Movie review: ‘Ready Player One’ has a big downside: incoherence

Ready Player One; Rated PG-13; 140min
By Chris Honoré
for Revels
“Ready Player One,” director Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, begs for exposition. In fact, it’s crammed full of stuff to comment on; the challenge is how to best sort it all out so that on this one-dimensional page the commentary coheres.
First, the film is based on the best-selling Ernest Cline novel of the same title. Cline also partnered with Zak Penn to write the screenplay. Adapting Cline’s story for the screen, however, poses a problem because it is really two stories offered up as one; hence, incoherence lingers just at the film’s edges.
“Ready Player One” (great title) opens with 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) heading home. The year is 2045, the place Columbus, Ohio, and Wade’s neighborhood is definitely not Spielberg’s archetypal burb, one with trimmed grass and affluent two-story houses. Housing is called “the stacks,” meaning towers of rusting RVs and mobile homes, place precariously, one on top of the other. Wade lives in one, and his hood looks like an over-populated junkyard, discarded detritus, and a warren of old cars and garbage. In other words, his reality is oppressive and seemingly hopeless. He is also parentless, living with a sketchy aunt and her boyfriend du jour.
So it is no wonder that at every chance Wade, who is part of what is referred to as the “missing millions,” literally and virtually goes missing into a reality known as the Oasis (Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). It’s a virtual world of kaleidoscopic colors, avatars, a small cohort of friends, and a level of intensity that will likely never exist in his real dystopian world.
The Oasis knows no limitations other than one’s imagination. It’s spectacular as well as a spectacle. And woven into the Oasis is an announced Easter Egg hunt, defined as three keys hidden by its late creator, James Haliday (Mark Rylance), somewhere in this virtual reality. The person/avatar who finds all three keys will inherit all the rights to the Oasis as well as Haliday’s half trillion-dollar fortune.
Also in the hunt is Wade’s nemesis, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who wants ownership of the Oasis for commercial purposes and not for its inherently positive construct, which is what attracts Wade, whose avatar is Parzival, the mythical seeker of the Holy Grail.
So the race for the three keys is on. Which means that most of “Ready Player One” will be spent in the Oasis with Parzival and a girl, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), known in the real world as Samantha. Actually, their interaction is far more compelling when it is set in the Oasis than those brief breaks back on the mean streets of the stacks. Or those moments spent with Wade in his narrow room when he’s hooked up to his virtual reality gear.
In fact, Parzival, as we learn, is far more animated and cool than is Wade, as portrayed by a somewhat flat Sheridan. Another example would be Art3mis, with her anomie eyes, lots of attitude, and spiky, multi-colored hair; she’s wonderful to watch, and it’s clear why Parzival is attracted to her. Plus she fearlessly rides a very hot, red Shotaro Kaneda motorcycle. Parzival’s ride is a tricked out DeLorean, straight out of “Back to the Future,” the hit ’80s blockbuster. But then “Ready Player One” is stuffed full of ’80s pop culture artifacts and references (think of them as mini-Easter eggs).
Keep in mind that embedded in all of this action is Spielberg’s ultimate, flashing yellow, contradictory message, voiced at the end: Reality is far more preferable than anything we can create in the virtual world. Yet, when push comes to shove, the Oasis is not only seductive but addictive, and it’s understandable why Wade would rather escape his life as it is in bleak Columbus, Ohio. Ditto Samantha and the “lost millions.”
Truthfully, I found the Oasis and its multitude of characters far more appealing. The only downside was not the virtual, vertiginous geography but the writing. The plot, both virtual and real, was pretty thin (we know little about the backstories of Wade or Samantha). The narrative is basically held together by a series of vignettes: battles and races and chases all taking place, well, for the most part in the Oasis.
True, act three does take Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis back to the real world for the climactic finale (a prolonged chase) as well as the story’s denouement. It’s an uplifting ending; but the question is, will they stay there?

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