It’s perhaps no surprise that Steven Spielberg helmed the film version of the Ernest Cline book.
It’s almost as if the director was given a toy-box, chock-full of things from his own past and his cinematic loves, and was told to make a family film that was a sugar rush of fun, nostalgia bingo and little else.
So it is then with the highly-anticipated Ready Player One, a film that’s as superficial and hollow as one of the season’s chocolate treats, but looks as shiny and welcoming.
In the year 2045, Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts lives in a virtual reality world, as the real world is a none-too-welcoming place. Sectioned off in the Stacks, a series of vertical caravan park slums, the inhabitants spend their time in the Oasis, a VR-led world that’s as much second life as it is geek heaven.
Living off the “you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone” ethos to avoid the fact “reality is a bummer”, Wade is chasing a series of keys laid down by the departed Oasis founder Halliday (Mark Rylance, a nicely pivoted turn of fragility and meekness).
With the promise that anyone who finds these could take over the empire, everyone’s out to get it – including Ben Mendelsohn’s corporate bigwig baddie Sorrento…
Ready Player One is a candy-filled flick, pumped full of sugary nostalgia and geeky Easter eggs.
Certainly, the Oasis is a hive of activity and creativity – and bizarrely the real world is devoid of any colour and texture.
The resultant mix means that emotional attachment is enforced and attempted by voiceover and exposition, and Spielberg’s desire to get to the first set piece, a CGI race that takes on King Kong, means the emotional beats are completely off immediately.
At least Pixels had the good grace to try and throw some character development before going hell for leather with its gameboy sensibilities.
It’s not a crippling blow to Ready Player One, but it does render the emotional attachment little more than a shallow and hollow experience, one that sacrifices good dynamics for broadstrokes blandness from its leads – and subsequently squanders Sheridan’s previously demonstrated depth.
There’s no denying the set pieces, thrown repeatedly at your face. It’s here that Spielberg’s eye for spectacle and desire to entertain in a family friendly setting come to the fore. But the tonal mix doesn’t quite work – it’s never fully kiddy enough to hit the straps, and hardly adult enough to warrant some of the material.
Certainly a tribute sequence to The Shining and the Overlook Hotel is a great touch – but also, there’s an element of Scooby Doo there, where there should be genuine fear and perhaps horror.
In many ways, this is the petard which hoists Ready Player One and foists it into forgettable fare.
Along with cheesy dialogue, brush strokes characters and a lack of a real villain (despite Ben Mendelsohn’s best attempts), Ready Player One emerges as perhaps a victim of its own zig-zag route to its denouement.
While the CGI delivers a spectacle to rival Avatar and banishes the ghosts of the Polar Express, the story’s refusal to adhere to any kind of emotional beats reduces it to a mere pixelated outing of a film.
In terms of spectacle, it delivers what you’d expect; but with its cartoony-as-hell ethos, Ready Player One squanders the chance to embrace a degree of profundity, thanks to a desire to satiate a quick fix.
Not exactly game over, but Ready Player One may have needed a little more development work to ensure it was a film that would be a welcome nostalgia treat when rolled out annually on the small screen.
It engages but the involvement is only brief; it provides vicarious engagement in its virtual world, but saddles its real world with nothing more than a fleeting investment.
Surrender to those rhythms and you’ll be happy – go in expecting more, and you’ll feel like you’re watching someone play a video game, rather than experience it firsthand.
Ready Player One
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, TJ Miller, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg
Director: Steven Spielberg