social commentary about our heavy reliance on technology. So early on Ready Player One had my attention and I was ready to roll.
Then the action started taking place and the plot developed and the result is a middling exercise in CGI blockbuster entertainment. One cannot discuss Ready Player One without mentioning all of the pop culture references from the 80’s and early to mid 90’s. This film thrives on late 20th century nostalgia and very little else. It drives the plot, it motivates the characters and it would be fun to watch Ready Player One at home with friends to be able to pause it and see if you can catch and accurately count the myriad of references in this two and a half hour movie. However, as a film, do references to other original works from thirty years ago make something a good movie? I guess that is for the viewer to decide, but for me Ready Player One is not enough of an actual vision to recommend. The plot involves young working class kids playing a virtual reality game, trying to find hidden keys that lead to and Easter egg to take down a big billion dollar corporation. Ironic that a Jewish director delivers an Easter egg hunt right before Easter Sunday. The contrived loved story they squeezed into it between the two main characters did not make matters any better. Ready Player One is basically the same message and social commentary from better films about what our dependence on technology can lead to such as Wall E (2008) and Her (2013). This movie is just not as cynical as those, probably because of Spielberg’s optimistic philosophy on life, and it is a lot more in your face and visually pleasing. It coasts on the viewers love for nostalgia and inserts elaborate action scenes every quarter hour or so.
The soundtrack played like a greatest hits of the 80’s compilation with everything you would expect to hear and have already heard in the trailers. This movie is not subtle with its audio cues and made me wish Spielberg consulted his buddy Martin Scorsese about how to use pop songs in films to accentuate a scene rather than just pander to the audience. Spielberg’s best films all rely on powerful scores from John Williams, whereas Scorsese is the best at using pop songs to compliment his stories like in Mean Streets (1973), The Color of Money (1986) and most famously Goodfellas (1990).
In typical Spielberg fashion Ready Player One is a happy movie at a time when people do need something to cheer about. He makes the kids seem wiser and more mature than the adults and the best moment was in a club with the main character dressed as Buckaroo Banzai. It was a moment that rivaled the famous John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance from Pulp Fiction (1994), only to have this dance scene interrupted by a futuristic SWAT team coming in guns blazing leading to another mundane action sequence. Some of the acting was commendable, especially Tye Sheridan who I think was cast because he looked like a younger version of Spielberg and Ben Mendolsohn continues his streak of playing smarmy, powerful bad guys as he did in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Rogue One (2016). He is good at it, but we’ve seen this performance twice before.
At a a running time of 140 minutes Ready Player One goes on for too long. We get that technology is taking over our lives and it is making us miss out on our interpersonal and romantic connections. As a society we are failing at work and leisure because of using technology to escape reality. We did not need this whole movie to tell us that. But Ready Player One tries to detour our minds from the message with action scenes that were just monotonous, and eventually mind numbing and ultimately boring. Seeing all of these 80’s pop culture icons on screen just makes you want to go home and watch the better movies that Ready Player One is referencing with their images and dialogue. The fact that Spielberg directed it makes us long for his golden age from the 80’s when he was directing some of the best films of all time like Raider of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982) and producing modern classics such as Poltergeist (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and The Goonies (1985). Maybe if one of Spielberg’s Padawan filmmakers from the next generation like J.J. Abrams or Brett Ratner made Ready Player One it would have felt more like a love letter to the era they grew up in and not an older man trying to recapture his glory days. Spielberg should continue to evolve the way he has making powerful social commentaries with stellar performances with his recent films Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and last years The Post. He is at a point in his career where he can make whatever type of picture that he wants but this just felt like he was a veteran trying to suit up and play in the big leagues with the current All Stars when he is already in the Hall of Fame.
Instead of seeing Ready Player One stay home and check out The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) one of the films many movie references but probably one of the more unseen cult classics from the 80’s.