‘Ready Player One’ (12A) reviewed

❉ All nostalgia, no substance? Iain MacLeod levels up.

“Making a return to big screen epic escapism after a string of historical political dramas and a children’s film Spielberg only succeeds in making the biggest misstep of his directorial career since Indiana Jones fannied about with a bunch of dead aliens in the jungle.”

Nostalgia can be a funny thing. You revisit moments in the past, trying to catch that moment or feeling again. As time moves on you rethink certain points in time, a niggle worming its way into your brain casting doubt and shadow that maybe, just maybe, that is not how that one thing really went down or that person wasn’t really acting that way, it was just a perception of them warped by time and distance. This re-evaluation jumps up more and more strikingly when applied to pop culture. That thing, be it a film/show/band/book or toy you loved growing up, that caused such joy and excitement for you back then only causes such feelings as bewilderment or even embarrassment in the cold light of the present day. And one person’s nostalgia for such things can be met with stone cold indifference by someone else. But apparently not all the time.

Somehow Ready Player One’s author Ernest Cline has made a career out of mining his own nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s by typing out lists of what he loved and applying it to the plot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory through a Spielbergian filter. For some reason Spielberg himself has taken this watered-down Spielberg story and somehow watered down his own directorial instincts and knack for whiz bang storytelling. Making a return to big screen epic escapism after a string of historical political dramas and a children’s film he only succeeds in making the biggest misstep of his directorial career since Indiana Jones fannied about with a bunch of dead aliens in the jungle.

The story here details the online adventures of Wade Williams, played by Tye Sheridan. Stuck in The Stacks, a vast and vertical trailer park, one of the books and films most imaginative and successful details, Wade like everyone else finds solace from real life in the OASIS, a virtual reality where anyone can take on any form they dream of, as long as they are based on an already existing film, comic or game property and have any adventure they choose. The majority of players are engaged in a quest to find an Easter Egg hidden away by the systems creator James Halliday, portrayed here by Mark Rylance as a savant on a near Simple Jack level, that will grant the winner total control of the OASIS. Such control however has attracted the attention of IOI, a big business that wants to monetise the system for its own means.

Spielberg has at least dialled back the countless name checking and listing of Ernest Cline’s favourite things and at the films beginning it looks like he may be offering a witty critique of the dangers of lives lived online. This line of satirical attack is quickly abandoned and it offers no criticism of such a lifestyle and where it could lead at all. Instead it becomes a celebration of gaming culture, of playing with your friends and things that you remember watching years ago. And that you would probably rather be watching now.

It is hard to get invested in a story where all that is at stake is a gaming system. And it is even harder to get invested in that story when nearly everything of importance isn’t happening in the real world. To take a page from the film let me drop an eighties reference of my own to make my point. Imagine Wargames if it was actually just a game. If the threat of Global Thermonuclear War did not exist in the real world at all. Well that is pretty much what you have here; a bunch of characters play a game of a thing they really like. The End. So what if a big business wants to take over the OASIS and stick loads of adverts in it? Go outside and look for something else that will give your life meaning or potentially change the world for the better. Do not have the director of Schindler’s List show us a computer-generated character playing an Atari game inside another computer game and pass it off as an exciting, meaningful climax. In the films real world all that Spielberg can offer us is a half-baked car chase towards the end that displays none of his instincts or verve that are peppered throughout his action filmography.

There are small pleasures here. Ben Mendohlson makes an appealing baddy as does TJ Miller as his online henchman. Funnily enough it is these two characters who trade the least in riffing on nostalgia and existing IP’s. Sheridan, so good in smaller scale films like Mud and then lost at sea in bigger budget fare like this and the struggling X-Men franchise does the best that he can here as does Olivia Taylor Cooke, portraying a cool girl online who struggles in real life with the burden of a facial birth mark that seems to fade in and out from scene to scene.

However, the film assumes that you are here for the nostalgia alone and that is here in spades. The film’s most successful and amusing set piece involves a certain film and location that I don’t want to spoil here. It is a pitch perfect recreation from the film stock used to the set design. And then it severely betrays its origins halfway through the scene that reminds you that you would be doing yourself a favour re-watching that instead of this. The rest of the time the screen is littered with blink and you’ll miss ‘em cameos that have been programmed onto the screen in such a high volume that you would need a number of viewings to list them all.

And any film that makes Buckaroo Banzai and the Iron Giant lame really does not deserve to be looked back on with fondness in the future at all.

Ready Player One’ goes on national release 28 March 2018. Cert: 12A. Running time: 139 mins. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast includes Tye Sheridan, Hannah John-Kamen, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Olivia Cooke, Simon Pegg.

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