As Easter eggs go, “Ready Player One” is akin to one of those ones that come in a super-fancy package, with an intricate box and plenty of gold foil. Unfortunately, for large parts of the movie, it’s just as hollow and disappointing as one of those fancy eggs that promise all manner of delights and then don’t even have a bag of chocolate buttons inside.
In the year 2045, much of humanity seeks to avoid the destitution of the real world by using the virtual reality environment of the OASIS to work, rest and play. Following the death of the OASIS’ creator, a game built in to the system reveals itself, a competition which will bestow on the winner a phenomenal fortune and control of the OASIS itself. Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) and his friends set out to solve the puzzles and claim the prize before the indentured players of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a ruthless and amoral conglomerate run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), can do so.
Given the metatextual nature of its Easter-egg-driven plot, “Ready Player One” is breathtakingly tone-deaf and lacking in self-awareness, not just of its in-world setting but also its real-world timing. It represents quite possibly the worst screenplay Spielberg has ever directed, burdened as it is by Ernest Cline’s sincere belief that pop culture simply stopped at some point in the mid-nineties. You can sense Zak Penn is trying his best but this, like “Fifty Shades Darker”, is another case in point of the author having too much involvement in the finished screen adaptation. It almost beggar’s belief that the same guy who co-wrote the insightful witty and wryly self-deprecating “Fanboys” is responsible for this, it’s grotesquely smug and indulgent antithesis.
The tiny yolk at the centre of this curate’s egg of a movie is actually a pretty decent story but its surrounded by so much cloudy albumen that it dulls the taste, leaving nothing to savour. The movie, visually and verbally, is swamped by so much crap it’s like a very special neckbeard man-cave arrested development episode of “Hoarders”. I should be slap bang in the centre of the target demographic for this kind of nostalgia but after about ten minutes of the relentless, guileless battering of reference after reference after reference, it was just pissing me off. Sure, Chucky and Freddy Krueger are fun references, but considering the real-life present day audience for this film, where are the more recent cultural touchstones? In some ways, its heavy-handed ‘look! look! ‘member this?’ overkill brings to life the movie cross-over car crash of our nightmares, the absolute worst case scenario we feared might consume the MCU.
Throughout all of this, we have master Director Steven Spielberg furiously polishing this turd of a script, like a demented cinematic curling sweeper, and its thanks to his skill and flair that the film succeeds despite the weight of its own self-reverence. There’s a particularly impish aspect to his restaging of significant portions of “The Shining”, itself a kind of next-level reference to Spielberg reworking Kubrick before in “A.I. – Artificial Intelligence”, and his mastery of visual storytelling and action set pieces is uncompromised even by the “Avatar”-like dependence on fully CGI’d environments and performances. Licensing issues often manifest by conspicuous absences from the fanboy feast on offer. It’s a WB film, so Marvel is downplayed and even the DC references prefer to go for pre-DCEU iterations, particularly the sly “Superman” joke which homages Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the character. “Star Wars” is probably the most obvious absence but don’t be surprised or disappointed if many of your favourites (from life or from the novel) don’t make the cut on screen. The cast are solid but almost incidental in a pseudo-cartoon like this but, if nothing else, the film underlines how clumsy and awkward VR technology still is in terms of an entertainment medium.
Although it may not sound like it, I did end up enjoying “Ready Player One” – and I, possibly hypocritically, look forward to watching it at home so I can pause and savour all the little details I might have missed – but my enjoyment would have been stronger and quicker to establish itself if the movie had had the confidence to leave all the in-jokes and references in the background where they belong and trusted the audience to spot them while it got on with telling its story in a more compelling and comprehensive fashion. If nothing else, though, “Ready Player One” finally gave us the closest thing we might ever get to the “Iron Giant” sequel all right-thinking people have longed for.