Steven Spielberg delivers a virtual feast for eyes and senses in his film vision of “Ready Player One.”
Fans of the Ernest Cline novel upon which the film is based have been waiting a long time to see it brought to life on screen, and the veteran director, whose own previous works inspired many of the pop culture references that fuel the novel, does his best to reward their patience.
Though at times “Ready Player One” suffers from pacing issues — and some of the changes necessitated by adapting Cline’s considerable text for film work better than others — there’s still quite a bit to like about what Spielberg has crafted here.
At the very least, it’s a fun ride that honors the spirit of what Cline’s novel sought to celebrate: the joys of ingesting, sharing and waxing poetic about pop culture.
What’s it about?
Like Cline’s novel, “Ready Player One” takes place in the mid-21st century, where much of the “real” world has fallen into a cluttered, resigned disrepair while people spend much of their time in an all-encompassing virtually constructed world called “The OASIS.”
People live, work, go to school, shop and most importantly play in The OASIS, and they do it as anyone or anything they wish to be. Imagination and coins earned through games are the only limits to what people can do there, so why on Earth would anyone care about the hum-drum real world?
There’s one other thing people do in The OASIS: hunt for an “easter egg” left behind by The OASIS’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”). Whoever finds the cleverly hidden egg will become heir to control of The Oasis itself, as well as the vast wealth Halladay accumulated after its creation.
But to get to the egg, one must first find three keys to three gates, and years pass after Halladay’s death without anyone finding even one.
That all changes when Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known in The OASIS by his avatar’s name, Parzival, suddenly takes the lead in the contest. His success draws him immediate celebrity — but also makes him a target.
Wade just wants to improve his lot in the world, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop culture that Halliday obsessed over in life, he thinks he has a chance to do it by finding the egg. But others, both friend and foe, have different agendas and larger ambitions.
As the height of the stakes become clear, Wade finds himself not just playing a game or running a race, but waging a war for the future of both the real world and The OASIS.
Eye candy galore
Without a doubt, the greatest pleasure to be found in “Ready Player One” is just how much eye candy Spielberg finds a way to put on screen at any one time.
Indeed, for those who enjoy the film, it will demand multiple viewings and lots of pausing and watching frame-by-frame to find every “easter egg” the film contains.
Again, what Cline set out to do in part with the novel is also what the film sets out to do: celebrate the joy people who can quote movies and hum movie and TV show themes and explain where all the hidden portals and power-ups in classic coin-op and console games take in finding others who share their passion.
To that end, the film is an unqualified success. If you know your anime and John Hughes movies and Atari cartridge games and '80s music, then “Ready Player One” will feel like you’re swimming in it, and it will be a beautiful feeling.
Pacing, drama between characters falls short
“Ready Player One” does have its faults. In terms of pacing, the film tends to move in fits and starts. There are lulls in between its incredible set pieces and action sequences that at times sap the film’s otherwise bright and brisk energy.
The film also runs into problems when it tries to compress how the main characters' relationships develop in the novel to just a few minutes of screen time. The screenplay, credited to Cline and Zak Penn, attempts to retain the overall arcs and defining moments in the relationships between “The High Five,” but its all deprived of much-needed depth and room to breathe.
As such, some of the chemistry and situations between the principal cast feel forced and rushed. Unlike the novel, the film never feels character-driven — they’re on the clock and they need to move the characters from one plot beat to the next, and that urgency robs the material of some of its heart.
Considering how popular '80s pop culture is in our world today — where would all those trivia nights at every neighborhood tavern and pub all over North America be without them? — “Ready Player One” should find a considerable appreciative audience due to its content and concept alone.
Add to that appeal just how skillfully Spielberg handles the spectacles necessary to bring this story to life, and you have something that should be a great deal of fun, especially for fans of Cline’s novel, who will no doubt debate the merits of the film’s changes from its source material.
Conversely, if you haven’t read the book, you’re good watching movies just once and you couldn't care less about pop culture quotes and minutiae, then you’re likely not going to enjoy this as much.
If that’s the case, just bring your best nerd/gamer pal with you and watch them nerdgasm through the whole thing. That should be worth the price of admission.
Ready Player One
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn and T.J. Miller, with Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Running time: 180 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.