People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do. They stay for all the things they can be.
I’ve had to kind of change my opinion about Steven Spielberg lately. After Lincoln & Bridge of Spies, I was of the opinion that Spielberg had matured into a very different filmmaker than he was when he was younger. He was, I thought, still capable of greatness, just of a more meticulous and slowly paced kind. I was saying that I doubted we’d ever get a really energetic film from Spielberg again. So I’ve backed up on that because Ready Player One is Spielberg in his grand blockbuster mode once again; it’s an unapologetic epic with sweeping vistas, massive action sequences and eye-popping visual effects. Is it good? Well, that’s another question, isn’t it?
The film is very, very flawed. It just has a lot of problems. The quest for the keys that control the Oasis, the virtual world at the heart of the film, is pretty much a Macguffin chase, but that’s not necessarily a problem. I really had a problem with some key elements though. It’s far and away time for Spielberg to get away from the hypnotic hold Mark Rylance has on him, because three movies into their collaboration, Rylance might just be trolling everyone. His performance here is just unbelievably bad. He’s ridiculously miscast; Halliday should be a good twenty-five years younger than he is. And I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing with his face which in this kind of perpetual pucker-mouth gawp. It’s annoying. I also really disliked a lot of the pop-culture references; yes, I understand that this whole thing is predicated on fanservice, but there’s a difference in well-done fan-service and just stupid pandering. There’s a lengthy sequence based around The Shining and that seems like a cool idea, but then suddenly there’s a knife-fight going on in Room 237 and it’s such a cheesy video game moment that you know Kubrick is rolling in his grave. Does Spielberg even really like The Shining? Because that whole sequence is a CGI explosion/action-sequence that is as far from The Shining as anything could be. The Iron Giant is another example. Look, I love The Iron Giant; it’s a near perfect film. But to put the Giant in the middle of a huge action sequence and have him galloping around shooting lasers and such is a huge middle-finger to original film which was, since apparently Spielberg and his team have never seen it, entirely predicated on overcoming propensity to violence. It’s ******* heart-warming. He ******* fights Godzilla in this movie. What the hell?
At the same time though, the movie isn’t horrible for all the missteps. Spielberg has a pretty fantastic cast, Rylance notwithstanding. Olivia Cooke is always good. Simon Pegg and Ben Mendelsohn are both really good, if underused; I really wish we’d had more of their characters as their respective relationships with Halliday and the Oasis are pretty psychologically and emotionally complex. Lena Waithe steals every scene she’s in as the main character’s sidekick. And, yes, I know we have to hate him now, but T.J. Miller is genuinely hilarious as the villain’s brutish, dim-witted enforcer. And there are certainly moments when Spielberg’s power as a blockbuster populist seem as fresh and vibrant as they ever have. A sequence in a kind of zero-gravity dance club is absolutely exhilarating and joyous, for example. So it’s not as bad as I initially made it out to be maybe. It has a breakneck pace and, if that pace occasionally feels a little flailing instead of being fun and controlled, it is that rare film that bumps right up against the two-and-a-half hour mark and doesn’t feel anywhere near that long. It’s a real mixed bag, ultimately, but it is nice to wonder about what Spielberg has for us next. I love his more meticulous, perfectly crafted movies as well, but it’s good to know he can still work in an old-school high-energy mode. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – a real mixed bag of an epic that’s sloppy, sometimes exhilarating, well performed, clumsily pandering, energetic, often lazy; this one’s all over the map, but pretty harmless, I guess. 2 ½ stars.