Cinelove’s review published on Letterboxd:
Y’all are talking about all of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references abound in this movie, but NONE of them made me feel more warm or nostalgic than seeing the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning. Only a true follower of 80’s pop culture like Halliday would probably get that same feeling.
This dystopian sci-fi adventure from director Steven Spielberg held a surprise premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it debuted to positive critical response. Originally scheduled release in theaters on March 30th, the producers saw the potential of the Good Friday weekend and it arrived a day early. Raking in over $109 million worldwide in the first few days, it is now projected to become the director’s highest-grossing film in years. Based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the adaptation wallowed in development hell for a few years primarily due to securing rights to all of the references in the book. After Spielberg came aboard, it was only a matter of how many they could actually keep, with his public proclamation that many of his own movies would be avoided- with a few exceptions.
The 2-hour and 20 minute-long story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045 when reality has become such a resource-depleted place that most of them retreat to a virtual reality called The OASIS. One of those people is Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, whose avatar Parzival is something of a loser obsessed with pop culture from the 1980’s. When the creator James Halliday dies with no heirs, he creates a contest: Whoever can find an Easter Egg in his game first will inherit his entire fortune and control of The OASIS. Soon, Parzival grabs the first clue and finds himself thrust into a situation rife with allies and players who are literally willing to kill to get the Egg, all while learning the difference between the real world and the virtual one.
Full disclosure before going on further: I’ve read the book by Ernest Cline numerous times before they even announced the cast. While the plot sometimes felt overwhelmed by the nostalgia and references, I was constantly wowed by the epic adventure. Hearing that Steven Spielberg, the man behind many of the book’s influences, would be directing the adaptation felt like a cinephile’s wet dream, especially after the epic first trailer. While news that the movie deviated heavily from the source material created great skepticism among many, I still remained the optimist. That optimism paid off dearly because "Ready Player One" was a blast for me to watch.
I can see, however, that a lot of people are going to be turned off by the wave of pop culture references. In fact, the amount that can be found in the movie is practically exhausting. To me, this wasn’t really window-dressing so much as a look into someone like Wade, whose fanboyism has almost divorced him from the real world. Honestly, it could have gone a little more in-depth about the subject, but for the most part, the movie is able to walk the line. It’s not really about condemning or advocating fandoms of any kind, but rather asking what they do for the individual and where they lead to.
The cast is well-aware that they’re in a Spielbergian adventure and are reveling in every moment of it. Tye Sheridan plays the part of Wade Watts like a classic hero as if he were convinced that he was a lovechild between a superhero and a John Hughes protagonist. While some of the dialogue is corny and exposition-heavy, he convincingly plays a kid struggling with identity. Opposite him are Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke as Aech and Artemis. They both elevate beyond the archetypes of “best friend” or “love interest” and are given full personalities and concerns. Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg play James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, the two creators of The OASIS. While their screentime is limited, we get to see both ends of the VR argument; Morrow is concerned about the substitute for reality while Halliday just never fits in anywhere else.
Other supporters like Philip Zhao, Hannah John-Kamen, Win Morisaki, and T.J. Miller add interesting extras to the package but aren’t given a whole lot of room to develop into full, interesting characters. Biggest surprise goes to Ben Mendohlson as Nolan Sorrento, head of the nefarious corporation I.O.I. While he initially seems like a generic big-suit bad guy, we later get to see how little value he sees in The OASIS beyond money. The fact that his avatar is completely uninspired is a rich rip on his lack of imagination in a world full of it.
And the director proves once again that even 32 feature films into his career, he’s still got it behind the camera. Most of his regular collaborators return with him. Janus Kaminski’s fluid camera movements? Check. Michael Kahn’s clever editing between both reality and The OASIS? Check. Adam Stockhausen’s brilliant, grungy production design of the Stacks and other places? Check. The big winner here, though, is Industrial Lights & Magic with their glorious visual effects. Even with nearly 317 movies under their belt, the motion capture work done to bring The OASIS to life is magnificent, some of the best done in the movies yet. Each avatar and location is crafted with care and craft. The climactic battle sequence is one of the largest-in-scale I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, but nothing felt hard to follow in the slightest. The amount of references they were able to pack in here warrants a rewatch alone.
This is one of the only Spielberg films in which John Williams did not compose the musical score, instead taken care of by Alan Silvestri. And he does a fantastic job, giving us a soundtrack worthy of the films that it wants to pay homage to. The main theme is like a clever homage to several “heroic” musical themes of the past such as "Indiana Jones," employing all sorts of different classic styles. You’ve got your Williams with piercing horns, James Horner with epic accompanying vocals, a bit of dynamic percussion like Jerry Goldsmith, and beautiful swelling strings like Silvestri himself. They all come together to create an eclectic and genuinely original soundtrack, on top of some of the most recognizable songs from 1980’s played just for keeps.
At this point in his career, I don’t think it’s possible for the director to make a terrible movie. Not even if he tried. There are definitely quite a few people who aren’t going to be won over by this one, either because of its overwhelming nostalgia, strong deviations from the book, or clear messages.
Though its character development leaves something to be desired, for me, "Ready Player One" is a really fun adventure with loving homages to its influences. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but beyond anything, it shows that the 71-year-old still knows how to craft an enthralling adventure, even if it feels like cruise-control sometimes. Doubting Steven Spielberg’s ability to entertain audiences always makes you look like an idiot, even if the results aren’t always amazing.