Ready Player One sacrifices substance for spectacle

The feeling of high-spirited adventure infused in the movie's virtual reality world is an irresistible draw for the audience.

From the director's chair, Steven Spielberg welds together a spectacular world of grandeur saturated with brilliant colours and intoxicating special effects to thrill the audience with Ready Player One.

Spielberg's newest, shiniest blockbuster tells the story of Wade (Tye Sheridan), an orphan who teams up with a ragtag group of other unknowns, nicknamed High Five, to ultimately stop a big time corporation from deciding the economic fate of the world by taking over the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS).

The OASIS itself, an enormous virtual reality world, is an escape for the characters, as it is for the audience, created by programmer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) to serve as a drug fix for humans in a desolate Earth that's only a couple of decades from now.

The real world of Ready Player One has fallen on terrible times so much that a great chunk of its population, regardless of economic muscle, will give up anything real to escape into the OASIS.

The story revolves around a challenge, programmed by Halliday into the OASIS, to complete a hunting quest whose success would bestow full ownership of OASIS to the winner.

Much of the expansive world of Ready Player One is narrated by Wade who identifies as Parzival in the avatar he creates for himself when inside OASIS. Wade teams up with Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Helen Harris/Aech (Lena Waithe), Toshiro Yoshiaki/Daito (Win Morisaki), and Akihide Karatsu/Sho (Philip Zhao) to keep the future of OASIS, and the world, out of the reach of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who has sinister plans for it.

Without spoiling too much of the movie, much of Ready Player One takes place inside the OASIS which is not a bother because it is one of the most visually appealing depictions of a cinematic world.

This is what makes Ready Player One a grand event.

OASIS is a world that's cartoony and possesses video game-like qualities that offer its players a wide range of options to be anything they so desire. One of the movie's most hilarious twists is when one of its most prominent characters turns out to be a catfish, perhaps a passing commentary on today's internet culture.

The feeling of  high-spirited adventure that's infused in the virtual reality world is an irresistible draw for the audience as it features set piece after set piece, with each one more electrifying than the next.

While the story is a fairly uncomplicated scavenger hunt that has real life implications, the world of OASIS is hypnotic in a dazzling and accomplished manner that speaks to Spielberg's genius. This is how the movie engages and entertains its audience in equal measure.

Next to the astounding beauty of the OASIS, the other biggest accomplishment of Ready Player One is that it's a pop culture rabbit hole. The quest in the movie itself is about finding Easter eggs to aid the players hoping to take control of the virtual world.

Just like the challenge for the characters is to pay attention to pick up on important pop culture touchstones of Halliday's life to win the game, the audience is also treated to catching onto waves of pop culture references as a treat.

Ready Player One is filled with quips and cultural references that span across movies, television shows, music, comics and video games in one big nostalgic acid trip.

Wade drives a DeLorean that's unequivocally inspired by the time-travelling automobile from the Back to the Future franchise which he uses to race in one of the required tasks to complete the quest; a race that features him trying to evade the iconic King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Spielberg's own Jurassic Park movie.

Spielberg unleashes a world of unending references to the cornerstones of 80s pop culture that includes The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, War of the Worlds, Duran Duran, The Lord of the Rings, Minecraft, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Battlestar Galactica, Atari 2600, The Iron Giant; and that's not even half of what turns up in the movie. (Happy hunting!)

While some of these references only get passing comments or appearances, others get a little bit more love, like The Overlook Hotel from the The Shining which hosts one of the movie's most engaging sequences which is tinged with some refreshing horror.

Despite that Ready Player One spends most of its time inside its own virtual reality world, it is still shaped mostly by what happens outside of it, in the real world, and this is where the movie sometimes feel like such a letdown when you're not swimming in the spectacular world of the OASIS.

In spite of its grand ambitious world-building, the movie suffers from not having a character-driven narrative that provides the heart that makes should make the story more compelling than just video game hysteria.

Wade, as the lead character, is not dramatically engaging enough to not continue to feel like only a video game avatar especially when he's in the real world. His motivations are badly-articulated and his emotional agency lacking.

Even though Spielberg establishes the stakes early with a huge loss to the protagonist, he fails to follow through to make the loss pay off in the long run and it feels awfully wretched when abruptly revisited down the line.

Wade's unaffecting performance is largely responsible for why his conflict with Sorrento feels significantly hollow next to the stakes they're supposed to be battling over as Sorrento himself comes across an overly cartoonish villain.

While Spielberg starts admirably with positioning Samantha as a more fully-developed and complicated character with a motivation that resonates, much of that work is squandered before the credits roll.

The most significant character that thoroughly acquits himself is Halliday who benefits greatly from a beautifully pensive performance from Rylance. The audience is able to take an engaging look into his agonising life through a well-written and magnetic performance that stands out.

Overall, Spielberg uses the glitz of the OASIS and his neat, enchanting special effects to gloss over what can only be described as narrative cowardice.

While the movie initially appears to be a critique of something in our contemporary culture burning at the back of his mind, Spielberg doesn't follow through with a courageous resolve.

The OASIS is set up in the mould of today's internet that's an escape of sorts; or even a new fancy drug that produces the sort of high for its user that'll compel them to spend money, out of the little they have, to get another hit.

Like a drug, players are addicted to spending their precious time in an exciting virtual world where they can be more than they really are while the real world continues on in disrepute with not enough people ready to stem the rot in it.

While the movie dangles the possibility of completely putting an end to the OASIS, Spielberg only settles for a compromise that could very well produce significantly terrible implications.

Despite this drag, Ready Player One is a spectacular adventure spectacle that has great moments of thrills to savour.

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