Film Review: ‘Ready Player One’ Encapsulates All Steven Spielberg’s Blockbuster Strengths

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Nostalgia. Special effects. A lack of at least one (especially male) father figure. All of these are staples of Steven Spielberg films, in particular his blockbusters. “Ready Player One” is like a mixtape of all that, bringing the master director back to his younger days. Playing to his spectacle strengths, it turns out that Spielberg was the perfect choice to helm the adaptation of Ernest Cline‘s popular novel. With never before seen levels of Intellectual Property being featured within the movie picture, a deft hand was required to make sense of it all. Luckily, few are as comfortable in this world as Spielberg. It’s as if he’s been building up to this his whole career.

“Ready Player One” is an engrossing thrill ride that feeds off of your pop culture nostalgia. If seeing a campaign poster for Mayor Goldie Wilson (from “Back to the Future“) in the background of a scene makes you smile, this is the film for you. As such, Spielberg, who is in many ways one of the godfathers of nostalgic cinema, was a true get. Jettisoning much of what was problematic about the book and bringing new blockbuster elements to the movie version, it’s a popcorn home run. Does it stand alongside his all time classics? Probably not. That being said, it’s still a master showing his control of the craft. In addition, it’s one of the most enjoyable films of 2018 so far.

A few decades into the future, the world has escaped from a sad reality. Specifically, they’ve escaped into the OASIS, a Virtual Reality created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon his death, Halliday informed players of a game, whereupon the winner would receive his company shares and OASIS control. Essentially, you’d become a virtual god. This gives hope to many, though it seems impossible. One of the players still searching is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who uses his avatar Parzival to compete daily with his friend Aech (Lena Waithe). When a chance encounter leads to Wade/Parzival meeting a top player in Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the partnership helps lead him to the first clue. Suddenly, Wade is a celebrity.

Now the first players to score in the contest, Wade and his companions, also including Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), are targeted by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a tycoon seeking to own the OASIS and heavily monetize it. This leads Wade to encounter Art3mis in real life, creating a love interest in the strong willed Samantha. Still, they have to survive in the real world long enough to win the game, as Sorrento’s army in hunting them in both places. Adventure and excitement ensues, as only Spielberg can do it.

While the effects and visuals are the main draw, the cast does play their parts as well as expected. Tye Sheridan is a low key leading man, serving the story well. This isn’t Sheridan’s finest hour, but he holds his own. Oliva Cooke fares better, lending spunk to Art3mis/Samantha. Cooke and Sheridan don’t have a ton of chemistry, but considering how shy the latter is supposed to be, it makes sense. Best in show though is Mark Rylance, livening up his scenes with the quirkiest performance of his career. As for Ben Mendelsohn, he chews the scenery like a bad guy straight out of a 1980’s teen adventure.

You may be more impressed by the IP that makes cameo appearances, but supporting players do exactly what you’d want out of them. Lena Waithe provides comic relief, while Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao unfortunately see their characters lessened in importance from the book. Still, they help make up the charming team. Also on hand are Hannah John-Kamen, T.J. Miller, and Simon Pegg, among others.

Steven Spielberg was unquestionably the right choice to direct this movie. “Ready Player One” needed this sort of maestro to avoid just being an orgy of IP. The action sequences, and literally every scene in the OASIS, is filled to the brim with characters from all manner of pop culture. You’re never overwhelmed though, and that’s a credit to Spielberg. Along with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, your eye is always focused where the action is. The rest is almost just a bonus for when you freeze frame it on Blu-Ray in six months. Taking the script by Ernest Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg makes it a CGI feast within the OASIS and an 80’s teen adventure when back in the real world.

A rare work of his not to be scored by John Williams (he opted for “The Post“), Alan Silvestri composes instead. Williams is irreplaceable and a legend, but Silvestri is no slouch himself, so it’s still top notch music. That being said, the soundtrack outshines the score, as some 80’s staples pop up at just the right moments.

Co-writers Cline and Penn deserve credit for making drastic changes in adapting the book for the big screen. Substituting video game playing and movie quoting for more adventure type quests, it’s cinematic measures that elevate the source material. The scenes inside the OASIS are definitely better than the ones in the real world, but that’s only a minor weakness for the film. Cline, Penn, and Spielberg work to make this both a love letter to loving pop culture, as well as ultimately a reminder that no virtual world can hold a candle to what the charms of real life can contain. You may not feel that they fully stick the landing, but the ride is a joy.

The effects are positively spellbinding. A sequence set within Stanley Kubrick‘s film “The Shining” is one of the ages and among the best action set pieces that Spielberg has ever committed to celluloid. Yes, it’s that impressive. Overall, it’s hard not to be in awe of the technical achievement here. All of the things thrown at you and you’re never overwhelmed. It’s likely that only Spielberg could have pulled it off.

If you’ve longed for Steven Spielberg to be back in the spectacle business, “Ready Player One” is blockbuster nirvana. Very little this year has been as much fun to just set back and enjoy. Frankly, if there’s a child inside of you, they’ll be delighted. Had I seen this movie as a preteen, it would have instantly become my favorite film of all time. As it stands, this 31 year old just felt like a kid again while watching it.

“READY PLAYER ONE” IS DISTRIBUTED BY WARNER BROTHERS AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON MARCH 30.

GRADE: (★★★½)