UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, START.
Level up with review #6: READY PLAYER ONE
It has been a hot minute since I wrote (and published) a movie review, so I’ve made a few changes to the grading method. Each film gets graded in 5 categories: Audio, Visual, Acting, Story, and Style. In 2012, the fifth category was ‘Effects’, but instead of having ‘Effects’ exist in a stand-alone category, I’ve decided to combine audio and visual special effects comments and considerations into their parent categories, thereby freeing up space for literal ‘Style’ points. Each category can be awarded a full star, 1/2 star, or no stars, depending on the unique circumstances and my personal taste. After a brief intro and summary, I’ll go into detail about why each category received what it did, and then close with an overview and final thoughts. Thanks for reading!
Ready Player One is a science-fiction-fantasy film based on a book with the same title. Original author, Ernest Cline, helped craft the screenplay for the film alongside screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk). The are some notable discrepancies between the book and movie, most importantly (for the purposes of this review), the critical backstory of how this future world came to be.
The story is set in the year 2045. Times aren’t great, and the majority of the population seeks release by spending much of their lives within a virtual reality simulation called the ‘Oasis’. The digital paradise offers anything users can imagine, and was created by an introverted inventor named James Halliday. Because of the widespread success of his virtual world, Halliday becomes the first trillionaire in history, which plants a target squarely on his back for profit-hungry corporate types and bottom line businessmen.
Knowing his creation will almost certainly fall into the wrong hands after he’s gone, Halliday develops a method to pass control of the Oasis to a worthy successor after his death. He develops a program within the Oasis that gives a majority stake in his company to the winner. The player who collects three special keys in the Oasis universe inherits Halliday’s shares, control of the company he helped create, and the power to control the simulation. After Halliday’s death, his video will announces the fantasy filled treasure hunt, which kicks off a massive surge of gamers searching for the clues and keys. Five years later, and everyone has given up looking… everyone except Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and a group of his online friends – oh yeah, and the bad guys.
In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t rehash the plot in its entirety. Other elements of the story will be revealed as I describe and defend the reasons why Ready Player One received 3.5 stars out of a possible 5. To be fair, there are only a few movies that would ever receive a 5-star grade. Conversely, almost no films deserve zero stars, and most fall within a bell-curve type range from two to four stars. Ready Player One was better than average in many ways.
Let’s get to it:
Stunning visual effects made this film incredibly enjoyable. Halliday’s Oasis is an immersive and engaging digital world, and constructed completely from CGI for the movie. Industrial Light & Magic handled the graphics. ILM is most widely known for the Star Wars, Transformers, and Jurassic Park franchises, and their expertise is apparent. By creating an entire universe with ones and zeroes, and then developing intricate worlds to explore, create, and destroy, the filmmakers craft a plausible space to tell a visually compelling story with cutting edge technology. Almost the entire movie plays like a massive cut-scene from a video game, which may not have a positive effect on everyone. For those of us who play video games, there are several rewarding allusions and easter eggs in RP1, but more on that later. Beyond graphics alone, the cinematography and lighting are exceptional, and the film takes a bold step by throwing real characters into the digital landscape, and vice versa. The depth and complexity of the art and design in Ready Player One are everything you’d expect from a genre hybrid piloted by Steven Spielberg. One full star for Visuals.
The soundtrack and score are very well balanced in this film. Halliday’s pop-culture influences (and Spielberg’s) are undoubtedly centered around the 80’s. Rush, Depeche Mode, and A-ha are just a few of the featured tracks that weave through the story, but the real magic is the subtle transition between memorable music and a beautifully composed score by Alan Silvestri. Audio accentuates key dramatic moments in the movie, as it should, but never distracts or detracts from the tone. Sound effects were on point as well, and the entire package is mixed in Atmos for Dolby Cinemas, which definitely adds to the sound experience as a whole. Another full star for Audio.
Ready Player One is well cast, with Tye Sheridan (X-Men Apocalypse, Mud) as Wade, and Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, Thoroughbreds) as his love interest, Samantha. The duo possess a natural rapport which never seems forced. Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One, The Dark Knight Rises) is the instantly recognizable bad guy businessman, hellbent on doing whatever it takes to wrest control of the Oasis from the persistent pack of players. Supporting cast members Simon Pegg and Hannah John-Kamen are believable as characters, and essential to defining the merits (or lack thereof) of their cohorts. Oscar winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Dunkirk) steals the show as the socially maladaptive Halliday, and Silicon Valley star T.J. Miller rounds out the cast as comic relief henchman who hoards treasure from his conquests. Undersung heroes of the movie are Wade’s online friends, Helen, Daito, and Sho, who each play their brief roles brilliantly. From a critical standpoint, perhaps this category deserves a full star for acting alone, being that there weren’t any real deficits. But the real detractor is the decision to cast so many potentially ethnically diverse roles with white men and women. Being a white man myself, it may seem an odd item to mention, but it’s actually quite apparent that the film would have benefitted by using a wider range of ethnicities and talents, instead of relying on a more classic casting approach. Lena Waithe (Master of None, Bones) along with Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki, (Helen, Daito, and Sho) make up the entirety of diversity for the cast, and that’s simply not enough in this day and age. RP1 gets 1/2 star for the acting category for lack of diversity alone.
The main plot points for Ready Player One follows a precisely planned approach to both explaining the history of the new world the story exists in, and advancing the narrative through action and adventure. The myriad easter eggs planted throughout the story are entertaining but obscure, and most are doomed to fly far above the heads of casual gamers, and much further above those who have never even picked up a controller. The success of the script relies heavily on following The Hero’s Journey – developed by Joseph Campbell and popularized by Christopher Vogler. Which is something most of us have seen before, and feels familiar. Heartfelt use of character development and the habit of constantly inserting detailed riddles and puzzles help disguise some of the more obvious turning points in the story, while clever devices preserve the function of classic archetypical characters and avoid derivation at the same time. Overall the story was well crafted, but suffered from what’s known as expository dialogue. The main character, Wade, narrates portions of the movie, and several scenes feature dialogue that explains crucial elements of the plot that could have been shown on the screen. The trade off is action. By covering huge gaps in story through dialogue, the movie frees up more time for car chases, explosions, and building an exhilarating momentum. The story does suffer slightly for that creative decision, and therefore only earns half a star in this category.
The newest and possibly most important part of this new review template, style encompasses the soul and substance of the picture, while considering the context and creators who crafted it. Firstly, lets address the idea of a film being made about a video game. The film is set in 2045, but the games depicted in the movie range from classic era Atari, to futuristic FPS and MMORPG. Ready Player One shows a ‘think tank’ of gamers working for the bad guys, trying to decode and decipher the riddles put in place by the deceased Halliday, only to be dismayed when they miss the mark. But somehow those scenes are the most analogous to the feel of the film. Screenwriters Cline and Penn use countless historical gaming references, implement new VR concepts, and interweave reality with the digital world, but in trying to appeal to a wider demographic they sacrifice the heart and soul of the science-fiction genre by relying heavily on past sci-fi and gaming references instead of proposing futuristic advances beyond the safe and obvious. As epic and grandiose as the graphics are, the story feels more like a nostalgic look into the past then an insightful glimpse of our future. Another main detractor is the weird dynamic between the Oasis and the real world. Even in the world of VR, players still have to exist in physical reality, and RP1 brushes by the complexity of this issue by showing users in public moving about the street with their headsets on, in their homes falling over objects, or in specially designed rigs that allow freedom of movement. This interplay between worlds was sufficient enough to drive the story forward, but made little logical sense and really hampered my ability to accept the combination of the two. Notwithstanding, the film still has some incredibly thoughtful elements, tailored to a massively wide audience of gamers, movie fans, and pop-culture junkies. Ready Player One gets 1/2 of a star for really putting itself out there in terms of creativity and design. Kudos for the effort.
So there it is! 3.5 Stars out of 5, and the reasons why. RP1 currently has as solid 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the audience score hovering around 80%, which isn’t bad for a movie of this scope and specificity. Additionally, using relatively unknown actors and complex concepts doesn’t detract from the piece as a whole, and Box Office Mojo shows it doing fairly well for being in theaters only a few weeks. Take a look at the trailer on YouTube, or peruse more fun facts on IMDb by clicking on highlighted words in this paragraph.
Thanks again for reading! Please feel free to comment and share as desired, and recommend movies (in theaters) that you’d like to have reviewed.