The Iron Giant, a Xenomorph, Master Chief, Marvin the Martian, the Joker, Harley Quinn, King Kong, and the Delorean are only a few of the many references made through visual acuity in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One. “ A story that revolves around a dystopian future in which Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned youth, is attempting to solve the never-ending puzzle of the Oasis, like that of everyone else. The final game that the infamous inventor of the Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), left behind to find the sole worthy successor to Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) multi-billion dollar system by winning three challenges to find a golden easter egg that unlocks the proverbial key to the kingdom.
And by everyone else, I mean everyone else, because in “Ready Player One” video games are not that of a niche or nerdy form of escapism but rather an everyday hobby. From the stay at home single mom who pretends to be a pole dancer to that of the youngest of kids “clanning” up as the teenage mutant ninja turtles. The Oasis is not a sheer tool for the nerdiest of us, but rather an interlinked community for everyone to hide from the reality of the world at the same time, which in itself manifests themes of loneliness, pessimism, and a world that is collectively hiding from the world. Those themes are not the focus though, despite their emotional and timely significance, Spielberg crafts a film that is purely focused on the magnificence of escapism.
The action is crafted through sheer magical filmmaking that only the likes of a master like Spielberg can create. A race sequence in particular, which in the story has been the stomping ground of the first challenge for the first key for an ongoing five years, is meticulously formulated in a way that only Spielberg could construct. There is silence from Alan Silvestri's score as the screeching noises of tires and engines provides the background music. Wrecking balls sweep through the action, nostalgic images intertwine with the race, and the camera moves like it's in its separate car following the race in perspective-like lensing of this adrenaline-pumping sequence. The only competition that Spielberg has from this sequence is that of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but Miller manifests his action to engage the narrative while Spielberg exploits the action to carry the narrative.
Unraveling like that of a jigsaw puzzle in which it takes more than a while to figure out the big picture, “Ready Player One” centers around a story that is both familiar and intertextual. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is the hero we’ve met and seen before, a cute kid whose upbringing isn’t necessarily ideal, but a hero whose kindness and healthy obsession to win the game is inevitably his greatest weapon. However, the weapon used to accomplish this laborious test is teamwork which acts as an olive branch a double-sided mirror for others.
The antagonist, Mr. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is the one on the other side of that mirror, a visceral corporate snob who desires to seize control of Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) heartfelt creation for profit. He's a buisnessman who wants to satisfy his stockholders at IOI by winning the key before Wade (Tye Sheridan) and his friends can, by using the numbers over talent strategy. Money can buy many things, but authenticity is hard to come by, and though IOI has its own group of nerds that are regularly over analyzing and rereading the vastness of pages and videos that was Halliday’s life, they are not nearly as ambitious for success as that of our hero and his friends. The poverished, the ones who lack that of a safety net in which if they are destroyed and lose their coins, it's not only a restarting of the game but as Wade (Tye Sheridan) states it can lend to someone “losing their shit.”
These conflicting sides of the coin begin to formulate a story that “Ready Player One” struggles to ignite to resemble that intensity of the race sequence, as the emotion seems to be vapid in “Ready Player One." Sheridan is satisfactory in his performance but never a standout. His performance is something we’ve seen before, and something we’ll see again. The rest of the crew that assists Wade (Tye Sheridan) in his journey is almost uniform to his performance with that of Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) having moments of humor and charisma but never moments of legitimate substance or personality. They are the background to Wade’s (Tye Sheridan) heroism, but Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is not part of the coordinated community as she overshadows our protagonist in more ways than one.
While Wade (Tye Sheridan) seems to be forgetful of his grief, anger, and the entirety of the negative side on his emotional spectrum, Art3mis or Samantha (Olivia Cooke) remains conflicted and torn. She allows the faults of herself to manifest personality which is what formulates uniqueness. She may have less time on screen, but she steals the show through better character writing and a stronger performance from Olivia Cooke, whose far more reserved than that of her charismatically charged performance in “Thoroughbreds."
She is not the focus though like the storytelling is not the focus. The familiar and satisfying character is the focus like that of the pop-up, and whackamole pigmentations of our childhood are the focus. “Ready Player One” acts like that of the Oasis in that manner in which we are connecting to the film by our shared fandom for the Iron Giant or Halo or Overwatch or the Shining, but Spielberg misses the golden apple on this particular venture by using these as isolated formulations of us, instead of interconnecting them to a more significant theme. He never showcases how these tools of escapism not only affect us or how they influence us; instead, he resides on how they make us smile, which is essential but shallow in comparison to the higher message.
It’s not like Spielberg to miss such a pivotal talking point from his storytelling, but he like many others is not telling his story but someone else’s. Ernest Cline and Zak Penn are telling the story, and Spielberg is merely lensing it. On that level, Spielberg was the right man for the job in producing a visual roller coaster that is worth a theatrical viewing, but on a broader and more contextual level, Spielberg struggles in providing the same charm and emotion that he mastered in the eighties. He infers at this message of how pop culture can influence and effect in one of the film’s best sequences involving Kubrick’s “The Shining” in which modern CGI is adapted to blend with the old-time cinema almost seamlessly, but this moment stands as an outlier in the story. It’s not only one of the best moments of the story, but the segment with the most emotion.
There is character depth, societally relevant messages, and nostalgia crafted into a single glimpse of storytelling. Why that was not showcased throughout the film’s entirety will forever remain a mystery, as “Ready Player One” is not only a resurrection of things we love but a technical mastered painting as to why they should stay dead.