Ready Player One is perfectly entertaining and enticing, but the sum of its parts ends up significantly less realized than its full potential.
I have to be thankful this film wasn’t rated R. Considering our culture’s collection of porn and fetishes, I could imagine more than a few steamy things people would be doing virtually if that was the case.
I initially had no idea what to think of Steven Spielberg‘s VR gear commercial. My biggest fear regarding Ready Player One was its potential to become one of those unwarranted hits that fans will protect just because they got the pop culture references. And seeing how there was hardly a single frame in the trailers without some famous character making an entrance, I wasn’t too hopeful. Granted, I can understand the sentiment somewhat: if MCU Iron Man or the Iron Giant appeared in the film, I would be singing the same tune. Wait, what? Iron Giant is in the film? Well, forget what I’ve just said, this is the greatest film of the century.
Ready Player One is set in stock YA novel setting #14 – dystopian grey future – where everyone is obsessed with a massively multiplayer virtual reality game called the Oasis. When its creator passes away, he kicks off a massive challenge for all the players over the control of the Oasis. Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, also known as stock YA novel protagonist #22 – awkward teenage boy with family troubles – and sets off on a quest spanning the entire virtual realm against the controlling mega corporation known as EA – I mean Nintendo – I mean Ubisoft – the film wasn’t exactly subtle with the social commentary, was it?
I will give credit where credit’s due, however, as Ready Player One isn’t focused on clever social commentary. Rather, it just wants to be a fun action-adventure flick, with characters you won’t love but still get behind. Do you like scavenger hunts? I certainly do, except for that one Easter egg hunt when I was seven where I fell into the creek and had a furious tussle with a nearby rosebush. And this film has everything; hidden objects, clues to solve, fun challenges to undertake, all told in a visually engaging way. Throw in some breathtakingly animated action in there, and you got a way to enjoy your evening in a way Cyberpunk 2077 can’t provide.
This is especially true since the Oasis would put any PS5 game to shame. Bright colors, a cheery attitude all around – all of which are completely unrepresentative of the toxicity of the actual internet – but I’ll savor that fantasy when I can. There are some plot holes with potential physical risks with the Oasis in real life environments; I am fairly sure more than a few people forgot to clear the furniture out of the way before playing and is now suffering severely sore ankles. But that’s something I can overlook for the sake of immersion.
The pop culture references thankfully don’t get too intrusive. That mainly is because the film doesn’t require knowledge of those references, and you can still have fun with it without getting why a bunch of Back to the Future fans are salivating over that one racing car. It can just zoom past the cool locations while keeping the pacing intact so that the sense of fun and games isn’t lost. Not to mention the references work in the logic of the setting. Many of the character references come in the form of avatars, which makes sense – I mean, who wouldn’t want to play an online game as Batman? Though I will nitpick that the usernames didn’t get realistically silly enough. Where’s stuff like NoobMaster69 or DarkFlame666?
And while I did say the film isn’t subtle with its social commentary, subtlety can be overrated, and some things definitely do strike home despite being in your face. I mean, the plan of dystopia story villain cliché #8 – evil megacorp CEO – is to fill 70% of the players’ vision with ads they’d have to pay to get rid of. Heavy-handed or not, that one made me both crack up and cry when I thought of all the times I watched 2 10-second ads to watch a 9-second video.
Ready Player One just wants to have a good time, and I can respect that. I enjoyed myself, and there’s nothing I’d peg as really wrong with the film. Well, except for one major thing, but I will save that for the end. The trouble is, despite all this, my cynical side rears up and pushes my head to look at the flaws, which mainly comes down to the writing.
I did say that I can overlook some shallowness for the sake of more VR gunfights, but, even then, the characters end up being painfully thin. As said, our protagonist fails to make it out of the “carbon-copy awkward YA protagonist” zone. His drive to complete the Oasis quest doesn’t get more developed than “my life sucks and I need this video game to have fun.” Which is an adequate one, but it only adds credence to the fact he was written mainly as a self-insert character for the audience.
Others don’t fare much better. The romance between him and the main lead is as touching as two third graders being forced to sit together at a lunch table. Two side characters are literally introduced with only a wave and play virtually no role. There is one character who shows some signs of complexity, and that’s Wade’s best friend. I won’t spoil, but whatever we get from that character ends up insubstantial as the movie is more focused on Wade clearing the next quest. They aren’t unlikable, but I won’t remember them much after the movie ends.
However, the biggest issue I take with the movie is what it doesn’t have – in other words, missed potential. Missed potential is something one has to be cautious with when critiquing a film. On one hand, it can feel unfair criticizing a movie for what it doesn’t have when that wasn’t the director’s intention in the first place. Potential is exactly that – potential. You don’t have to realize all of it, and that is true here to some extent. And as a viewer, I know I cannot impose what I want out of a story onto a film. If Spielberg just wanted to have fun, then that should be enough for most people, and it’s enough for me somewhat.
At the same time, however, if that missed potential feels so close, like it was so easy for the film to grab, then I can’t help but think about it. When everything in the movie actively leaves me thinking “but couldn’t there have been a bit more?” I cannot ignore that entirely. It ends up hurting some of the immersion, leaving me with constant questions and “what if”s. Normally, I can push that aside, but with Ready Player One, what makes it so hard is the fact that the movie handles the subject of virtual reality.
The Oasis is a place where “the only limits are your imagination.” That certainly speaks a lot for the writers’ imagination, as the film doesn’t show us nearly enough of the Oasis as it could have. It only dwells on a Mario Kart level, an 80s movie, and Elsa’s hideout, when it could have conjured up areas that would have put any Ubisoft open world to shame. Even beyond that, the Oasis doesn’t feel like an actual reality. It’s said to have casinos, sports courses, movie simulations, sex motels (How does virtual sex even work?), yet we only see games and one dance club playing “Staying Alive”. While I assume the teen demographic would hardly leave the game zones, it’s hard to believe every single user would be satisfied playing 4D Call of Duty 24/7. Yet with no other forms of leisure or entertainment shown, the world never fully immerses me.
But an even bigger failure is the movie’s take on the perks and limits of using virtual reality to escape our troubles. There’s no denying that the main appeal of games and such entertainment is wish fulfillment and escapism. VR allows us to mask our troubles. A physically inept kid might choose to be the terminator in the Oasis. An obese person may crank up all the hots on their avatar. A socially awkward person might be the guy who always gets banned on servers because he keeps posting links to hot singles in the online chat.
“You only see what I want you to see. Hear what I want you to hear.” That quote from the movie says it all. It almost touches upon those: the main character acts more confident in the Oasis, some characters use their avatars to hide their physical flaws, some just use it to be a samurai without having to commit seppuku. But that juxtaposition never feels fully realized. Why not make the main character a complete badass online but a loser IRL? Have a hideously deformed person use VR to become a supermodel. Try and actually answer whether online romance is a real thing or would likely land you in an awkward situation where the girl you’re flirting with is a 300 lb guy named Chuck.
“Nowadays, reality sucks,” Wade tells us. Well, why does it suck? Just telling me about it isn’t enough. Even a simple opening montage would have sufficed. You don’t even have to take that long: something like WALL-E did this perfectly, showing in just a minute how the world had gone to pieces. Yet while we do see a slum and a city drained of all its color, it isn’t enough to convince me that everyone would abandon their real life completely just for the online experience.
The problems with the continued usage of VR are also never addressed. There are so many mothers who would file complaints to the government about their kids becoming idiotic shut-ins because they refuse to step out of their basement. Again, we get a glimpse of that, as a shot shows a mother who ignores her own kid because she’s too busy playing Just Dance or something. Such neglect is something that’s bound to result from these sorts of immersive games. Go with that idea. Explore it. Show that this new world has serious ramifications other than looking like a complete idiot IRL. Oh, we’re dancing with zombies to get a key? Well then.
Again, none of that technically needed to be in the film, and I once again realize I am not being entirely fair. But the movie touches briefly upon those themes in a scene or two, so I can’t help but reminded of what it’s missing out on. It puts in glimpses of more interesting topics but then abandons it, like if you put a lollipop in my mouth then ripped it back out just as I was starting to taste the sweetness. Not to mention, because the film is about VR and online culture, something that is very relevant to this generation, it’s far easier to be reminded of those themes.
Heads up: there’s going to be spoilers for the end of the movie in the next three paragraphs, because there is one more serious issue I take with the film that isn’t connected to missed potential, and that’s with the ending. In the end, Wade manages to win the Oasis and the love of the heroine in the process. However, then he decides with his new management power to close the Oasis two days a week, claiming it’s so that people can spend more time in the real world.
On its own, that ending seems fine. It’s giving the message that spending too much time in the online world can be harmful for you, and that you should keep your head in reality, where things truly matter. The problem is that this sort of theme is completely, utterly incongruous to the rest of the film. This whole film has been about how the game is a wonderland, and that users have to fight to keep it from falling into the hands of greedy corporations. The Oasis was the ultimate prize of the film, something everyone, including Wade, was yearning for. The film barely, if at all, touched upon the negative effects of using virtual reality as explained before, so it has zero buildup to the message of the ending.
Not to mention the ending makes Wade look like a massive hypocrite. “I got a girlfriend, tons of money, and control over an entire virtual world thanks to all the time and knowledge spent inside that virtual world, but the rest of you? Go get a life.” This decision makes both the film and the main character feel paradoxical, like slapping a jalapeno on top of a sundae. Yes, jalapenos can taste good, but its merits are completely different from ice cream.
The more I think about it, the more I am disappointed in this film. Not because of what it has, but what it doesn’t have. It could have had a potent message that resonates with today’s online users and their problems, but settled for King Kong smashing cars. What’s left is an empty story that only shows a guy getting the girl and a whole lot of other side benefits through a VR adventure. Get the meat on the bones before you sprinkle the seasoning. Even though this is a technically impressive movie, like VR, there’s utterly no real weight in it.
Again, I realize that, by talking so much about missed potential, I am being a little unfair, which is why I am giving this film an extra half-star. I had fun, and I wish I could just have fun. But behind that fun, all the opportunities that were practically gift wrapped for the film to take keeps taunting me, and unfortunately, I cannot ignore that no matter how cool that car race was. Add in the weaker characters and that ending, and what we have is a film that is enjoyable, but nothing more. That is not a crime, but it’s still a disappointment.
Ready Player One was released globally in theaters on on March 29, 2018.