Review – Ready Player One

I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One because of Robin Williams.  Shortly after Williams’s passing, I caught a radio replay of an interview with him that was conducted by Whoopi Goldberg.  At one point in the interview, she simply asked him, “What are you reading?”  His response: “Ready Player One.”  If I remember correctly, she, like me, wasn’t familiar with it, so Williams gave a short synopsis and I was instantly intrigued.  When I got home, I found it on Amazon, ordered it, and fell in love with it.  Such imagination was on display.  So many great characters were driving the action.  The nostalgia was a poke to the pleasure centers of the brain. And the suspense was gripping; there were endless plausible endings to the story, making it a true page-turner.

When Steven Spielberg was announced as the director of the feature film adaptation, I would imagine most everyone who loved the book rejoiced.  I know I did. And those who didn’t should have.  Nobody is better suited and no one could be trusted more with a property such as this one, with its combination of scale, vision, story, character, excitement, and spectacle. Spielberg is the most versatile director of all-time – possibly the greatest of all-time.  He excels at everything he does and Ready Player One required someone capable of storytelling on multiple fronts.

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For those on the outside, Ready Player One tells the story of a virtual reality world called the Oasis.  When its monumentally rich creator (Mark Rylance) passes away, his will reveals that he has hidden a metaphorical Easter egg within the Oasis and whoever finds it first – by discovering a series of three hidden keys –  will inherit his entire real-world fortune and control of the Oasis.

It took me much longer to see Ready Player One than I had hoped and intended.  I traveled to Washington, D.C., this weekend, to attend Awesome Con and I just couldn’t find the time or energy to catch it while navigating the con.  But I finished my con goals a day early and so, today, I made my way to the IMAX at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to see it in as big a way as I could muster.  I’m so glad I did.

I knew within minutes that I was going to have to see the film in theaters, again.  I settled for a 2D IMAX showing because I was tired (having probably walked 20-25 miles over the last three days) but 2D just isn’t good enough.  Ready Player One deserves more than that.  The entire idea is that someone in the real world steps into a fictional one.  With 3D, the viewer will share that experience along with the characters.  Don’t give me any of that fluff about “not liking 3D”.  Enough.  Do you want to experience it in the best way possible or not?  Unless you have a vision/eye issue that prevents you from doing so, 3D is absolutely required to the point that I will prioritize buying a home 3D release (which, so far, Warner Brothers still does in North America) over 4K.

Spielberg was simply born for this kind of movie.  It’s completely second-nature for him.  Whereas another director would have taken 5 years and required $300 million to get the job done, Spielberg took three and probably could have done it with his spare change and a Starbucks gift card (Just kidding.  Kind of.  The reported budget is $175 million which isn’t as much as one would expect when watching the film.).  I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t have to work hard to make these films as good as they are; that would be ridiculous and insulting.  Nobody works harder than Steven Spielberg.  I’m saying that he has an instinct and understands exactly how to mix entertainment, heart, and subtext in a way that leaves the viewer thinking about life without sacrificing a single bit of fun along the way.

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And I can’t recall a film since the original Guardians of the Galaxy that was as much pure fun as Ready Player One.  The film exists on two fronts: inside the virtual Oasis and outside in the real world.  The two planes dovetail to tell a single united story and it matters not which reality we are coexisting with at any given time, as both are equally compelling, relevant, and thrilling.  The cast knocks it out of the park with authentic and charismatic performances (Rylance is a favorite of mine but Olivia Cooke really sizzles, here, too).

Underneath all of the mystery, puzzle-solving, and adventure, the narrative speaks well to our modern society, who tends to disappear into their own virtual worlds, whether it be games, social media, or anonymous comment sections and message boards.  Much like in the Oasis, everyone in our real world creates an identity for themselves within our virtual world.  Sometimes that identity syncs with their real-world selves, and sometimes not.  Spielberg addresses the oft-held belief that one must be more careful meeting people online than in the real world because it’s so easy for someone online to pretend to be someone that they aren’t.  But Spielberg counters that by asking if that’s really so different from the world of reality.  In fact, one might argue that most people are more comfortable being their true selves behind that protective shield of binary codes and digitized screens than they are face-to-face.  Generally speaking, if someone is true and honest in the real world, aren’t they also more likely to be so in a physically virtual existence?  Either way, one can never tell until they take the time and chance to get to know them.

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No matter one’s stance on that debate, it would be hard to deny the appeal of being able to live as and be whatever one wishes.  Within the Oasis are avatars of all types, representing the most ardent desires of each individual user.  Some are more down-to-Earth, some are hyper-stylized, and others are exact copies of fictional characters that already exist.  Think about it: what would you choose to be if you could be anything?  You’d see me running around as the Hulk.  Not creative, I know, but I don’t need creativity if I can just smash anything in my way.  (And look out, because I’d be the smart, merged Hulk, folks.)

Still, each user’s true personality leaks through any artificial veneer with which they disguise themselves.  The idea is that these falsehoods unleash a new confidence in each player that, should they unlock them in the real world, could allow each person to realize their own unique potential and be who they always dreamed they could be.  We all have it inside of us.  If I could turn pain into power the way the Hulk does, who could I be?  Spielberg holds a mirror up to all of us and asks us to ask ourselves our own personalized version of that very question.

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There will invariably be those who ignorantly whine about the “changes” to the book.  To those, I say this: shhhhhh.  Yes, the details change.  The challenges change.  The intellectual properties change.  They have to.  Warner Brothers wouldn’t have been able to get the rights to use everything in Ernest Cline’s book.  So they naturally stuck mostly to their own properties and it’s every bit as joyous and awe-inspiring as the novel.  When the second challenge is revealed, I felt myself break into an irrepressible grin of anticipation.  In fact, I had a grin on my face for most of the film.  It’s that kind of experience.

Even at two-hours-and-twenty minutes, the relationships are rushed a little bit.  There’s a lot to pack in and Spielberg knows the limits of his target audience.  Choices have to be made and in this kind of film, the spectacle has to win out because that’s why people are showing up.  Still, it’s a minor sacrifice and it’s an appropriate one. Ultimately, Ready Player One exists as a celebration of all things that used to be ridiculed and mocked.  Geeks now rule the world and the toxic masculinity that was once so prevalent is now taking a backseat to brains and fun and a new form of cool (well . . . at least that will be true after the 2020 elections).  For anyone who ever felt ostracized for loving the things you love, Steven Spielberg is here to remind you that you aren’t alone and now you’re among the in-crowd.  So stand up, be proud, and let those metaphorical geek flags fly!

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The fact of the matter is that, for me, this film sits behind only Jurassic Park on my list of favorite Spielberg films.  And it will easily find its way into my all-time Top Ten Spectacle Films.  Ready Player One is an instant classic.  It’s absolutely must-see.  Years from now, when asked what their favorite movie of all-time is, there will be many people who answer, “Ready Player One“.  When asked what movie made them love movies, there will be many people who answer, “Ready Player One“.  To steal a turn of phrase from Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman ForeverReady Player One is a 140-minute “joygasm” by which only those who are dead inside could fail to be entranced.  See it.  See it many times.  See it in 3D.  See it in IMAX 3D.  And sit as close as your field of vision will allow.  This is a new generational celluloid anthem that will outlive us all.

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