Movie Review: READY PLAYER ONE – slick visuals and pop culture references don’t make up for a trite storyline peopled by flat characters and peformances

I readily admit I had little interest in seeing Ready Player One.  The trailers left me as cold as last night’s leftovers, and didn’t contain anything that I found remotely interesting, and visually it looked like a mess.  I thought to myself: this is a Spielberg movie? The trailers reminded me of another movie I hated, Tron: Legacy, a bloated, shallow CGI-fest, except that here the visuals were so muddled, the action so kitchen-sink, I feel like I could be forgiven for thinking RP1 was a Peter Jackson movie, so ridiculous has that filmmaker become.  But it was Spielberg! 

I haven’t read the book, and had no interest in doing so either before or after seeing the movie, but I know a couple of people who did, and raved about it.  I can probably count on two hands the amount of Sci-Fi I’ve read – it’s just not my thing for the most part, and definitely not the material that skews to the mild end of the spectrum.  When I did my research for this review, there was nothing I found out about Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel that struck me with any sense of urgency to see what the fuss was all about.  Set in a dystopian 2044, people plug into a virtual world called OASIS to escape their daily banal, miserable existences, but the focus of the story correctly predicted the kind of virtual world and economies of many of today’s MMORPG games and the rise of social media “influencers” and virtual currency, as well as showcasing the enduring pop culture of the 80s.  I say “enduring”, because as someone who was a teen in the 80s, it was the decade that defined me, so I get it – my musical choices are still heavy on The Smiths and New Order – but in 2044?  I just find it hard to swallow that a teen in 2044 is going to be obsessed by a pop culture 60 years in his past, so it seemed a little too much like Cline had his foot pressed hard on the gas here, unable to remove himself from his work.  In the movie, that conceit has mostly extended to pop culture as a whole, not just the 80s, and it’s one of the things that fans of the movie find endearing, I guess.  One of my buddies talks about this aspect of the movie above all else, citing the appearances of The Iron Giant as the main reason why the movie worked for him.  One thing I can’t deny is that it WOULD be pretty amazing to see a new Iron Giant movie with this kind of realism.  I absolutely loved that movie. 

But The Iron Giant’s appearances in Ready Player One is indicative of the movie’s failure to engage me on just about any level.  The kitchen-sink approach I mentioned earlier just does not work for me in a movie.  Where it might delight people to pick out all the familiar elements as they zip across the screen, to me these elements are nothing but a waste of time that could have been used to build story and character – it was the cinematic equivalent of eating a meal with zero nutritional value.  I’m one of those boring-ass movie watchers that cannot be swayed by visual effects.  I admit it.  It doesn’t matter to me how much of the budget has been spent on visuals, because these days if your movie doesn’t look great, you’ve failed in a key part of your production.  For me great visuals, especially in big-budget movies with Spielbergian talent attached, are a standard not showcasing, element.  After watching a CGI fest like Ready Payer One I always ask myself in that cooldown period: what would the movie have been like without those elements?  Would the story still have been compelling?  Would the characters’ motivations and lives have been just as watchable?  In the case of Ready Player One, the answer is a big no. 

If you’ve watched or read any version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this is the basic plot of Ready Player One: ownership of a fabulous place of wonder awaits The One who rises above his or her peers enough to prove themselves worthy.  Once Charlie makes it through the lottery to his peer group, his kindness and humility prove to be the factors Willy Wonka was looking for in an heir.  In Ready Player One, all that’s really necessary is the skill of deductive reasoning, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling character in Wade Watts, played in the movie by Tye Sheridan (Cyclops from the most recent X-Men series).  I found him to be pretty uninteresting, and not just in comparison to all that goes on around him.  Sheridan himself is a bland looking actor, and while he’s not called upon by either the story or his director to give much in the way of a performance, he just comes across as being anonymous and lacking in personality, delivering a cut-and-paste performance that could have been turned in by any young actor who never graduated beyond TV roles, which is a real problem for me because he never once achieved a level of authenticity in the movie.  When he solved the puzzles, it made me wonder why that guy was insightful enough to accomplish something that no-one else in that world could have – it didn’t help that none of the puzzles seemed expert level either.  In a movie where the trope of The One is a major element, neither the writing, acting, nor direction of Wade Watts was compelling enough to make the character rise above the deficiencies in a weak story.  I’ll also add here, but just as an aside, that I am not a fan of Mark Rylance either, and seeing him in a movie is a real turn off for me. 

I mentioned earlier that the story’s thematic elements were a fairly accurate prediction of the evolution of video game culture, and social media’s influence on daily life, and in a 2011 book that’s pretty interesting.  But in a 2018 movie, it’s all been there-done that, because all that stuff has been around for a few years already now, so the story actually felt pretty dated to me.  I’m a casual gamer, but I’ve played enough games like Borderlands and Destiny (and I have a PSVR) to have already been jaded by in-game purchases, loot-gathering, and interacting with other players to make me feel Ready Player One is just giving me more of the same, and should have been made years earlier.   

The movie is lacking in almost every other department for me – a couple of more reasons since you’ve made it this far: a weak villain with a seen-it-all-before motivation.  Played by Ben Mendelsohn. Nolan Sorrento is a shallow, uninspiring “corporate” bad guy whose preferred means of wiping out opposition is to buy them off – he’s a stand-in for those CEOs that are making too much money and keeping The People down, but as a bad guy in a genre movie, completely uninteresting, and played that way too.  And I couldn’t end this review without talking about the “dystopian future”.  This is a trope that’s well and truly played out.  It’s a lazy way of looking at the future – I understand why, but it’s as overused as using zombies in genre fiction, and that land is now fallow.  YA fiction is largely to blame for ploughing this field to death, but so too are movies like Ready Player One.  I’m writing this review a couple of months after seeing the movie.  It’s December 31, 2018 and another dystopic movie, Mortal Engines, has just become one of the biggest cinematic bombs in recent years.  I can only hope that audiences might finally be looking away from these types of movies, or that filmmakers might try to inject them with a greater degree of meaning.  One thing’s for sure is that Ready Player One is not the start of this revolution. 

And c’mon Spielberg, just leave this kind of movie to the likes of Zemeckis, Jackson, and The Wachowskis. 


© Andrew Hope, 2019

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: READY PLAYER ONE – slick visuals and pop culture references don’t make up for a trite storyline peopled by flat characters and peformances


      Happy New Year, John! Hope you had a nice Christmas too! Too much CGI for me too, it really takes away from my movie watching experience. And yeah, I can’t wait to see Stand and Ollie! I’m a lifelong fan of Laurel and Hardy, and the trailers look great!


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