Review: Ready Player One
tl;dr: For yet another techno-corporatist dystopia, I found Ready Player One a surprisingly refreshing, hopeful, humanist story about uncynical protagonists whose only superpowers are earnestly caring about something. The visual effects are pretty well on-point, the action is well-done, and the dialogue is inconsistently but occasionally witty. I went in expecting the most vapid of action movies, and was pleasantly surprised.
I'd read plenty of thinkpieces explaining ways that Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One was shallow, bad, and/or problematic, but I had an evening to burn, so I went to go see it with a friend of mine.
I'm glad that I did; I enjoyed it a lot. (I'm going to say ~nothing about the 'and/or problematic'; just not going to go there today.)
spoiler note: Mild spoilers for references, worldbuilding, and visual style. No significant plot spoilers.
On its face, it's a effects-rich action-romp. And in that genre, it felt reasonably well-done, if not particularly deep (though it had its thematic notes, see 2A below). It would have been super easy for the plot to get stuck in a side-quest, but it somehow never really seemed to fall into that trap, and the pacing felt brisk throughout. The visual effects managed to be on the right side of intentionally-oversaturated without Hobbit levels of oh-come-on. My advice is to get a giant bucket of popcorn and sit back to just enjoy the show. (For more notes on what I enjoyed about the visual style, see 2B below.)
I was pleasantly surprised by the occasional witty quip of dialogue that dropped out of the blue -- the consistency was well below films or TV series that I enjoy for their witty dialogue, but it certainly had its moments. It seems like basically everyone except protagonist Wade "everyman" Watts gets at least one great line.
So, the pop culture references. You haven't been misled; there are lots. I felt like I understood something like ~75% of it all, but like at least half of those were throwaway comments I that would have just gone past me if I didn't know what they were about, so I should probably expect to have missed a lot. Skimming through a list afterwards, I feel like I picked up something more like half.
A review from elsewhere put it well, and I basically agree here:
I arrived at the movie prepared to cringe at the I-love-the-’80s obviousness of it at all. So it was a pleasure to discover that, for the most part, references do not particularly drive the story or even always shove themselves into the foreground of the frame—and that moreover, for every smirk at a “Cocktails & Dreams” neon sign, I felt corresponding moments of pleasing bafflement over what were most likely famous avatars from video games I’d never played, from eras well outside the ’80s childhood that was supposed to be cannibalized by this mindless referencing.
In other words, I was a little bit relieved not to get all the references I noticed, let alone notice all the references in the movie. (...)
I haven't read the book, but my understanding is that the gestalt of references was updated slightly for the movie, a treatment that I expect I appreciated.
If you thought Guardians of the Galaxy was heavy-handed, stay far away; if the Pac-Man cameo from Guardians, Vol. 2 made you cheer out loud in the theater, then Ready is probably up your alley. Certainly the movie had more going for it than the service to fans, but I can't imagine it being nearly as much fun if the gratuitous references didn't make you crack a smile the way they made me.
But the thing about Ready Player One that really hit home for me was something I wasn't expecting at all -- its hopeful, humanist message. Maybe I've been consuming too much techno-corporatist dystopia recently (Black Mirror; Westworld; Blade Runner 2049; Ghost in the Shell remake; Three-Body Problem, review forthcoming; Terra Ignota), but for a story set in a techno-corporatist dystopia, the movie left me feeling surprisingly cheery about the human condition.
First: a diet heavy on the Marvel Cinematic Universe will leave you with too much of stories of unrelatable, inhuman characters forged by luck or circumstance, and "complicated" (in practice: distanced further) by their impossibly caricatured flaws. It's refreshing to instead have a few ordinary-people protagonists whose superpower is just that they care.
Or perhaps it's relevant here that I recently moved to what feels like the world's most aggressively corporatist flirting-with-dystopia, and for that and other significant personal reasons have recently been feeling uncomfortably adrift among forces beyond my control. Given all that, it was refreshing to stumble on an uncynical story about a few earnest geeks (as much in the sense of actually caring about things than in the specific genres of their interests) that concluded that the choices that people make can make the world better.
I hadn't realized until partway through the movie just how lost I had been feeling lately [ed: 1.5 months ago; somewhat better now], despondently wondering if in fact the choices that people make could matter at all; I certainly walked away feeling heartened on that count. Yes, the film's grounding morality said -- if you care about your work, stick to the code of what you believe in, and do it all with a bit of panache, then yes there is a place for you to matter in the world. Even if that's designing 3d models or making game walkthrough videos, if it makes people's lives better, then it matters. (Sometimes, people even notice and think to appreciate you for it.)
Your emotional mileage, of course, may vary.
I also found the visual language of the film surprisingly clever. It feels odd to compare such a CGI-driven number to Mad Max: Fury Road, that consummate spectacle of practical effects, but Ready Player One does manage to build an otherwhere rich in detail that's laid on thick enough to feel lived-in (ironically enough), even as it jump-cuts through a spectrum of fantastic locales. A few things I found particularly clever:
- The corporate stormtroopers of IOI manage to both pay visual homage to the stormtroopers of Star Wars and successfully feel jarringly out-of-place in the dreamland of oasis. By contrast, everything from the scenery to the extras to the good-guy combatants in the final battle manage to successfully evoke the anarchic creative optimism of a million amateur artists.
- And in the movie's real world, the IOI stormtroopers' war room reminded me (very satisfyingly) of a trading floor of all things -- a well-funded company that doesn't blink at throwing a few hundred well-trained specialists into the top-of-the-line immersive workstations that they'll need to take on the world's hardest problem together side-by-side? Yeah, looks pretty much like I'm used to. (Except: it's infuriatingly silly that the IOI's professional game-players have to unhook from their stations and physically "go back to respawn". Seriously: what? Whoever designed that system flaw deserves to be fired from IOI, whether or not it later becomes relevant to the plot!)
- Meanwhile, the slums of Cleveland ("the fastest-growing city in the world!") seem appropriately run-down and abandoned-in-place for a world that "stopped trying to solve our problems". The subtle creep of the virtual world around the edges of the 'real world': advertising, passers-by absorbed in their visors -- without a single gaudy pop-out-at-you hologram -- just seem to work.
- Back in oasis, the way that gamers' avatars burst into bloodless showers of coins when they die is a charming visual effect, and leads to two of the best visual gags of the film near the end of the final battle, as well as a few cute moments in earlier scenes.
tl;dr, no big complaints (beyond the spottiness of the dialogue mentioned above); the few moments of technical implausibility seemed forgiveable. Outperformer of expectations, and surprisingly human and charming.