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Ready Player One review - Spielberg's gargantuan splurge of escapism

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How was this ever a book?

Is there any song more perfect to open Ready Player One than Van Halen’s ‘Jump’? Still glowing with kitsch, its chunky synths chime in perfect 8-bit harmony with the film’s nerdiness. But its stadium bombast and immensity also seems appropriate – Ready Player One, when the stops are pulled, is enormous.

Were it not for the existence and popularity of Ernest Cline’s book, it’s unlikely such a film would have been made, even with Steven Spielberg at the helm. Studios would probably have branded it as an indulgent mess. Audiences would have seen it as the circle-jerking peak of pop nostalgia, a final hurrah for artefactual cinema before this movie becomes a black hole and sucks in every piece of pop culture made since 1980.

Here the movie nonetheless stands, and the qualms of hedonistic nostalgia fetishes can dissipate. Though the film’s emotional stakes could be accused of defeating themselves at every turn, Spielberg keeps our new story in the driver’s seat where it belongs, and the nostalgia largely on the periphery.

Our avatar for Spielberg’s 33rd round of play, set in 2045, is Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts. As part of a canon of iconic Spielbergian protagonists –Indiana Jones, Tintin, Jurassic Park’s Dr Malcolm, and the wide-eyed, nerdy loner with whom Watts shares the most DNA, E.T.’s Elliott – he’s barely a little more than non-descript. Sheridan’s performance as the constantly slack-jawed teen fits Watts well enough, but rarely plumbs any kind of depth. Then again, neither does the film, which is far less a problem for the completed whole than the protagonist in particular.

Watts, like many others living in the future, is an avid player in the OASIS, a virtual reality universe created by a deified game programmer named James Halliday (a shuffling, quiet Mark Rylance), whose death years before shook America and the world. In his wake, he left behind a set of clues and keys leading to a hidden Easter egg within the game that would grant the user ownership of the OASIS.

Watts has been attempting to uncover the first key, as have the employees at IOI, a corporation acting as the proxy for the capitalist urges spoiling pop culture in an extended metaphor that loses its footing several times throughout the picture.

It was a bold move for Spielberg to make the OASIS an entirely animated environment, particularly since it looks, quite necessarily, like a video game. Anything lacking texture would make the enterprise fall apart, and the question of heft weighs heavily on every ticket-holder’s mind. Frankly, the film looks stunning. Its wonder would likely shrink in parallel with the size of any cinema screen, but once again, Spielberg’s joined-at-the-hip collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has heralded a visual blow to the brain.

Kaminski’s camera travels through spaces like few others in the business, and here that is crucial: nothing is ever flat, for fear of succumbing to video game cut scene fustiness. The camera soars through spaces between vehicles and characters, and dances around its subjects with restlessness and energy. One extremely special sequence, a car race, is a genuine show-stopper.

Of course, at over two hours, the film oversteps the mark by more than a few inches. What seems like the climactic fight, as close as the film gets to the spluttering movie-bro orgy everyone thought it would be, actually rambles for an age. It collapses what was previously the film’s strongest weapon: the puniness of reality in comparison to the game’s marvelling visuals makes the affair lighter on its feet than expected, but in the final stretch, this only translates to an emotional mass of almost zero.

Spielberg deploys a few audience manipulation tricks – and, dammit, they work – but it’s not enough to salvage the climax, eventually only just sticking the landing. Each scene muddies the final message of the film, and when that comes, it takes all the strength one can muster to not be disappointed at its short-sightedness: that the game was really what was important the whole time.

Some enticing signposts towards a ‘fanboy vs. reality’ conflict, covertly one subject of last year’s The Last Jedi, presumably were either smoke and mirrors or underestimated for their potential importance. Perhaps we should take comfort in how little this feels like a disaster, only a flawed piece of cinematic escapism from the former master of the art. How this quintessentially large-screen splurge was ever a piece of prose is truly beyond me.

Ready Player One is out March 29th, distributed by Warner Bros.

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