Before Ready Player One screened to a packed audience in The Paramount last night, Steven Spielberg took the stage and talked animatedly about how much he loves Ernie Cline’s book, and how he knew this was the right movie for him to make because, “I’ve been a gamer since 1974, when I played Pong on Martha’s Vineyard while filming Jaws.”
It was charming to see this seasoned vet (like, THE seasoned vet) so excited and so frankly nerdy, and that level of nerdy enthusiasm shows in every frame of Ready Player One, a movie rife with potential to be crassly commercial, a no-brainer cash grab for Spielberg to hammer out in between thoughtful, intimate films like The Post. But it’s honestly not – this movie is authentically dorky, filled with the open-hearted love of movies that Spielberg has been bringing to cinema since he started making shorts in 1959. This is a man who loves pop culture, loves film, loves video games and misfit kids and the 1980s, and Ready Player One is his good-natured tribute to all of those things and, yes, even to himself.
Because of course Cline’s book is laden with references to Spielberg films, alongside the horror movie and gamer and ‘80s music references. So when Spielberg announced he was directing the adaptation, everyone wondered how that would work. How could Steven Spielberg direct an adaptation of a book that was made in his shadow, this overstuffed Amblin-referential love letter directed by the Amblin man himself? The answer is without an ounce of irony or self-consciousness. Ready Player One is a movie for kids, or, specifically, one kid: the kid Steven Spielberg once was, who grew up, became one of the greatest directors of all time, and then treated himself to a giant VR playground filled with massive robots, zero-gravity dance clubs and time-travel deus ex machinas that look like Rubick’s cubes but are named after Zemeckis.
Just typing that out makes me roll my eyes, but somehow Ready Player One – as crowded and jumbly and pop culture-obsessed as it is – pulls it off with charm. The screenplay from Zak Penn (The Avengers) helps, leaving out some of the more ridiculous stuff in the book and replacing all of the key quests with far more cinematic moments. In the book, when main character Parzival/Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) passes the first of three tests created by a billionaire loner (Mark Rylance) in order to win control of the internet of the future, it’s by walking through a total 3D recreation of War Games and delivering every line and gesture first delivered by Matthew Broderick in that film. So, in other words, if this challenge made its way into Ready Player One, we would just be watching War Games. As cool as War Games is, Ready Player One is long enough, at two hours twenty, that we don’t need to add another whole movie inside of it. Penn and Spielberg change this challenge into a thrilling virtual reality car race, complete with King Kong as the big boss blocking the finish line. It’s such an exciting scene, so assured and propulsive, and it’s one of many reminders in this film that Spielberg created the language we now use in modern action scenes, so when he’s making a movie that’s packed with action scenes like this one, it’s going to resonate big time.
The kids also resonate, although certainly less so. Sheridan is pretty good as Parzival, and Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe are great as Art3mis and Aech, respectively. But it’s tricky, because much of the action takes place in the virtual world, and it’s a weird, uncanny valley sort of virtual, video game virtual, so these actors are having to work really hard to emote, more so than even most animated films. Ultimately, Ready Player One is a story about loners finding each other, and that’s a story that’s firmly in Spielberg’s wheelhouse, but none of the story, such as it is, lands as much as the fun, action-packed, epic Lord of the Rings-style climax does.
That’s a problem, obviously – “there’s no story but it’s awfully fun!” isn’t much of a recommendation. But, again, and not to belabor the point, we’re talking about Steven Spielberg here. If he wants to do dorky cartwheels through a neon-soaked nostalgia playground, I’m going to be there for it.
So, yeah, I’m here for Ready Player One. It’s probably the nerdiest, shallowest, least intellectual movie I’ll enjoy this year, but damn, did I enjoy it. I think you will, too.