“Ready Player One” misses opportunity to be good

Graphic by Penelope Taylor '20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor '20

BY ERIN CARBERRY ’19

One of the most anticipated films of the year, “Ready Player One,” is directed by industry giant Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park”) and based on the 2011 debut novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. The film follows Wade Wyatt, or Parzival (Tye Sheridan, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), through the fantastical multiplayer virtual world of “the Oasis.” There, he and his friends battle for control of the virtual wonderland against a heartless corporation, Innovative Online Industries, and its head honcho, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, “Rogue One”). In the real world, Wade battles the realities of a rundown futuristic Columbus, Ohio. 

Given its premise and the current historical moment of its release, “Ready Player One” had the potential to be a clever commentary on the growing pervasiveness of virtual reality, increasingly powerful tech industries and our fascination with constructed identities. Instead, the film is a flashy mishmash of special effects, pop culture references and 80s music that creates no lasting impact.

One of the more recurring disappointments is the real world identities of Wade’s virtual companions based on their avatars. Perhaps the biggest letdown is Samantha Cook, also known as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”). In an early scene, after Parzival admits his love to Art3mis and tells her his real world name, she berates him. “You only know what I want you to know, you only see what I want you to see. That’s what you’re in love with.” In the scene immediately before, Parzival’s best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, “Master of None”) also cautions him not to get too close to someone he doesn’t know the true identity of, pointing out that anyone could be behind the avatar. 

The anonymity of identity could have been utilized to feature diverse characters, but that possibility was not realized and we meet Samantha — a young, slender white woman, her only distinguishing feature being a light birthmark around her left eye. This plays into one of the film’s more prevalent problems: a lack of diversity. The only characters of color are Wade’s friends, who could arguably be called his sidekicks. The film’s two Asian characters are given a fraction of the screen time awarded to the white protagonist, his white love interest or the white antagonist. The film is also littered with distinctly Christian imagery: when Parzival meets the Oasis creator’s avatar — a bearded old man in a cloak who created and now controls the virtual world — he falls to his knees. Upon completing his final challenge, Parzival is lead into a golden room resembling a cathedral, where he again meets the Godlike avatar of the Oasis’s creator.

In terms of production, the film leans heavily on special effects. This includes all of the avatars, many of which fall deep within the “uncanny valley,” the film theory that humanoid objects which appear almost but not exactly human create feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. This is most obvious in the film’s main character, who also bears an odd resemblance to Light Turner (Nat Wolff) of Netflix’s ill-fated “Death Note” film, and Art3mis, whose huge eyes and spotted skin recall something more inhuman. Sorrento’s avatar, a bulky businessman with a bizarrely exaggerated jaw, fails to be threatening because of absurd proportions and visual similarities to the main character of “American Dad.” 

The film also includes nostalgic references to 80s pop culture as the film is constantly underscored by musical hits of the decade and references to prevalent films or video games that often feel ham-handed. The 1980 film “The Shining” and the Atari 2600 game “Adventure” both play key roles in the tests faced by Parzival and his team. The only real heart of the film is a subtle and vulnerable performance by Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) as James Halliday, the Oasis’s departed creator and the designer of the massive high-stakes easter egg hunt at the center of the plot.

While the film may leave viewers temporarily engaged or recalling their own favorite childhood video games, its lack of substance and consistent predictability leave much to be desired. With the film’s many misfires and missed opportunities, “Ready Player One” is altogether disappointing.

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