02 April 2018 4696 Views

Ready Player One: a Solid, Accomplished Fun Ride though not quite a Classic Spielberg Offering

by James Murphy

Spielberg: The Almost Greatest Hits Album, played for Generation VR / Facebook


Ready Player One Review

By James Murphy


Data File:

Ready Player One

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ben Mendelsohn

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action/Adventure. Based on the Book by Ernest Cline. 

Filmed in BIRMINGHAM, UK! Yep. 

Run Time: 2 hrs 2o mins approx

PG-13/ Amblin Entertainment. On General Release now.

Main Review:

The Future! 2045. The world is addicted to a virtual world that replicates the works of Steven Spielberg. You can BE Indiana Jones! You can visit Jurassic Park! Ride on the bicycle to the Moon with ET! Evade the shark from Jaws! RUN from tripod aliens and spider-bots, before going aboard the Mother-Ship from Close Encounters!

No? Wot? wot? WHAT?

You mean they DIDN’T make THAT film? Grrrr. Course not. Because Spielberg, bless him, simply isn’t that vain. He’s human enough to be wooed by a source novel that reads like a ‘billet-doux’ to his 80s output; yet fails to go all the way so to speak: withholding a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring in the big guns of his own imagery. 

What we therefore get is still a perfectly crafted and competent film but also a colossal missed opportunity for some crossover of Spielberg’s back catalogue hits. It’s still familiar and does build upon the imagery that made 1980s blockbusters so great. But it’s neither sufficiently original in itself nor quite as nostalgic as expected to truly move us in the manner of an ET over the moon or that first glimpse of a T-Rex or Indiana Jones taking a punch etc. 

Allow me to explain how and why in more detail..

So, my plot description was of course inaccurate, for impact. But the actual plot is not THAT much different.

The future: 2045. Everyone is addicted to a device that plugs them into ‘The Oasis’: a virtual kingdom of gaming and visual delight. Conversely, that has blinded society to its own decline, with the average citizen simply eating, drinking, and surviving, between fixes of their virtual avatar existence. Dystopia meets Utopia and nothing in between. But the designer of the gaming interface left a treasure map inside the virtual interface. And the player who wins the race controls the world…

Interesting pitch for a book that did incredible business: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. The treasure hunt, the quest, the hints of political and emotional maturity, wrapped in a fun narrative: all great.

But what really made it a success was its tour of cultural treasures from the 1980s and its specific wing of Spielberg formula beats. The legendary director HAD to direct this film adaptation, surely? The novel is practically one long ode TO Spielberg, with just a HINT of mawkish emotional blackmail.

Short of using sky-writing above Amblin Entertainment / Dreamworks HQ with ‘PLEASE DIRECT THE MOVIE OF THIS BOOK MR SPIELBERG. LOVE, ERNEST CLINE’..it could not fail, right? A film that Mr Spielberg was BORN to make? Surely? No Brainer? D’oh! Etc. Well: yes and also..no.

Film and Books are differing media. Adapting a book that is itself in essence a pastiche OF film? Becomes self defeating from the outset unless there is a ‘novel’ (!) take to present here. And, if there were any such key to unlocking the hidden cinematic excellence in the story? Sadly, Spielberg has either knowingly and fiendishly withheld that like a dream within a dream..or..he’s simply gone beyond this kind of material? 

That is not to say that this is an unpleasant or even undistinguished viewing experience. The visuals are genuinely stunning. You feel the virtual world here and its allure. One chase especially, is fully immersive, even without IMAX / 3-D gimmicks. Genius. NOBODY directs a chase like Spielberg. Nobody. His sense of pace, scale, perspective. Science meets art = great entertainment.

The actors here are generally, superb. Tye Sheridan is a star and endearingly channels young Spielberg himself, without simply doing an impression. It’s a signature visual trick of the director: animating an aspect of an academic quirk in a character, such as the frame of a pair of spectacles or an awkward smile.

See also: Professor Jones, Dr Malcolm and so on. Economy and clarity of story-telling, propped by insightful and instinctive emotional casting and direction of actors. Olivia Cooke is a charming find, too and I’ve rarely seen Simon Pegg give such an unselfish and purposeful performance.

Mark Rylance overdoes the facial ticks and tropes of a scientist ‘on the spectrum’. But we forgive him that because the heart, soul and talent are all ‘there’, too, onscreen. Notice how he can play young, old and middle aged all with equal aplomb. Genius! Hence Spielberg now using Rylance like a lucky charm (good money is on him as a benign academic ally in Indiana Jones 5?).

It’s also lovely to see Spielberg’s sense of awe and wonder at human rites of passage. From the first teenage crush graduating to one’s first adventurous kiss and the instinct for escapism maturing to embrace of responsibility. It’s the same boyish delight one can see in his otherwise sage eyes when speaking of his beloved wife, Kate Capshaw, during interviews. #stillgotit 😉

There is also a great sense of logical, linear quest to the piece, in service of an emotional and philosophical journey. Once again: nobody does that better, in the history of Cinema, than Steven Spielberg. And frankly? Nobody ever will beat that. Ever. 

The lighting and sound mix are first rate and the editing seamless, despite occasional lulls in pace. There is a moving riddle at the centre of the film’s plot and beneath that, an additional layer of emotional literacy to a moral message in closing shots. Alan Silvestri gives a thunderingly rousing score, despite John Williams’ absence arguably robbing Spielberg here of an additional atmospheric edge and magical mystique.

Yes, there is an element of hypocrisy and ‘have cake and eat it’ at play. We are being cautioned against immersion in a virtual world, by a film whose ‘USP’ is a nostalgic immersion in..a virtual world.

But I blame the writer (Ernest Cline) for that more than Spielberg. Cline notably does not use Facebook so he can ‘live in the present’. Yet his whole novel / pitch here is a reliving of the past? Spielberg takes over that motif with aplomb; in part through personifying head on, any corporate double standards, via the ‘avatar’ of his story’s villain, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).  It’s a moral tight-rope and one never feels the film falls off into didactic moralising. Bravo!

So yes: Go see Ready Player One. By all means. You WILL enjoy your time.

What is my gripe? Why can’t I just leave it at that, on a positive note? Am I just being a miserable misanthrope, not in touch with my inner child? The Spielberg reference there could be: Peter Banning /Pan, played by the late, great Robin Williams in Hook (1991). But no. I’m not like that.

I have clearly sung the praises of Ready Player One and its Director. Spielberg to me IS movie-making: modelling and personifying the craft at its best and the resulting ability to inspire awe, wonder, curiosity, outrage, fear, love and every other kind of emotion.

But a weakness is simply an overdone strength. And so it is with Spielberg in Ready Player One.

The film gives us all the Spielberg strengths and overcooks those, somewhat. Without a sufficiently new ‘spin’. Yes, it’s technically proficient. But it’s not Avatar or Star Wars level as some visual / technical innovation. Frankly? The film’s most thrilling action scenes happen outside the ‘Oasis’ high tech environment.

And, for a film DESIGNED as a love letter to the very pop cultural world that Spielberg helped to design? There’s just NOT ENOUGH SPIELBERG here! Bizarrely, we DO get a tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Shining (which incidentally will be lost on many viewers, is sinister/creepy, drags on too long and lacks a Jack Nicholson cameo).

Our Director here is a victim of his own lack of vanity/opportunism: seduced by the prospect of putting the book on film but unwilling to go all the way and give us ‘Spielberg Park/World‘. Now: personal and creative strengths, overdone = still a strong film. Just NOT instantly ‘classic’ Spielberg. 

This film needed to be directed either by a purely technical innovator/competitor or by a Spielberg ‘fan’. Spielberg has often driven developments in effects (Jurassic Park) and can channel other Directors alongside his own signature beats (Kubrick, Hitchcock). But he’s never been about’ special effects and has tended to shun repeating /sequelising his most popular visual motifs (The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones sequels exceptions that prove the rule?). 

Had this been directed by a James Cameron / George Lucas technical innovator? Or a JJ Abrams/Christopher Nolan tribute band act to Spielberg? Then perhaps Ready Player One would spell a new chapter in Cinema. AND given us THE best tribute to the Spielberg visual canon. Those qualities are simply missing here, despite direction from the man himself?

Had Steven simply produced /exec produced/consulted? He could have directed something even better and still given us this. We could have had Indiana Jones 5 a year earlier; West Side Story already; that mooted 1798 film about Irish History. Something. Anything. AND still sat down to Ready Player One.

That was his ‘MO’ in the..1980s: one for me, one for them as Director; bridged by constant ‘executive producer’ credits to ensure optimal productivity. 

Notice that Ready Player One references Back to the Future and even names a magic talisman the ‘Zemeckis‘ after that film’s director (Spielberg served as his PRODUCER: a great collaboration). That in itself is an ironic, ‘meta-textual’ comment, that sprung to mind while watching this film.

Yes, it’s ideally suited to Steven Spielberg ‘presents’. Just not necessary for him to ‘direct’. That. In a nutshell. Is the film’s problem: set up as a tribute to a man who simply lacks enough ego to provide us with that very product.

In short? He shoulda just produced it 😉 

I referenced Hook earlier: a much maligned movie and somewhat unfairly: it still has elements of what makes Spielberg great (action, atmospherics, genuine heart) whilst falling short of his truly great films (Raiders, Schindler, Private Ryan, ET).

Ready Player One stands between the shortcomings of Hook and the unbeatable excellence of Raiders et al.

A sort of middle Spielberg, a curiosity: one to file alongside the likes of AlwaysAI, War of the Worlds and Minority Report.

Final Comment / Grading:

READY PLAYER ONE is brilliant in its way whilst unlikely to be beloved in time as an example of Steven Spielberg at his definitive best. That’s a good problem to have, though. Because this is still a fine time at the movies. And hey: a great warm up for Spielberg to get back into the adventure genre for making Indiana Jones 5 next year.  

3.5 out of 5 / B+: Solid, competent, Easter entertainment. ‘Enjoy’. 😉 



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