Ready Player One offers a glimpse into a thrilling virtual world of endless possibilities, but sorely underdeveloped protagonists prevent Steven Spielberg’s latest film from becoming much more than a flashy ode to pop culture.
The year is 2045, and overpopulation has forced most of humanity to live in crowded, towering slums. To escape from their dreary, monotonous lives, people have taken to entering a virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, created by the late genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon Halliday’s death, a posthumous video announces that whoever finds three keys hidden within the OASIS and unlocks his Easter Egg will gain full control of the game he created. Avid gamer Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) must race against the IOI Corporation and their army of debt-indentured players, headed by greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), if he wants to win the game and escape his impoverished background.
Ready Player One falls flat when it comes to its main characters. Wade is a generic teenage boy who is defined primarily by two things: his obsession with pop culture, and his crush on fellow Easter egg hunter Art3mis, or Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke). Disregarding the fact that they interact entirely through their customized video game avatars for the first half of the film, their blossoming romance remains unconvincing even once they have met face to face in the real world. Wade and Samantha never talk to each other about anything aside from the game or the moment directly at hand, hampering the character development that would have bolstered their relationship. The reveal of the real identities of their companions Aech, Daito, and Sho are similarly underwhelming, as none of them have been established firmly enough for the contrast with their true selves to have emotional impact.
The first few minutes of the film provide an information dump where perhaps less telling and more showing would have sufficed. Numerous plot holes drive the progression of the story, most egregious of which is the sheer coincidence that all the main heroes live in Columbus, Ohio, and not in different states or countries. The film’s antagonist, Nolan Sorrento, is just as two-dimensional as the teenagers he opposes. Set up as a foil to the “real fans” that Wade and his friends are, Sorrento is keenly out of touch with video games and recruits teams of pop culture experts to decipher all the clues that Halliday has left behind, as well the strongest player in the game to win valuable items for him, armies of players who carry out in-game tasks for him, and last but not least, a strike team to eliminate his opponents in real life.
Despite the weak character development, Ready Player One is still a rousing adventure film literally brimming with video game and movie references. The film includes appearances that range from Mechagodzilla to the hotel in The Shining, naturally warranting high rewatch value, if only to catch all the cameos. The action scenes are colorful, exciting, and destructive. Despite the extensive use of CGI, the film unfailingly captures a sense of wonder and high stakes as the competition nears the final confrontation. There is something entertainingly ironic about watching the heroes pore over the virtual library of Halliday’s life, obsessively observing each conversation he has ever held in search of clues to the next key. There is also something profoundly depressing about the inference that, apparently, no new fictional properties have been produced after 2018.
In the end, Ready Player One is a fun movie that plays wide instead of deep. The OASIS is a tantalizing fictional world set in the near future, and one could surmise a philosophical message about the dangers of ignoring reality in favor of a beautiful fantasy. Wade and his friends have such a great time there, however, that viewers could also just as easily disregard this moral, and immerse themselves in the pop culture celebration that Ready Player One really is.