Ready Player One

Review By Patrick Byrne

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Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a bit of a blur. It’s never once boring, for a fairly long film, but Ready Player One is emphatically not as entertaining as it should be. It’s a classic hero story made bold, fresh and new, in a brand new vision of our own near future.The hero’s journey is safe in Spielberg’s hands. It’s in portraying this future that the movie becomes not only entertaining, but engrossing, as well as encountering some of its biggest mistakes.

Ready Player One takes us to 2045, where entire populations are mesmerised by the interactive virtual reality: OASIS. Here our avatars scour endless fantasy landscapes, build whole new identities and take part in a winner-takes-all contest designed by OASIS’s deceased founder, for control of the whole simulation, and his company’s fortune. It falls to a small band of players from the stews of future Ohio to finish the game, and save their virtual world from a vile corporation bent on ad-space.

We’re treated to a script that exploits its setting. It’s the smaller challenges our likeable characters face, their opposition to online hyper-egos, that make Ready Player One a genuinely rich piece. The soporific of virtual life as opposed to real problems, people losing themselves in virtual accomplishment, the sheer possibility of something like this coming true, and of people’s worshipping of the tech-mogul, who gives us a new world. All this is explored scene by scene. It’s the little details of our character’s problems and interactions that expand and define the setting. Whether it’s an oppressive step-father, enraged over the quality of his VR-suit, or a plucky love interest enticing our hero in asking after the touch-receptivity of his. Moreover, the audience takes part. We get to know most of our characters as avatars before seeing them in real life. We spend more time online than off. We genuinely feel the allure of OASIS.

The movie’s problems are more general in nature and also stem from the setting. If you’re going to set a movie in a virtual world where anything can happen, characters need limitations if there’s to be any drama. We’re never explicitly told any rules of OASIS, literally anything seems possible. Much of the plot is moved forward by the arbitrary power of future technology, which in narrative terms amounts to magic. Our heroes negotiate challenges less by wit than by using the next VR gizmo that comes down the track or by manipulating future technology whose function is mysterious. Our villains outsmart them not through exploiting their individual weaknesses but through the magic of future drone technology.

This movie is also the supreme example of why CGI is no longer impressive. The massive VR cityscapes and eschatological VR battles are just a bit thin when we know they’re computerised, and while we’re all aware how much hard work and talent goes into this amount of CGI it does give Spielberg the ability to do whatever he wants within budget, and this is hard to appreciate. CGI is a banal luxury, like plumbing, and practical is always more impressive. It’s true that much of the setting is not strictly “real”, but so were the VR sequences from The Matrix and so are most dream sequences, and these are done with real actors and real sets.

The movie includes a wide range of pop-culture references that were employed creatively but often not intelligently. That said, you’re never allowed to forget that this is a Steven Spielberg film. A script with enough twists and turns to keep us engaged and enjoyable performances make Ready Player One genuine fun. It’s flawed, it’s long, but it never stops being interesting.