Ready Player One movie review: Steven Spielberg's sci-fi adventure is full of big ideas that don't quite add up
When sci-fi and Spielberg pop up in the same sentence, it's hard not to get excited. This, after all, is the gent who gave you ET and Close Encounters, films that brought something new and thrilling to a genre particularly susceptible to cliché. But the great man is not infallible: his last science-fiction foray, a 2005 take on HG Wells' War of the Worlds, started bracingly before getting bogged down in dreary plot details, and Ready Player One follows a similar trajectory.
The film is based on a bestselling 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, and is set in a near future where life has become predictably grim. Pollution and climate change have made the Earth such an unpleasant place to be that humans spend most of their time avoiding reality by playing fantasy games in a virtual world called the OASIS. This cartoonish fantasy land was created by a reclusive genius called James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who has recently died.
The OASIS is a hot property, and a sinister rival company, IOI, wants to take it over. But Halliday was a bit of an anarchist, and has left a series of clues or 'Easter eggs' for gamers to chase. Whoever finds them all and solves Halliday's mystery will inherit this lucrative virtual playground.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) reckons he stands as good a chance as anyone. He lives in a tatty high-rise caravan park in Columbus, Ohio with his downtrodden aunt (Susan Lynch), but is more comfortable roaming the hidden recesses of the OASIS under his dashing Wagnerian alias, Parzival.
By donning a special suit and interactive goggles, he can disappear for hours on end into the OASIS, where he's made some friends. Chief among these is Aech, a giant, muscle-bound chap who helps Parzival search for Halliday's Easter eggs. Players have a lot to lose: they carry all their hard-won credits with them, and must start from scratch if something kills them. And something's always trying to kill them, whether it's ruthless competitors, giant King Kongs or a dozen other vicious monsters.
Parzival is hot on the heels of the first clue when he clashes with a daring female avatar called Art3mis, who has huge anime eyes and a punkish taste in fashion. When Parzival falls in love with her, Aech wisely reminds him that for all he knows Art3mis could be some sweaty guy in a string vest in the real world, but the boy is not to be reasoned with. And he'll soon find that she is a girl, though not quite how he imagined her.
Ready Player One revels in the animated special effects its storyline necessitates, and playfully peppers its frantic storyline with references to other movies. At one point, Parzival and friends must tread the brightly lit corridors of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, and venture into Room 237 in search of clues.
One can imagine the fun Spielberg must have had shooting a gory tribute that would surely have infuriated Stanley Kubrick. But there's something very on the nose and witless about the way this, and most everything else in Ready Player One, is done. The film is full of 1980s cultural references, from songs and music videos to video games, but they're thrown into the mix pointlessly, without purpose or comment.
The film is necessarily derivative, but hardly ever witty, and the keen performances of young actors like Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe are swallowed up by a blinding sea of special effects. The only actor who manages to give us a rounded character is the great Mark Rylance, whose Halliday is a shy and defensive computer nerd who realises too late the danger his invention poses. We don't get enough of him, but see too much of Ben Mendelsohn's smug, cartoonish villain.
The most interesting bits of Ready Player One come early on, when a grim future in which people cling to the remnants of comfort in rusty, overgrown cities is memorably created. If only the virtual world had been so interesting, because the film is quickly overwhelmed by it. It's entertaining by and large, but left me wanting less.
Ready Player One (12A, 140mins) - 3 stars
Other films releasing this week: Movie reviews: Wes Anderson's wonderful Isle of Dogs, Blockers, and Journeyman
Films coming soon...
Love, Simon (Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner); A Quiet Place (Emily Blunt, John Krasinski); Michael Inside (Dafhyd Flynn, Moe Dunford); Wonderstruck (Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams); 120 BPM (Nahuel Perez Biscayart).