In Ready Player One, in order to fit all the pop culture references, you’re gonna need a bigger boat. Steven Spielberg hovers over a mountain of movies, television shows, video games, and other ephemera of pop culture like so many mashed potatoes, obsessively sculpting them into something that only he can see (a good movie). Like Indiana Jones with snakes, in Ready Player One, it always has to be pop culture references. The film simply isn’t much to phone home about. Schindler’s List.
Behind the mirage of the familiar characters, stories, and media, Ready Player One is as boring and nutritious as desert sand. Characters are boring, the plot is a basic “evil corporation wants to control a thing” rehash without any interesting twist, and the visuals over-processed, pulpy, and a little uneven. Even the most technically impressive scene is ultimately a condemnation of the film as a whole: it is all borrowed style, no genuine substance at all. There’s also a peculiar tone: an unholy mixture of pop culture pandering and “true fan” gatekeeping that feel completely off-putting from the get-go to the final shot.
Ready Player One opens with awful exposition describing the rules of the world. A virtual reality world like The Oasis isn’t exactly Earth-shattering in terms of innovation, but Spielberg acts like it’s the third act of a Christopher Nolan film. It shouldn’t be so hard to show this world in detailed snippets. Instead, it is all delivered by a hackey voice-over from an annoying character. It isn’t a great start, and Spielberg comes back to the voice-over exposition well again and again.
The main players and the powers that be are as basic as they come. The Oasis was designed as a huge virtual reality game, and the original designer hid a treasure hunt inside. The winner of the treasure hunt gets to control the Oasis, chocolate-factory style. Because The Oasis is so lucrative, a basically evil corporation is interested in winning the hunt. The “real” gamers and people who “truly love” pop culture must protect the Oasis and keep it pure.
These characters are pretty boring, from the standard hero-boy to the OHMIGOD, it’s a girl and she’s SUPER GOOD at gaming!, to the generic evil man. Some of the sidekicks are a little more interesting, but they feel like also-rans.
If you can’t tell yet, Ready Player One is a big fan of POP CULTURE. References abound, and there is also a weird gatekeeping tone to everything, as though being a true fan of pop culture means something very specific. There’s a pervasive feeling throughout the film that suggests that there are wrong ways to enjoy movies, video games, music, and whatever else. It’s horribly annoying and awkward, and it is the lifeblood of the film.
The failures of Ready Player One are exemplified in one telltale sequence: the one where the characters enter The Shining. Here, while looking for the 2nd big clue, our characters enter the world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to solve a puzzle. The avatars walk through the hallways and rooms of the Overlook Hotel berating each other (“OHMIGAWD, you haven’t seen The Shining?!?), and interacting with scenes from the film in various ways to unlock the prize. Obviously, there’s more monsters in the Ready Player One version, and far fewer dog-costumed sex perverts.
But here’s the point: though the sequence looks wonderful from a visual effects standpoint, the proceedings feel completely sterile, cheap, and stupid. Any and all wonder or entertainment is siphoned from one’s memory and enjoyment of The Shining. Ready Player One is like a shade, borrowing the life of many much better and more memorable movies. The Shining setpiece is simply the most obvious and egregious transgression, but the entire film subsists on this kind of exploit.
Aside from this scene, the rest of the visuals are pretty standard CGI for 2018 (which is to say, over-used, frenetic, and vaguely over-processed). Nothing much much else stands out beyond the haphazard and bloated final sequence, positively packed with more and more and more POP CULTURE REFERENCES, complete with Twisted Sister blaring over the soundtrack in the most obvious and hackneyed choice imaginable. An overly-simplified and saccharine ending is a perfect cherry on top of this second-handed sundae of a film.