Such is Spielberg’s draw that even film lovers with little interest in dystopia or sci-fi hesitate only a couple of days before dutifully making their way to the nearest movie theater. So, does it deserve the praise? Not really. Special CGI-enhanced effects, spectacular as they are, pall after a while and become repetitive although to the end there are lovely surprising images such as the disco scene with the dancing couples floating in an endless colorful vortex.
At seventy-one, Spielberg’s brain is obviously as sharp and active as ever but it seems to never forget anything so, since “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the profusion of stories he has told and obviously still has galore is mind-boggling and often tiresome. If in the secret of his heart, he would have liked to be an author, he is not, even though his exalted place in the pantheon of legendary directors is secure. So, he’s “only” a director, not an auteur, and he himself calls “Ready Player One” only a movie, not a film. (I can’t think of any actual film by Spielberg, save my favorite, “Duel.” Wow, 1971! I just checked.)
As such, it suffers from much of the clichés of movies in general and particularly those that are in constant reference in “Ready Player One.” The story is based on Ernest Cline’s runaway eponymous best-seller and a script by same but we have run out of original ways of describing the future. Teeming, fairly miserable huge populations, technology run amok, and of course a villain aiming at world domination, seem to make up the gist of most similar stories as well as movies made from this rather thin material.
While imagining the future, “Ready Player One” also harks back to less complicated eras, with entertainment that has perdured since the seventies and eighties, even for the young protagonists of this movie who, in 2045, can only have heard of them.
We are treated, with a thrill of recognition, to moments from “The Shining,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day off,” (DeLorean included, in one of the gazillion crazy car chases). But on the whole, it’s too much.
What doesn’t help is that, right after “The Post” and its rather wooden reconstruction of the Pentagon Papers era and its main players (it takes a certain gift on the part of a director to turn Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, into totally generic characters) one realizes that Spielberg, despite his incredible range of story lines, as demonstrated throughout his career, extraordinary photography and editing (it must have taken 200 editors here) is not much gifted at directing actors.
I quickly scanned his opus to remember what character really moved me and I came up empty, except for “E.T.” the lovely waif from outer space. This director simply does not know how to create complex personalities, anyone with more than a single layer. The great Daniel Day-Lewis was a cutout of “Lincoln” rather than a portrayal of one of the most complex characters who ever lived. Even the one true actor in “Ready Player One,” Mark Rylance, a Steve Jobs-type unpleasant character, is not given much to do.
So, the story does take place in 2045. Much as we expect, the world, Cleveland at any rate, is not a nice place, made of gated communities and awful junk yards leaving the poor to fend as they can in their homes made of stacks of old trailers. To escape the grim reality, people wear goggles that take them to The Oasis, a video gamer’s paradise. The genius creator of The Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance,) now dead, has left in his make-believe invented world clues that will lead to three keys which in turn should take one lucky winner to the Easter Egg, with possession of the entire Oasis and the dead Halliday’s huge fortune.
One young man from the Stacks, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), and his friends or rather all their avatars in the Oasis embark on this holy quest, out of the goodness of their heart and also to foil the machinations of the villain Nolan Sorrento, a former Halliday acolyte who, with his army of thugs, wants to crush the good guys, as villains are wont to do. Thrown in are non-stop battles, with King Kong, Gozilla, dinosaurs, and assorted super heroes added to the mix.
Video gamers will enjoy all two hours and twenty minutes of “Ready Player One.” More serious film lovers will watch with, in turn, dropping jaws and yawns.