When the SXSW Film Festival presented the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One last night, “technical difficulties KO’ed the sound for the second time in a row, bringing the dizzying, VFX-fueled video game adventure to a grinding halt just at a climactic moment in an epic battle scene,” as Jen Yamato reports for the Los Angeles Times. But “the freewheeling SXSW festival was the perfect place for the snafu. During the film’s introduction, the audience of pop culture geeks seemed just as excited to see Spielberg in the flesh as they were author Ernest Cline, who co-adapted his own 2011 novel (with Zak Penn), about a youngster named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) on a quest to find a coveted Easter Egg in a virtual reality game filled with endless pop culture references. The film resumed soon enough, prompting a roar of excitement from the audience—and when the lights came up as the credits rolled, Spielberg was welcomed back to the stage with a boisterous standing ovation.”
“‘I didn’t make this movie just for gamers,’ Spielberg told the crowd, though he mentioned that he'd been a hardcore gamer since discovering Pong on Martha's Vineyard while making Jaws,” notes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “‘I made this for everybody . . . . The pop-culture references can be seen out of the side windows,’ he added, ‘but if you look right out of the front windshield, you can follow the story.’ . . . So much stuff crowds the frame for so long that it becomes hard to take it all in, even if viewers are used to processing information now at Pentium-chip speeds in their head. There's a lot to love here. There's a lot to hate. There's just a lot of everything, period. The key is getting through it all with bandwidth left over before Game Over flashes onscreen.”
“In Ready Player One, there is plenty of vicarious fantasy combat, notably a war of the worlds that features the Iron Giant as well as the red-eyed, gleaming silver Mechagodzilla,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “Every time a creature like that shows up (at one point, even the monster fetus from Alien makes a kind of palm-buzzer cameo), it’s entrancingly cool. Ready Player One tells a breathless and relatively coherent story—essentially, the future of civilization is riding on the outcome of a video game—but the movie, first and foremost, is a coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy.”
At the Verge, Tasha Robinson argues that “the film improves significantly on the book by prioritizing the story over the signifiers. . . . The exposition is just as bald, but once it’s done, Spielberg can focus on the endless dynamism of a world where anything is possible.”
As Joanna Robinson, writing for Vanity Fair, explains, Wade is “a nice, earnest boy who lives in the post-apocalyptic ‘stacks’ (so-named because the houses are literally stacked on top of each other) in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045. By this time, the real world is so filled with the usual miseries of overpopulation and societal decay that its residents, including Wade and his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Shoto (Philip Zhao), spend the majority of their time locked into an elaborate virtual-reality world called the OASIS. The four friends and, eventually, Wade’s crush, known online as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), are all hell-bent on cracking an elaborate and nearly impossible online game constructed by the late OASIS founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance, in top form). In a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque twist, whoever finds Halliday’s literal golden Easter egg first will inherit ownership of the OASIS itself.”
“Spielberg knows how to conduct a larger-than-life car race, even if it’s entirely composed of pixels,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “Whether or not the IV feed of geek culture is too much entirely depends on your taste, but make no mistake, Ready Player One is nothing if not fun.”
“Never, ever underestimate Steven Spielberg,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “That’s the biggest takeaway from Ready Player One.” It “amounts to a frenetic attempt at remaking the past thirty-odd years of popular culture by one of its greatest architects. Without seeing the movie, it’s hard to imagine anyone could turn it into a satisfying product; by the end, it’s clear that only Steven Spielberg can.”
“Unfortunately,” writes Monica Castillo for the Guardian, “Ready Player One has a noticeable girl problem: it can’t see female characters as just other people. For as skilled and resourceful as Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) is, her avatar is that of an impossible pixie dream girl—a creature with a svelte body, anime-inspired big eyes, weapons training and the person who knows and loves almost every reference Wade makes. Of course, she’s damaged with a birthmark on her face, and he’s the only nice guy who can see that she’s truly beautiful. Samantha is the artificially programed Eve to Wade’s Adam, but worse because she never gets the chance to sin.”
“It's a little twisted, at a time in which much of what is soul-sucking in our world was created or enabled by the internet, to cheer for humans who risk their lives to remain in a digital reality,” suggests John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. “In a film and novel full of nostalgia, perhaps the deepest throwback is to the spirit of those early home-computer adopters—many of them trained on Dungeons & Dragons world-building—who deeply believed that wondrous things could spring from the primitive programs they were learning to write. If today's digital citizens could step back from their newsfeed troughs and think about a web they'd actually like to be caught in, maybe there's an oasis worth fighting for somewhere out there.”
Update, 3/18: “Although brimming with the director’s best use of special effects since Minority Report, there’s a coldness to the surroundings that diminishes any of the emotional heft that could have made it more than just empty escapist fare,” finds Jordan Ruimy at the Playlist.
Updates, 3/22: “Still processing the audio visual feast that is Spielberg’s Ready Player One,” tweets Edgar Wright. “It has several scenes that confirm again him as the master of blocking action set pieces (big and small). And given this must have been a gargantuan VFX challenge it could really be called The Post.”
“There seems so much potential in the notion of living a spectral double life, being given the opportunity to build a ‘perfect’ copy of yourself and questions of how a digitized self-image chips away at the human soul and the nature of romantic connectivity.” David Jenkins in Little White Lies: “Yet unlike Spielberg’s 2001 masterpiece, AI: Artificial Intelligence, the story pays mere lip service to these rich sub themes.”
Update, 3/24: Writing for The Conversation, Craig Weightman argues that. “as my research in gaming shows, we are much nearer to such a reality than it may seem.”
Updates, 3/28: Spielberg “is the only person who could have made this movie and the last person who should have been allowed near the material,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “A lot of the starry-eyed do-it-yourselfers tinkering in their garages and giving life to their boyish dreams back in the ’70s and ’80s turned out to be harboring superman fantasies of global domination all along. They shared their wondrous creations and played the rest of us for suckers, collecting our admiration, our attention and our data as profit and feudal tribute. Mr. Spielberg incarnates this duality as perfectly as any man alive.”
“If Ready Player One turned out to be Steven Spielberg’s last film, it would make for a grand and fitting final curtain call for his brand of escapism,” writes Eric Henderson at Slant. “But since he’s following it up with, among other things, yet another Indiana Jones installment, it feels onanistic, the synthesis of a novelist’s own cloistered view of pop culture with the cinematic vocabulary of a filmmaker largely viewed as responsible for ossifying said culture. Ready Player One is the feature-length equivalent of that scene in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element where Milla Jovovich’s character visually shotguns the entire history of humankind in one sitting, only in this case it’s mostly just the Wikipedia pages tagged 1980s and 1990s. But it’s also a boldly attempted strike against the monolithic corporatization of fan service, and arguably one of the few films that defines dystopia as nothing less than a marketplace of trademarked, cross-promotional intellectual property. In other words, our here and now.”
“For all the clarity and confidence of Spielberg’s vision, I kept wondering if maybe his approach wasn’t a bit too antiseptic for this material,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “A movie like this begs for some confusion, a sense of the uncontrollability and chaos of what’s going on. You want to feel like the director’s about to lose his mind, or has maybe even already lost it—that he or she’s gone too far in and drifted too far off, fallen too much in love with this world. To put it another way: This was the first Steven Spielberg movie where I sometimes wondered if Luc Besson might have done a better job.”
For Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com, “the film’s strongest sequence . . . finds the characters’ avatars landing right smack in the middle of The Shining. I wouldn’t dream of giving away which elements of Stanley Kubrick’s film they explore—or which rooms of The Overlook Hotel. But I will say it is the cleverest use of CGI within a live-action setting, and it upends our expectations of a pop-culture phenomenon rather than simply regurgitating something we know and love back to us. It comments on why The Shining matters while also giving us the opportunity to see it unexpectedly from a fresh perspective. More of that kind of multi-layered approach could have elevated Ready Player One from a rollicking, name-dropping romp to a substantive tale with something to say about the influences that shape us during our youth and stick with us well into adulthood.”
“It’s a film in which Spielberg’s traditional reverence for the wonder and idealism of youth has had to compromise with wised-up survivalist toughness of the new YA mode,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “But what extraordinary visuals this films conjures up, with images that appear and disappear like quicksilver memes.”
Updates, 3/30: At the Ringer, K. Austin Collins points out that “this is a Spielberg Movie™ in every way that matters. It’s got the blithe sense of humor and chaotic action that we love; the staging is classical and precise, always telling us where and how to look; the exposition is bubbly and frequently fun; and the digital world-building is a hyperkinetic delight. When I saw the movie at South by Southwest earlier this month, Spielberg introduced it by saying it was a movie—not a film. A popcorn flick, not Oscar bait. Sounds good! So why does Ready Player One, for much of its two-and-a-half-hour run time, still feel like a turkey?”
“That our orphan hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), is much more invested in saving his game world from Sorrento’s clawed grasp than in mourning the IRL loved ones taken from him speaks to the skewed stakes in this messy, convoluted, interminable, and occasionally fucked-up fantasy,” writes Inkoo Kang at Slate.
“I would trade the whole of Ready Player One for the scene in E.T. in which Elliott shows his Star Wars action figures to his friend from outer space,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “In essence, he is doing what Wade does, parsing the minutiae of fictional places and plots, except that Wade does so in a dangerously thin dramatic atmosphere, whereas Elliott has an enraptured audience of one.”
“On one hand, the film is Spielberg’s most purely hedonistic in terms of spectacle, pace and sheer agitation,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “On the other, it’s a film that constantly asks, perhaps too overtly: is this all there is? Is this where all this technological brilliance has left us? That arguably makes Ready Player One a blockbuster in bad faith, constantly undermining and defusing the pleasures it purveys. But it’s fascinating to see a master filmmaker in the (at the very least) autumnal phase of his career making a work that’s at once so boisterously crowd-pleasing and so extremely neurotic.”
“What’s weirdest is Steven Spielberg signing on to direct a piece of material that only ever aspired to be a blatant Spielberg knockoff in the first place,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “Thing is, those early Spielberg pictures are a lot more sophisticated than even he probably remembers, and they’re a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Ready Player One.”
It “never quite finds a tone,” finds Richard Whittaker in the Austin Chronicle, where Moisés Chiullán interviews Ernest Cline. “Characters die in-game and IRL, and neither seems particularly important. It's almost as if, even after all these years, Spielberg doesn't quite trust himself to set this world out; since when did the king of opening sequences (cf every Indiana Jones film) need a thirty-minute voiceover? And yet, for all those weaknesses, this is a Steven Spielberg film, of the kind only Steven Spielberg can make. Big, raucous, heartfelt, referential, and unabashed in celebrating the culture he has always loved.”
For the Daily Beast, Nick Schager compares the movie and the book.
Updates, 3/31: At the Ringer, Sean Fennessey, Chris Ryan, and Bill Simmons “discuss and debate the prolific filmmaker’s best movies of all time” (65’00”).
“What are your favorite movies based on books?” the New York Times asks Cline, who replies: “Jaws,Blade Runner,The Shawshank Redemption,Jurassic Park, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy come to mind. And I would love to see Replay, by Ken Grimwood, adapted into a film.”
Updates, 4/1: “The book’s page-long encomium to masturbation is gone, although the suspicion remains that if the global population of Oasis users would have their collective goggles blown off if anyone asked someone on a date,” writes Tom Shone.
“This isn't the first time Spielberg has taken us on a Grail-hunt,” writes Philip Concannon, “but the sense of genuine wonderment and awe that I felt in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sorely lacking here. Ready Player One is spectacle without meaning; a world where ‘the only limit is your own imagination,’ but a world that critically lacks any tangible stakes or consequences.”
Updates, 4/3:Ready Player One is “a horror film,” argues the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “a movie of spiritual zombies whose souls have been consumed by the makers of generations of official cultural product and regurgitated in the form of pop nostalgia. The movie, framed as a story of resistance to corporate tyranny, is actually a tale of tyranny perpetuated by a cheerfully totalitarian predator who indoctrinates his victims by amusing them to death—and the movie’s stifled horror is doubled by Spielberg’s obliviousness to it.”
“Does Ready Player One know that it's a dark story recounted with oblivious lightness, in the same way that someone might tell you what they think is a funny anecdote about a wild night out but that sounds more like a description of alcoholism?” asks Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. She adds that “while Ready Player One is a kind of accidental horror movie, a big, escapist entertainment vehicle about how big, escapist entertainment vehicles are drugs with which the masses sedate themselves, it also feels out of touch with the times. It is, despite Spielberg's claims, neither a purehearted popcorn flick nor a Paul Verhoevenesque subversion, but something uneasily in between, cowed by the idea of the fanboy demographic it seems to be aimed at.”
Updates, 4/4: “Both 1941 and Ready Player One (the titles even rhyme) are illustrations of what happens when their creator takes what has always been an implicitly witty sensibility and pushes it too far in the direction of capital-P ‘Playfulness,’” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. “He ends up with something that’s pretty much the opposite of fun.”
Only those who’ve seen Ready Player One should read Anne Thompson’s piece on Spielberg’s nod to Kubrick.
Contributors to the A.V. Club have written up a big annotated list of the twenty-five “best set pieces of Steven Spielberg’s career.”
Update, 4/6: On Slate’s latest Spoiler Special (54’51”), Dana Stevens, Laura Hudson, Dawnthea Price, and Forrest Wickman ask, “Who is this movie for—gamers who are the age of its heroes or older audiences who will appreciate the ’80s pop culture references? Is this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel for the OASIS or against it? And why isn’t Mark Rylance’s tech guru the villain?”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.