REVIEW: ‘Ready Player One’ Is Heavy On Nostalgia, Low On Heart

There’s a section from 2012’s “Avengers” where Captain America very loudly tells the rest of the team that he understood a reference. That’s, more or less, how “Ready Player One” operates.

“Ready Player One” takes place in a rather depressed future. Picking up in 2045, the film is set in a world of mass poverty with humanity facing numerous problems. However, much of the population gets away from these matters by way of a virtual reality gaming platform called the OASIS.

Not only do many people escape their problems by way of the OASIS, though, they also constantly search for a hidden treasure. That treasure is a massive ownership share of the OASIS company, which is valued at multiple billion dollars. In order to find it, the gamers, including the film’s protagonist Wade/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), have to look for clues related to the program’s developer, Halliday (Mark Rylance). This is made difficult, though, because of a corporation which wants to find the treasure to take over the OASIS, and uses many of its employees to search for that treasure.

Maybe the most difficult thing to get over in “Ready Player One” is the fact that the film doesn’t really have any stakes going for it. You know what will happen if this ‘big, bad, evil corporation took over? Well, from what the movie shows, they would place ads in the OASIS. Now, don’t get me wrong, I get annoyed with pop-ups, too, but, really? That’s the big apocalypse that would happen? This is on top of the fact that if the protagonists complete their mission, they don’t really have any specific ideas on how to improve the world, considering how much things have deteriorated.

Along with a series of events taking the character on a treasure hunt that doesn’t hold very much weight, it also has to be noted how hollow a lot of the pop culture references are. In theory, many of these things should’ve worked for me. For example, a Gundam and the Back to the Future car show up in this film, yet, they don’t leave much of an impact. I love both of those things, and they’re cool to see, but I didn’t feel much. This may be due to the fact that the characters don’t have much of a connection to this stuff.

For reference, take the character Aech (Lena Waithe), who is working on a life-sized model in the OASIS of the Iron Giant from the classic film. Why is the character doing this? Did the character grow up with the movie? Is the character part of that fandom? What’s the connect? The answer is really none of the above, and that’s the same for really every character, until you find out later what’s really going on.

See, many of the characters have interest or knowledge of this stuff not because they grew up with it (especially since it was all from the 80s and they were born in the 2020s or 2030s). No, the reason they’re familiar with it is because they want to find the treasure, and to do so they need to find clues from Halliday, and he grew up with all of these things. This is a major disconnect, because instead of connecting with these things themselves and building an emotional attachment that the audience can relate to, it’s simply a stepping stone.

As for the characters, they’re OK, except for the main protagonist. Wade, or Parzival as he goes by in the game, comes across as the typical “chosen one,” as if for some reason he can figure everything out because he’s the main character. Additionally, there’s a moment where a tragedy occurs in his life and he seems to move on from it quite quickly, as if it wasn’t even that traumatic.

Maybe the lead character should have been Samantha (Olivia Cooke), who actually has a deeper back story and wants to fight the corporation in the movie because she lost someone due to the company’s labor malpractices.

I did think that the main villain, Sorrento (played by Ben Mendelsohn), was pretty good, too. Mendelsohn is solid in the role, playing the corporate businessman who escalates his efforts against his enemies to get what he wants in convincing fashion.

From a visual standpoint, Director Steven Spielberg does provide some flair and recreates pop culture moments in a way that really makes them seem real on screen. There are some great moments that can please a viewer’s eyes, and provide good entertainment value.

However, at the same time, the CGI usage for the characters is a bit much and becomes somewhat of a detriment after a while. The characters’ game personas simply don’t look real or convincing. I don’t get why it was necessary to have so much CGI for the OASIS avatars, either. I feel like just utilizing some good makeup would have gone a long way. Think back to last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel, multiple characters just had makeup and they looked great. If this film had gone with making the avatars in the game with makeup rather than CG, it could have been more relatable.

Now, I get it, this couldn’t have been done for every character, since some of them are creatures from media in pop culture, but some of them could have been done with makeup and by doing so made them more relatable.

“Ready Player One” was a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of references here, but it doesn’t have the impact that other movies that reference pop culture do. Think about “Kick-Ass” from 2010 or “Cabin in the Woods” from 2012. Those pictures were able to be their own thing and tell compelling stories while still having plenty of references that had an impact because that pop culture meant something to the characters.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t shameless pandering to nostalgia like that 2015 train wreck “Pixels” was. But still, I walked away from “Ready Player One” not feeling very engaged 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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