Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg's digital fantasy land.

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Warner Bros.

Congratulations on having once watched Akira and Iron Giant and Back to the Future. High fives to everybody who remembers those Tears for Fears and Twisted Sister tracks. And big thumbs up to everyone who recognizes the name Zemeckis, and can spot a Beetlejuice suit, and who knows where Faber College is located (in Animal House). Have we got a movie for you.

I don't mean to be snotty. Fandom is fun, and probably all of us have staked out little swaths of pop-culture history for the enjoyment of ourselves and our fellow cultists. But it's hard not to be a little annoyed by a picture that seeks to salute its audience for something as passive as pop-culture consumption—as if the accrual of vintage minutia were some sort of achievement.

Still, Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One really is fun in some ways. Based on a 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline (who cowrote the script), the movie is an attempted return to the pulpish glories of Spielberg's earlier career (Close Encounters, E.T., the first three Indiana Jones films) after the commercial strike-out of his last fantasy feature, The BFG, in 2016. In RPO, Spielberg flourishes all of his credentials as a great filmmaker. He handles the movie's action scenes—which are virtually nonstop, and often highly complex—with unflagging clarity; and he makes room for embers of emotional warmth amid all of the film's visual clamor. There's never a feeling that we're in anything other than very good hands.

What spoiled the movie for me, over the long course of two hours and 20 minutes, was its suffocating abundance of digital imagery. There was bound to be a lot of CGI in a movie about life inside a virtual-reality universe, and it's been done very well here. But it rarely lets up, to the point where even the movie's lead performers are often hidden within the digital carapace of their in-game avatars. After a while, you feel as if you're staring at nothingness made manifest.

The story is basic Willy Wonka. The year is 2045, the place, Columbus, Ohio. Our orphaned teen hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, of X-Men: Apocalypse), is living with his aunt and her slob boyfriend in the Stacks—a sort of slum-on-stilts composed of battered trailers piled atop one another high into the dystopian air. Life sucks, and pretty much everybody owns VR goggles and haptic gloves and spends most of their time in the Oasis—a vast online world created by the late, legendary programmer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday died 10 years ago, but he left behind an Easter Egg in the Oasis, and whoever finds it will inherit control of his grand digital construct as well as his multi-billion-dollar estate. No one has found the Easter Egg yet, but Wade is among the many who keep searching for it.

The movie announces its obsession with the 1980s (mostly) right at the beginning, with a blast of Van Halen's 1983 hit "Jump." (Why people of the far future should be preoccupied with the cultural effluvia of a decade some 60 years in the past is not explored; we're told that Halliday was nuts about this stuff, and that's that. For the record, Ernest Cline was born in 1972.) We follow Wade into the Oasis, a universe where people can change sex, change species, and visit exotic locales such as Vacation Planet and Planet Doom. Wade's name in the Oasis is Parzival, and we soon meet two of his online friends and fellow Egg-hunters: a punky redhead who calls herself Artemis (Olivia Cooke, of Thoroughbreds) and a very large, Vin Diesel-esque gearhead called Aech (Lena Waithe). Wade has never met these people in real life, but of course he will.

Early on, Spielberg hurls us into a spectacular automotive race filled with souped-up cars and bikes screaming through New York City dodging such towering obstructions as King Kong and a rampaging T. Rex from Spielberg's own cinematic archive. This is top-shelf action design, and the director sweetens it with a bit of light, not especially convincing romance between Wade and Artemis. Then he stirs in some chilly menace in the person of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelson), a greedhead exec with Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a company that wants to take over the Oasis and find ways to monetize it. Boo to him.

As the picture moves along we get holographic check-ins by Halliday, an alarming visit to an IOS "loyalty center," and some nifty one-liners from T.J. Miller, playing Sorrento's hulking online creature I-R0k. There are also two terrific set-piece scenes, both technical triumphs. One takes place in a huge nightclub where dancers float through the air to the dark strains of New Order's "Blue Monday." The other is set in a mockup of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, complete with elevator blood flood and the ghastly crone in Room 237. Following this latter segment of the film, the action settles down to extended cat-and-mousery pitting Sorrento and his evil minions against Wade and Artemis (whom we've by now met in her offline incarnation as a rebel leader of some sort named Samantha).

As the movie wobbles to a soft close, we have time to contemplate its unfortunate shortcomings. Tye Sheridan is a dull leading man here, and you might wish that some screen time had been pried away from him and given instead to Olivia Cooke, who has a more spirited presence. The overload of CGI, with very little let-up, is oppressive, and grows more so as the picture wanders on past the two-hour mark. Also tiring is the spot-that-reference/check-that-artifact game we're expected to play. Yes, yes, that DeLorean does look familiar. And Michael Jackson's red "Thriller" outfit, okay. Bill and Ted, you say?

Is there any nugget of '80s cultural detritus that the filmmakers were unable to cram into this picture? Just as I was wondering that, somebody up on screen shouted, "It's fuckin' Chucky!"

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  1. Seriously, why would people 30 years from now give a shit about 80s pop culture? Or 90s or 00s or 10s pop culture? Teenagers today don’t dress up as the Sharks and the Jets from West Side Story.

    Though… I guess they could get away with the premise that everything from the 80s had been remade in the 2030s. That’s plausible.

    1. Teenagers today don’t dress up as the Sharks and the Jets from West Side Story.

      But they did inspire the Tough Brets.

      1. I’m guessing you mean this, loser.

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    2. I guess they could get away with the premise that everything from the 80s had been remade in the 2030s.

      Shit, everything from the 80’s is being remade now. By the 2030’s they’ll be on to remaking everything from the 90’s.

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    3. In the 1970s and 80s we were obsessed with the 50s. Now people are into the 80s. 30 years from now they’ll be dressing like us and thinking it’s cool.

    4. Part of what bugged me about the book was that the dead, cagey billionaire mastermind claimed to be a child of the 80s and the only hard, consistent 80s reference or plot point that was solidly 80s, Ladyhawke, was more of a fascination of the 1-2 generations younger protagonist. There were 80s references, but lots of major plot points were solidly 70s events or phenomenon and massive 80s cultural high points, even geeky ones, were totally absent from the book.

      Nothing singularly crossing the line of deus ex, just a bunch of inconsistencies that didn’t jive or feel right. Like the overcrowded world that’s running out of resources where everybody had ungodly amounts of bandwidth and, apparently, you can just find a trailer full of everything you need to survive, including power, right around any corner and the *other* cagey billionaire partner somehow found Narnia or Eden in the near-apocalyptic dystopia.

    5. Seriously? Haven’t you noticed all the teenagers walking around in Beatles or Pink Floyd or Led Zepplin shirts? 40-50 years out of date already; it’s not too hard to imagine that trend continuing.

    6. To be fair, audiences in the future give a shit about 80s pop culture, as well as 60s and 70s and so on because the “cultural landscape” (such as it is) affected society and it’s always a helpful lens through which to analyze any particular era. Of course there’s a lot of dishonesty in it (country is almost always neglected), but I expect nothing less.

    7. Because James Halliday was extremely into 80s culture, and the prize for solving his 80s based puzzle is hundreds of billions of dollars?

  2. s there any nugget of ’80s cultural detritus that the filmmakers were unable to cram into this picture?

    MTV News?

    1. If they don’t drop a Ultima 4 reference then I ain’t even impressed.

      1. Wouldn’t Wasteland be more appropriate?

    2. I assume there’s no Dukes of Hazard/ General Lee reference. The rebel flag on the roof would be way too un-woke.

      1. As would Daisy.

        1. Let’s just leave Daisy out of it

      2. Never meanin’ no harm….

      3. “Hey hey hey!” is unwoke now, but its omission was racist at the time the book was written.

      4. “unwoke”?
        Do you even consider the words you use before you use them?

  3. The 1980s were the last great Golden Age of mankind. Or at least is viewed as such.

    Look at youtube. While it didn’t exist in the 1980s, if you look at virtually any music video from the 1980s, you will see countless posts about people missing the 1980s or wishing they were in the 1980s.

    There’s the NewRetroWave channel, which is about music that sounds (sorta) like music from the 1980s.

    1. It was a good time for a lot of the music I listen to. The mid to late 90s were a bit of a wasteland in that regard, even if that was my childhood.

      The 80s were when a lot of technology solidified as well. Video games and personal computers in general had their first full decade in the 80s, or at least what most people know of video games. I am explicitly ignoring the Odyssey 1 and 2.

      1. Everything I listen to is from the late 90s, loser.

        1. Check out this Lou Bega fan over here.

          1. He’s probably blasting 311 while playing Devil Sticks as we speak.

            1. The ’90s are coming back, yo. I’ve mentioned this before, but – at least around here – the urban kids are all rocking flattops again, and the suburban ones have that floppy Kurt Cobain hair and flannel.

              That said, here in Hampton Roads, 311 never went away. They could live comfortably on concert revenues if they never played outside of Virginia Beach ever again.

            2. Nah, he strikes me as more of a Dave Mathew’s Band/ Hootie and the Blowfishjob/ general “frat rock” kind of guy.

              1. No Ko?n? Gotta have the Ko?n P?ps.

      2. I just kind of assumed that stuff from the 80s is having a comeback because of the normal 30ish year nostalgia cycle. I see just as many people shitting on the 80s as glorifying it.

  4. Back in my day Kurt Loder would have been all over the DMX Slippin’/court story. Now he is doing movie reviews for a fake libertarian publication.

    It’s madness.

    1. gameofowls has really gone downhill.

    2. SIV. You can’t just go link to a site named after fowl. You know that you’re just setting yourself up.

    3. Lynching postcards. Swann apparently does not allow links to individual lots. 3/28/18 African-Americana sale.

      I should have requested images before the sale but I bet those provided were lo-res.

  5. The whole point of the ’80’s motif is that all the puzzles involved in finding the Easter Egg involve ’80’s culture. So everybody in this world is obsessed with it.

  6. its suffocating abundance of digital imagery.

    Ummm, this is practically every movie that comes out now! The way things are going, in another 10 years or so movies will barely contain any human actors at all.

    1. And sort of the point in a movie about a VR world.

    2. I can take CGI when offered in 2 ways: first, minor to moderate to move the film along. And second, when it really is the point of the movie (Dr. Strange (human actors Ben Cumberbatch and Tilda Winston), Warcraft (human actors Travis Fimmel and Ben Foster), Reign of Fire (human actors Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale), et al). But CGI “just because they can’ is boring at best. Pretty much what I would expect from this flick and why I won’t bother with it.

  7. Halliday grew up in the 80s.

    His death and the egg announcement created an ’80’s nostalgia wave’ because everyone figured that the egg would be hidden in things he knew.

    Christ, Loder, you’re still breathing–and you ARE ’80’s pop culture detritus’. Halliday, if born in 72, would have been 63 if he died in 2035–I’m nowhere near that and I’ve seen crap from my childhood come around twice now.

    And, as someone who read the book, I have to say that I’m really annoyed that “Aech” was spoiled right out of the gate. She was a great twist in the book that was just ‘untwisted’ for no reason at all.

    1. I didn’t say Halliday was born in 1972. I said that Cline was.

      1. And I didn’t say

        ” Halliday, if born in 72, like Cline, would have been 63 if he died in 2035–I’m nowhere near that and I’ve seen crap from my childhood come around twice now.”

        as I’d intended.

        Which would have made it work. Such is life….

    2. And if you are annoyed at all the unnecessarily abundant 80’s references in the movie then don’t read the book. That is what I hate the most about it. Constant name-dropping like the author is checking off his 80’s cred list.

    3. His death and the egg announcement created an ’80’s nostalgia wave’ because everyone figured that the egg would be hidden in things he knew.

      The ‘nostalgia wave’ felt more reasonable in the book. From the movie, kids appear to have been forced to attend public school, or at least parts of it, in the OASIS for decades and don’t seem to have progressed it beyond its creator(s) retro bent. It’s bizarre.

      50 years between the 80s and the events of the book and die hard Anime or Bigfoot fans outnumber Romero and/or Walking Dead die hards? Really? The 80s come back in a wave and there are no ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘Die Hard’ fans? Really? It’d be like if you logged onto the internet today and everyone greeted each other with “Norm!” or “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.” and sending each other “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!” gifs because everybody who built the internet was born in the 70s and 80s. Loder’s criticizing the work and, IMO, aptly so. The work contains way too much of the creators’ own foibles and induced anachronisms. I got a moderate feeling of this in the book and seeing what was done on screen only made it worse.

      1. 50 years between the 80s and the events of the book and die hard Anime or Bigfoot fans outnumber Romero and/or Walking Dead die hards among gunters.

        And Dirty Harry and Die Hard fans are much less likely to get all invested in fantasy games–especially geeky ones that have had no breaks in the ten years since the guy’s death.

        Particularly when you add in that everyone’s on Second Life(which is what the Oasis is, far more than anything else)

        1. 50 years between the 80s and the events of the book and die hard Anime or Bigfoot fans outnumber Romero and/or Walking Dead die hards among gunters.

          Right, I agreed that the book was more reasonable. Especially as told from the gunters’ perspective and dominated by gunters but, by the end of the story, it’s not clear that everyone in the OASIS isn’t participating, or open to anyway, in some way.

          And Dirty Harry and Die Hard fans are much less likely to get all invested in fantasy games–especially geeky ones that have had no breaks in the ten years since the guy’s death.

          Again, IDK, after the first key it seemed that large clans of people joined up to search and more than some were wholly willing to solve conflicts with virtual weapons. And, again, at least a couple of decades of an ‘Oasis Public School’ system and none of the kids, gunters included, developed a taste for Indiana Jones or Chuck Norris and there’s not a massive Ninja Turtles following? C’mon.

      2. Newhart to Joanna: “What would you say if I told you we had a witch buried in the basement?”
        Joanna: “Ewww”
        Newhart: “What would you say if you had graduated from high school?”

        Newhart is another one who could not survive in today’s PC entertainment climate.

    4. Also, not having seen the movie, the ‘Aech’ reveal felt forced to me. Tons of new characters move in and out of the book that could plausibly be any gender or social archetype and the most divergent one is the one the protagonist has known the longest? Again, really? I could see how, if it were supposed to be a future thing, you wouldn’t want to hang on that reveal as it’s already kinda played out.

  8. Hasn’t this “living inside a video game” thing done with yet? It’s not as if it’s an original idea.

    1. Neither are car chases, but they keep doing them.

      1. Yup. And every one must include a high-speed chase against traffic on a crowded freeway, the effect of which is to make the movie feel like a video game. (That concept, by the way, was first tried in something like the modern form in To Live and Die in LA, made in — wait for it! — 1985.

    2. Hmmm, like Tron from 1982…

  9. I think you may have missed the point on all the cultural references. It wasn’t a spoof movie lets see how many completely gratuitous cultural references we can cram into the movie to masquerade as humor kind of thing, but a reference in itself that computer gamers and the like are (overly) fond of those references. If gamers built a world, it’d be chock-full of references that only the most hard-core fans would recognize. It’s part of the way to recognize noobs.
    I agree with the rest of the review though. The acting could have been a fair bit better and the plot needed more depth. Speilberg of all people should realize that people may be intrigued by the special effects, but they can’t carry a movie.

  10. the first three Indiana Jones films

    What do you mean the first three? There was no 4th Indie movie.

    *Picard voice* THERE. ARE. THREE. INDIE MOVIES!

    1. Assume you’re being sarcastic. “Crystal Skull” was a feature film with a character named Indiana Jones in it, and Spielberg says he’s gonna start shooting an Indy 5 next year…

      1. Wow. Total pop culture fail there. Oh, the irony.

      2. After many years of intense therapy I finally managed to suppress all memories of Crystal Skull, but thanks to you all the memories of those horrible two+ hours of my life that I lost have come flooding back. Why aliens in an Indie movie? A UFO? WHY!?

        I hope you’re happy, you monster! /sarc

        1. I fail to see how aliens is worse than an Ark filled with evil spirits that kill Nazis, or a cave with a Medieval knight who guards the Holy Grail. All of this is patently ridiculous: if anything, aliens taking a nap somewhere on planet Earth is slightly less ridiculous.

      3. It is now official: there is nobody in Hollywood today capable of hatching an even vaguely original idea. I thought “Star Wars” had retired that prize, but looks like Spielberg is back in the chase.

  11. The 80’s is as modern as the world got before wide-spread internet availability and smartphones.

    Maybe that’s it.

    1. The 80s are what passes today for a “simpler time” — something many people still yearn for

  12. Sounds like somebody lost at Jeopardy baby, because they got swept on the Pop Culture category.

  13. Maybe it’s because the 80s were the last time kids were allowed to be kids. Watch ET or The Goonies. When was the last time kids could hop on their bikes and pedal down to the dark woods or the seaside Caverns of The Unknown and explore without Amber alerts and helicopter parents hovering around? Nowadays pre/teen films are all about teen rebels fighting guerilla wars against aome futuristic dystopian autocracy…which is exactly what THIS film is about..

    1. When was the last time kids could hop on their bikes and pedal down to the dark woods or the seaside Caverns of The Unknown and explore without Amber alerts and helicopter parents hovering around?

      The 90s actually. It’s just that, as Gen Xers, they weren’t interested in finding One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure. It was mostly skateboarding, arcade games, garage bands, and unless they were being hunted by cybernetic killing machines from the future, no one was interested in them.

      1. “The 90s actually” — true. And if anyone could raise their eyes to look outside their hip, urban environment they might notice kids on dirt bikes and ATVs on roads, off-roads, racing, jumping, etc. My younger son would ride his Yamaha 90 7 to 10 miles on the mountain trails in our area, either solo or after hooking up with friends. Snoiwboarding was/is another outlet in this vein. We obsess on virtual reality because Hollywood and the gaming industry feed it to us day after day, but the reality is there are plenty of people, including a large proportion of kids, who actually live and enjoy lives outside the lines. And the best part? Anyone can play

  14. I liked it. It wasn’t great, and I probably should’ve seen it in 3-D or IMAX, but I’m reminded of something Roger Ebert said about the movie ‘The Cell’. He commented that they didn’t spend anytime explaining the technology, because that would’ve detracted from the story. The film had a certain reality, and you accepted it. I think it’s fair to say the same with the 80’s obsession of this movie, but also it’s sort of an homage to the decade that really saw the birth of a computer generation.

  15. Very skeptical about the movie, loved the book. I am a fan of 1980’s pop culture, probably out of pure nostalgia. Problem is I thought the mid to late 1990’s sucked, by then I was in high school and hated everything, most of all the music. I was one of those pissy teenagers so that might’ve been the reason why I don’t look back upon the 1990’s with fond memories, I know alot of my compatriots did and do but I don’t. The only positive development from the 1990’s I can cite is I found out that there was such a thing as libertarians by picking up Harry Browne’s 1996 presidential book. I hated puritan conservatives and whining, control freak liberals, I went around calling myself a “liberal Republican” until i found out there was libertarians. My dad back then called me a “anarchist” for switching to libertarianism.

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  17. On further consideration (maybe I’m slow), I’ve gone from lukewarm to cold fish on the book. It’s a horror on par with 1984 and Brave New World, if only due to Cline’s naivete/stupidity.

    So, Raiders Of The Lost Ark ends the same way whether Indy gets off his ass or not. However, if, upon opening the Ark, the Nazis gain God-like powers to kill people, Indy’s bungling actually led them to it. Not that the Nazis wouldn’t have found it, but Indy’s intervention expedited the situation rather than defusing it. Ready Player One is like this latter Raiders film but worse. It’s very much a testament to the Tragedy of the Commons where the socialists idealists are portrayed as ‘winning’. I didn’t, until now, realize how much it is like a socialist-propaganda remake of The Matrix; with The Architect and The Matrix as benevolent father figure and benevolent social construct, respectively (not that this was Cline’s intent).

    1. There are no farm stands and organic markets in Ready Player One, despite the protagonists best wishes, because you can’t grow vegetables in the Oasis and Halliday has ensured that everyone gets free access and is dependent on it practically from birth. IOI is the acknowledged antagonist as they’d set up a price structure that would inevitably price people out of some or all of the Oasis. Passively leaving them awash in the Hell that is real world with nothing except lots of free time. We are nominally supposed to hope for Watts and Halliday’s sake, they don’t figure out how to live without The Matrix The Oasis and how to fix and preserve the world around them.

      1. That the OASIS has sat for so long after Halliday’s death relatively fixed in the bonds of his original/relative rules is rather hallmark of a Stalin-esque cult of personality. The fact that apparently no one had access to the source code, binary data, or APIs that could fundamentally accelerate the search for the egg(s) means it was a pretty closed system and the tie-ins to schooling and other parts of government life give ready means as to how this status quo was maintained (and will be maintained under the reign of Watts). Bringing IOI to heel is, effectively, setting up Net Neutrality to prop up Halliday’s regime. I’m personally kinda floored that I didn’t conceptualize this on the first read through.

    2. Ready Player One is like this latter Raiders film but worse.

      Like if the Ark killed all the Nazis and Indy decided to hand it over to the Soviets for the good of the people.

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