Steven Spielberg isn’t just the greatest blockbuster filmmaker of all-time- he created the term “blockbuster”. Even if we were to look past the phenomenal dramatic material of Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Catch Me If You Can among others, Spielberg’s catalogue of classic adventure films have resonated with audiences for generations, and films like Jaws, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones saga aren’t just among the best blockbuster films ever made, but proof that popularity and quality don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
When it comes to Ready Player One, Spielberg is oddly playing in a field were popular culture, much of which he created, is a form of escapism and expression from an otherwise dreary world, and in the nature of many of Spielberg’s films, it’s the young people and the dreamers who are able to rise against the facelessness of corporations. In this sense, Spielberg is the perfect director for this material, and possibly the only director that could make it work; Spielberg doesn’t see this popular culture, virtual reality world as cynical, and approaches it not only as a filmmaker, but as a guy who genuinely loves film.
In 2045, the world is desolate, with the only escapism found in the form of the Oasis, a virtual universe where adventure can be found in a variety of planets, environments, and storylines, many of which are directly lifted from 70s, 80s, and 90s popular culture. The Oasis is the creation of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a genius creative mind that’s part Steve Jobs, part Willy Wonka, and part George Lucas, and is beloved by those who can find relief in his universe. Halliday’s death leaves an empty void in the Oasis, one filled by a quest set in motion prior to his death that would give the winner total control of the Oasis, and in turn, the future.
On this quest to finish the quest is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a socially awkward 18-year-old who uses the Oasis as an escape from his home in the slums of Iowa and his tumultuous relationship with his Aunt and her boyfriend. Wade is obsessed with Halliday, and in turn, obsessed with the culture Halliday represented, and as a character, Wade isn’t too different from Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, Luke Skywalker, or any other 80s teen protagonist; he’s a little less suave and cool, but he represents the same type of outsider that seeks adventure as an alternative to the “rules” that he’s told to live by.
Wade’s quest to navigate the Oasis and find Halliday’s clues unites him with Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a beautiful adventurer who shares his love for Halliday. The romance here is rushed for sure, but I genuinely like Sheridan and Cooke together; there’s a plucky excitability to their performances, and they share the desire to show their trues selves. This is perhaps one of the theme of Spielberg’s film; whether it’s in real life or through a persona, one shouldn’t be afraid to be their own self.
If the romance is classic Spielberg, the villains are almost definitely an expression of what Spielberg has explored throughout his entire career; Wade’s quest is threatened by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the business tycoon of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a tech company that wants to monopolize off of Halliday’s world. Mendelsohn isn’t breaking new ground here, but his take on the “guy in the suit” is gloriously sinister, yet perfectly representative of the villain who’s lack of imagination is his downfall (you can tell he’s the villain- he’s not a John Hughes fan).
Even if the quest to find Halliday’s clues is little more than an excuse to show some action sequences, Spielberg’s grip on action is unprecedented; from an action-packed chase sequence that introduces Wade to Artemis to the film’s action packed final battle against IOI’s Mount Doom fortress, Spielberg gives a depth and sense of scale that is never seen. The scenes are staged so we as an audience can follow our characters, and each moment serves a purpose in the midst of the sequence. Throughout the film, Spielberg shows why he was born to make films; a simple tracking shot within the first scene in the film simultaneously introduces us to the world, Wade, and the stakes without even changing angles.
Spielberg is really the star here, which is a good thing considering that the script isn’t really the greatest; the plot is essentially tying together sequences, and we aren’t given nearly enough time within the real world to establish our characters. The third act is entirely indicative of this; I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening or what the goals were, but Spielberg’s innovative energy, including a brilliant staged homage to the greatest horror film ever made and a dichotomy of scenes set in the Oasis and the real world, had me engaged regardless.
Ready Player One is probably the best movie that could have been made based on this specific material, simultaneously giving movie geeks a multitude of references to follow, yet also reaching a universal quality of hope and adventure that’s as simple as a wonderful heart-to-heart chat between Wade and Halliday. I sincerely doubt that it will be remembered in 100 years the same way Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark will, but Ready Player One is the work of a master at his craft who’s decided to tribute the world he was instrumental in creating. Grade: B