Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
READY PLAYER ONE
Perhaps the best part about director Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE is that it’s really going to screw up book reports all over the world. Teachers are instantly going to know if their students read the book, or just saw the movie. There’s something endlessly compelling about that semi-nihilistic byproduct of this big screen adaptation. Novelist Ernest Cline, who also wrote the screenplay along with Zak Penn, has gifted us with two separate entities that are completely in line with each other while offering different, fantastical scenarios audiences will want to escape into. Despite a few hiccups, on the whole it’s more clever than anyone will give it credit for – and also insanely re-watchable. You’ll want to see this one over and over again.
Reality in 2045 sucks. Just ask Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). He and the rest of the planet are eager to abandon their suffocating and oppressive real world, escaping into an imagination-powered, widely popular virtual reality called “The Oasis.” Invented by eccentric genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), this world allows users to create a whole new persona for themselves, specifically tailoring what others can see and what they can’t. For those of us who practically live through social media , the carefully handled message here rings all too true. Anyways, when Halliday died, he left behind three keys to his kingdom hidden in an ultimate treasure hunt. The victor would be given total autonomy over his business and fortune. The quest has attracted the attention of desperate denizens, but also one corporation in particular – IOI, the second most powerful company in the world, led by nefarious Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, who’s absolutely marvelous and runs away with the entire film). He, along with his endless stream of clammed up “sixers” and scholars, vow to win the competition and throw the world into chaos. It’s up to Wade’s alter ego Parzival and his ragtag crew known as “The High Five,” to save the Oasis from corporate corruption and domination.
Cline, Penn and Spielberg do a terrific job with world building – not just in the aesthetically appealing Oasis, but also in the dystopian portrait of the future. Even though some of the dialogue tends to be clunky (“She’s hacking your heart to get to your head,” and “A fanboy knows a hater.”), this is a Willy Wonka-inspired ride for the next generation. While the workaday, harsh realities the common people face aren’t much to look at, peering into their little corners of the world is certainly fascinating. Spielberg’s magnificent sense of awe, wonder and amazement thrives in these landscapes. His fingerprints are evident in every frame. Loving attention to detail has been paid here, both in Halliday’s journals visualized as living dioramas, and in the subtleties of the narrative. Spielberg, along with the visual effects teams, masterfully crafts distinct virtual locations audiences will want to marinate in. During one act two sequence in particular – one that will have every cinephile up on their feet cheering, or at least sitting further up in their seat – their marriage of practical with CG is done with astounding precision. This is where the film feels the most alive. Top marks are also awarded to the sound design team who created the Oasis’ heart-racing soundscape. Their work is best showcased in the race sequence, as they beautifully conduct the thunder of engines, the jingle of coins, and the roar of monsters.
Maybe the most ingenious thing is that this movie beckons audiences – like a siren song tempting nostalgia lovers – for multiple viewings as there’s no way to pick up all the references in a single viewing. Like any good movie, there are new discoveries to be made – and not just within the context of the narrative. It can be a little overwhelming in the first act, but it’s ultimately satisfying as the sentiment is healthy and positive. These aren’t just mindless nostalgia dumps made only to cultivate warm fuzzy feelings. There’s a profound well of meaning beneath it. Though there is assuredly a bolder statement to be made about the dangers of fandom – which the film’s creatives avoid so as not to bite the hands that feed them – Spielberg reins things in with a lighter touch, offering a good compromise.
If we’re to properly understand the filmmakers, feminism in the future is just as spotty, if not bleaker. Though one character’s secret is wildly progressive and deeply profound, others stop short of going in a more daring direction. Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is given more agency than she exerts in the book, even pushing back against Parzival’s tendency to romanticize her tech-cloaked persona, but she’s still not as strong as she could’ve been written.
Another problem worth noting is that there are way too many endings. It’s as if Spielberg and company saw RETURN OF THE KING and thought “too abrupt!” Plus, it’s also notable that we see everyone in the Oasis as their human counterparts except for Sorrento’s evil henchman, I-Rok (T.J. Miller, the only actor in the midst of controversy). Was this their compromise? Why not replace his voice too?
All that said, READY PLAYER ONE is a hugely entertaining thrill ride that opens up further the more times you press “play.”
READY PLAYER ONE opens on March 29.