A film like Ready Player One (2018) shows how the question “Is it good?” can be rendered irrelevant for films of serious artistic intent. Make no mistake: Despite the flashy visuals and oodles and oodles of CGI, including a scene Walter Chaw memorably calls “a giant battle of billions of units of processing power versus billions of units of processing power,” Spielberg is still firmly at the helm, once again smuggling his own concerns into a work palatable to the hoi polloi—the ol’ good-tasting medicine trick. And this medicine is too tasty by half.
The critics are busy writing hot takes on the film’s thematic incoherence, which consists in denigrating the virtual world while simultaneously glorifying it, like Hacksaw Ridge (2016) did for war. Richard Brody, for example, rails against the monocultural tyranny of 2045 due to James Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) easter egg hunt, while Charles Bramesco laments the decontextualization of all these cultural icons to fit the needs of the plot.
All of these are true. The thing is, though, that all of these problems stem from Ernest Cline’s novel and screenplay draft, as does the cool-girl-as-prize sexism that bleaches the relationship between Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) and Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) of any chemistry whatsoever, through no fault of theirs. Later rewrites by Eric Eason (uncredited) and Zak Penn did little to tackle these issues, while managing to do something funky to the few merits of the source material. I’ve written before on film adaptations of books, and frankly speaking, this one doesn’t work.
The book is rightly characterized as reams of eighties pop culture references intermittently interrupted by a plot. But the screenwriters, writing for a visual medium, didn’t have to worry too much about that; simply turn each written mention into a visual cameo, and Bob’s your uncle! Unfortunately, that leaves us with only the bare bones of a very episodic plot. It’s hard to make a story about collecting three keys non-episodic, but when most of the time the characters in the novel are obsessing over Halliday’s obsessions, each episode is turned into a breath of fresh air, when things actually start to move. After long stretches of wandering in the wilderness, each insight that furthers the plot feels significant, even if stumbled upon by dumb luck.
In contrast, the weightlessness of the film has everything to do with the sped-up pacing. Like the mirror-image of Blade Runner 2049 (2017), when everything happens at a fast pace, nothing stands out. The big moments feel exactly like the small ones. This is intentional on Spielberg’s part. Bilge Ebiri (in a perceptive overview of Spielberg’s ouevre) suggests that Spielberg is operating in “parent” mode, chastising his target demographic for ignoring the “real world,” and I wholeheartedly agree. In arguing for leaving the house for a breath of fresh air once in a while, he deliberately deprives the major virtual-world plot points of significance while emphasizing the physical-world actions and relationships by slowing things down. Even during an action set-piece, Samantha’s actions in meatspace are slower and less frenetic than the actions of her virtual avatar. Of course, what constitutes the real world isn’t as simple as this binary would suggest, as Chris Plante points out in panning the film’s solution of turning the OASIS off two days a week, but given the tone of most of the film, Spielberg seems to have painted himself into a corner.
All this is to say that Spielberg is operating on a much higher level than the vast majority of people give him credit for—a leitmotif of his career, it seems. There’s a Chinese idiom that goes, “If the tune is too high-art, few will join in (Qugao hegua).” Like Thomas More making his case in Utopia, the example is so good it distracts from the point, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads at what it all means.
Editor’s note: David Ehrlich, who posted his review soon after this piece went live, essentially also argues that Spielberg made an incongruent film to teach us a lesson, but for him the lesson has to do with blockbusters and fandom.