For at least a couple of days, the last half-an-hour of “Ready Player One” redeemed the prior two-hour pile-on of Easter-egging. Then Steven Spielberg’s mega-nerd-out opus, adapted from the best-selling novelette by Ernest Cline, pretty much crawled inside me and died. “Ready Player One” is the anti-“Matrix,” celebrating obeisance to random yet tethering nostalgia within a river of brands and platforms and delusions from the 1980s, critiquing lightly but eventually embracing the machine: any machine.
“Ready Player One” would be the most blandly “visionary” studio picture of 1993, bearing the substantial baggage of 1980s American movies, including the exceptionally striking “cool” girl being an ultimate reward for the beady-eyed aw-shucks boy protagonist. It’s a lot like “Last Action Hero,” co-written by “RPO” co-writer Zak Penn, especially in the leap inside an unlikely Warner Brothers’ horror film from 1980. David Chen tweeted this precise take: “If the movie was released 10-20 yrs ago, I believe it would’ve helped define a generation of geeks. But in a post-g*mergate world, its plot glorifies the worst aspects of nerd gatekeeping & shrugs off social dysfunction w/a reverent attitude that feels tone deaf.”
In the “stacks,” the vertical favelas of 2045 Columbus, “the world’s fastest-growing city,” our boy Wade Watts (gimlet-eyed tall drink of milk Tye Sheridan) steeps in his mental projection inside the walls of a small, filthy trailer, as dirty and familiar as a crusty sock. He dons goggles and we’re pelted with Easter echhhs, to invoke Harvey Kurtzman-era MAD magazine, which was never short on jam-crammed frames. (As MAD’s pages might reflect, “Not enough Potrzebie.”)
[Spoilers.] Michael Wilmington described Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” as “jazzy too-muchness,” which might apply here if there was any useful syncopation or rhythm. But the onslaught is to reward its protagonist the girl and half-ownership of the entirety of “The Oasis,” the virtual teat upon which a lost planet sucks. (For convenience’s sake, the characters turn out to live within walking distance from each other in Columbus despite the vastness depicted in “The Oasis.”) I hoped for frames that pop with detail as in Joe Dante’s relentless masterpiece, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” but the cumulative effect is instead the clusterfuck joylessness of “Shrek 3,” except, yes, with Spielberg’s famously sturdy blocking of this animated feature. In a phrase favored by mid-career David Mamet, “Ready Player One” is a “pageant,” and pageantry is its galumphing drive.
My eyes stayed open; my brain did not. “Ready Player One” not only collapses upon reflection, it detonates, concatenates and despite a real, lost, ruined, 2045-in-real-life world, bursts into parlor-magic candy flame. I’ll defer to a Twitter reflection from critic Eric D. Snider: “A lot takes place in the VG world. Hard to feel a connection to computer-generated people with digital faces. Also, hero’s quest is motivated by desire to win a fortune, nothing deeper. Stakes feel low.” And, from Indiewire film editor Kate Erbland: “Both the book AND the film could hammer home more: most of the characters aren’t obsessed with eighties pop culture because they actually LIKE it, but because that obsession is the only way to maybe get them out of their super shitty lives.” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson tweeted an allegorical, potentially fruitful take: “Something I really liked is how, in the Mark Rylance scenes, it tempered the story’s innate Real Fan bullshit with meditating on the loneliness of creating something and watching the world take ownership of it. Spielberg quietly considering his own legacy.” Spielberg’s framing, camera movement and blocking are, as would be expected, nutritious, but Janusz Kaminski’s drab, blown-out cinematography may be his worst outing yet, but appropriate to the ultimately bleak vision of both inner and outer worlds.
An aside on inner worlds: Since production of “Ready Player One” began, the actor T.J. Miller, who plays a dad-humor avatar sidekick to Ben Mendelsohn’s silken-voiced corporate goon, was involved in a public rage or two and fired from his job at “Silicon Valley.” While Miller’s voice remains, his “in real life” character is never seen. Disgraced producer Brett Ratner, who had been a partner in the finance with Steve Mnuchin (Trump’s treasury secretary) and Australian gambling billionaire James Packer (who has removed himself from work because of “mental illness”), has his name and corporate name stripped from the credits, until the end when it’s revealed that Ratner and Packer’s RatPac entity still holds the copyright title. (Russian-born oligarch Len Blavatnik and his seemingly ubiquitous international conglomerate Access Industries picked up Packer’s portion of his movie finance business.) In the first action tumult, when a virtual road race is unleashed upon a stylized lower Manhattan, we glimpse what may be the last occurrence of Ratner’s name in a $100-million-plus picture, a neon curlicue atop a deli, a la Katz’s Deli, as “Ratner’s.” Kudos to Spielberg for not wasting a penny to erase that gaudy glimpse. It’s a fine fatty final tribute. With Mark Rylance, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Simon Pegg, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen. 140m. Reviewed in IMAX. (Ray Pride)
“Ready Player One” opens Thursday, March 29 in sundry theatrical formats, including a 70mm engagement at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.