Ready Player One ★★★★

Full disclosure, I never finished Ernest Cline’s science fiction/fantasy novel Ready Player One, where a dying tech-guru, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), coordinates a Willy Wonka-esque gaming competition to see who will inherent his trillion dollar empire. I didn’t even make it to the second trial. Either I wasn’t in the mood to read it, or it was just a terrible book. Perhaps it was the medium, seeing as it’s not really all that enthralling to read about avatars Parzival and Art3mis re-enacting every scene from 1983’s WarGames in an attempt to win Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt. But to actually see it on the screen, not WarGames, but a living, breathing virtual world (aptly-named The Oasis), now that’s truly something - especially when it's under the direction of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg really knows how to craft a blockbuster, Jaws is considered the original summer blockbuster, after all, and Ready Player One marks his return to that market after directing a string of modest successes. And all I have to say is… wow, welcome back (not that he ever really left).

I know this is going to sound like sacrilege, but Spielberg’s Ready Player One is one of those rare films that actually improves on its source material. It scraps the original three trials and creates its own thrilling set pieces, which includes a high-stakes race where iconic cars (The DeLorean! Bigfoot! The Batmobile! Mach 5!) have to outrun King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, a game of survival that takes place inside an awe-inspiring recreation of an iconic horror film, and a climactic battle that involves nearly every pop culture character imaginable. Honestly, the numerous crossovers and references left me awestruck. It was like I was a kid again! Throughout the film, I was beaming from ear to ear, I was covered in goosebumps, and I actually shed some happy tears. I’m as sentimental as Spielberg, okay?

In all seriousness, Spielberg’s knack for injecting childlike whimsy and sentimentality into his films is Ready Player One’s greatest attribute… as well as its weakness. My main problem is that I smelled the phony all over the ending, particularly when the central villain, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), smiled and was cleanly dispatched. Uh… okay? The tone never felt quite right after that, but it was the ending, so it didn’t last too long. Speaking of which, I was initially skeptical about the runtime of the film, 2 hours and 20 minutes, but those hours and minutes flew right on by, seeing as Spielberg keeps Ready Player One pumping with action.

Unlike the novel, Ready Player One doesn’t tarry too long in the real world or in the quiet moments. Once we’re transported to the beautifully rendered world of The Oasis, we’re lost in it, which does limit certain character and plot developments. Like who are High Five? Well, I know who they are, but who are they? And supposedly there’s some great Rosebud in Halliday’s life, as it’s mentioned several times, but when the Rosebud is finally revealed, I wasn’t buying it. That part ties into the phony, and decidedly rushed, ending. Despite all that, Ready Player One still manages to be an overall fun and thrilling film that’s bursting with pure imagination.

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