Ready Player One Movie Review

by Ian Hamilton • March 30th, 2018

Ready Player One occupies an important position in pop culture. Roddenberry’s Holodeck defined VR for much of the ’90s and, by the year 2000, the Wachowski’s Matrix wove itself into the common fabric of everyday discussions. Over this same period, personal computers followed a trajectory of becoming even more personal while also embedding themselves as an important part of our daily lives. I see these two trends as related in driving the number of times the headline “Are we living in a simulation?” has been written.

Now millions of people have VR in their homes, and on the big screen we finally have the Oasis.

Published in 2011 near the end of The Great Recession, the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline imagined a future where the recession never ended. Spielberg’s adaptation puts this future in clear terms. Its narrator and hero, Wade Watts, explains that people have stopped trying to make things better. Now they just try to survive and escape to the Oasis whenever possible.

The Matrix sits at the extreme of a spectrum of VR systems. It produces perfect direct neural input capable of overtaking your senses and stimulating your brain to such a degree that virtually nobody can tell it is fake. To top it off, the world outside VR is so bleak why would anybody want to take Morpheus’ red pill and escape the Matrix in the first place?

“If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass!” Cypher says in the films, as he just wants to go back to the Matrix and stay oblivious to a reality of incredible strife. “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

The difference between The Matrix and The Oasis is vast.

The Oasis in Ready Player One isn’t anywhere near as powerful since its users wear headsets much like the ones we have in real life and put on haptic feedback suits instead of plugging in a neural connection. To that end, the Oasis can’t simulate the taste of good food, or the kiss of someone you adore. At least not in 2044 with the gear we see in the movie. You can also — usually — leave The Oasis whenever you want to. But why would you want to when things are easier, faster, and more fun in VR?

It’s within this context that we encounter Ready Player One’s villain: Nolan Sorrento. Agent Smith in The Matrix saw the human race as a virus. All Sorrento cares about is profit and power. He believes once his company — IOI — controls The Oasis, he could cover up to 80% of the user’s field of view with advertisements, he notes, without causing seizures. His company also operates “loyalty” centers in which people are forced to work off debt in VR and electrocuted when they don’t comply. So that’s pretty bad, but Sorrento, even at his ugliest, doesn’t carry the emotional weight of Smith’s menacing presence.

He wants to put ads over 80 percent of your field of vision. It’s ok though, you won’t have seizures.

In fact, none of the movie carries the emotional weight of The Matrix. It’s just not that kind of trip. Ready Player One is as cheesy as the movies, games, and cartoons it directly references. I could understand how easy it might be for some to be turned away by that, and those folks should feel free to move along. For me, it works.

Kids in this future wield pop culture as weapons and there is no one better to aim those weapons on the big screen than Spielberg. This giant package is delivered with care by one of the masters of the medium. Like many of the book’s biggest fans I was raised on Spielberg movies. So when I heard he would turn this Willy Wonka-like story into a movie I was excited, but to see him deliver was magical.

The choices Spielberg made in adapting Ready Player One to the big screen do a lot to help the movie stand on its own. It starts off with an incredible car chase kicking off the quest for the hidden egg, and continues with a sequence that swaps out Matthew Broderick’s WarGames for an adaptation of a fantastic horror film (which I won’t spoil here). The master storyteller quickly drops you into this future of pizza delivery by drone to ramshackle houses set against the allure of the Oasis and the quest laid out by its creator, James Halliday. In doing so, Spielberg also successfully translates a fun book into an exciting movie by way of the spectacle we would expect on the big screen.

As an example, watching people scream while experiencing horror like Resident Evil 7 is enormous fun, and Spielberg captures the satisfaction you get watching people react to VR during some of Ready Player One’s most enjoyable moments. (As far as my 7 year old is concerned the sequence featuring this film — spoiler link — is perhaps the only one during which I would ask her to cover her eyes).

In Ready Player One, the only thing that matters to our hero Wade Watts at the beginning of the film is the virtual world. By the end he’s learned some lessons. These lessons differ somewhat from the book and I’ll refrain from spoiling them. Still, I will be interested to see if this movie itself becomes a pop culture phenomenon and if those lessons resonate with people in the years to come.

Also I just wanted to note that it is secondary to the movie itself, but I plan to see Ready Player One again to process more how it depicted technology. At one moment a character is unaware they are in VR while at another a character is able to see out the side of the headset just a bit to the world beyond. There’s a variety of locomotion scenarios shown from omni-directional treadmills to chairs to rigs that hoist you up or pull your limbs, and there also appears to be real world mapping of the virtual world into the real one. All of this plays seamlessly together into a shared universe in which you can do anything.

I see decades of progress in VR technology making some of these scenarios generally plausible. What’s interesting to me about it all, though, is the way AR technology was generally subsumed by VR. In the Ready Player One universe, the real world is nothing to look at so AR tech is only useful if you need to, say, murder someone by tracking them down in the real world.

I don’t think our future will play out that way, but as we see how popular this movie becomes I am curious to see how it contributes to the ongoing debates happening around just what to call this new generation of spatial computing.

Conclusion: 

Pass if nostalgia porn isn’t your thing, but otherwise you should enjoy Ready Player One.

This review is based on an advanced screening in Los Angeles, CA earlier this week.

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  • impurekind

    Just watched this today and I definitely enjoyed it. It’s definitely not as good as the book, which I absolutely love, and it’s not one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies ever, but it’s a solid sci-fi action movie with some great set-pieces, some massive battle scenes, and a tonne of brilliant references to various old-school games, movies and more (and quite a few modern ones too).

    My brother, who hasn’t read the book and went into this blind, says it’s one of the best films he’s seen in years and he loved it. He also said it’s one of those films that will still hold up in 20 years because of how it’s done, and I agree.

    And most of the other people who watched the movie when I was there seemed to enjoy it too.

    I think telling people to pass if nostalgia porn isn’t their thing is doing this film a great disservice.

  • the matrix has been what i wanted of vr i never wanted to do the holodeck so now it makes sense to me why i never enjoy room scale and has always played seated lol. i plan to see this movie tomorrow

    • dk

      vr/rpo is the realistic matrix

    • fforcey

      We all want the matrix, but the problem is we where all born too early. By the time the technology gets to there we will be long dead.
      On the other hand if we where born later we wouldn’t have enjoyed the martrix as much since we would have been used to similar technologies already and the “matrix” would be more or less just a small evolution from that.

      I’m sure people who died in 1910 would have loved to drive a modern SUV car, or been able to follow their family and friends all over the world with facebook.

      That’s why we will always be ungrateful with the current technology and always will be wanting more, which in turn drives technology further. A never ending rat race.

      • I am grateful for what we have now i am just saying the holodeck NEVER interested me the matrix did. So i guess that is why i don’t like roomscale.

  • impurekind

    Watched this last night and enjoyed it. It’s not as good as the book but it’s a very solid sci-fi-action movie with some great set-pieces, huge action sequences, and probably more cool references and Easter eggs than any film in history. My bro, who hasn’t read the book and went in totally blind, loved it and said it was the best movie he’s seen in year.

    • KUKWES

      was this the only movie that he has watched in years.

      • impurekind

        Nope.

  • Zpfunk

    Saw it last night, it was visually stunning, but a terrible let down. The positive impact it could have had on helping to accelerate the VR movement was almost completely thrown out the window in exchange for mass appeal. What should have been (imo) a grand opportunity to showcase the very tangible potential of vr was wasted on a story line that was about a similar to the book as apples are to oranges. The complete and utter annihilation of Ernest Clines work. The movie adaptation surges on without any real context for the events that are taking place in the story, and character development is as basic as a box of saltine crackers. They even had the nerve in one scene to make a reference to an event in which “a particular books author hated the movie adaption of one of their works” and I couldnt help but wonder if they were taking a jab at Ernest Cline. If you love VR, I suggest you read the book and experience the real OASIS Ernest Cline envisioned, or don’t be upset when you leave the theatre feeling clueless. They fail to explain even the simplest things from the book, Including why its even called “Ready Player One”. Still, I hope its enough to push more consumers into exploring VR, but I highly doubt it.

    • mirak

      I think it succeeded well in explaining to the masses who don’t play video games why people who play it are so much into it.
      So yes you are right, it’s certainly more adressed to the masses, and it can’t be otherwise for somebody like Spielberg.
      It’s kind of a geek movie like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, with a hero with no charisma, but more accessible to the masses.

    • Kieran John

      The book was an utter mess. An excuse to show off an encyclopedic knowledge of the 80s but ultimately not a compelling story. I finished it and didn’t mind it in the end but ultimately I thought the film did a much better job taking elements of Ready Player One and making them enjoyable.

      It’s a dumb popcorn flick where you can turn your brain off and enjoy a video game movie. That’s more than can be said for the book which was a list of stuff from the 80s.

      • Bundy

        Yup, agreed. The movie was better structured than the book.

    • Tommy

      VR now is in no way near anything shown in the movie so not really expecting it to accelerate any VR movement.

    • daveinpublic

      Better than most adaptations, I think this movie will single handedly prepare the world for VR mass adoption when it hits soon.

  • mirak

    I just saw the movie and though it was pretty good.

    What is interesting is that nothing in the movie is technically unrealistic expect the headset resolution and level of detail.
    But the haptic suit, multidirectional treadmills and cable force feedback, I think will already saw prototypes for that.

    It could make people want to try, but they will still see it’s expensive and resolution not as good, and games lacking, and the movie won’t change this issues.
    But they movie can help to democratise things, especially for players who can’t imagine their favorite games in VR yet.

    • KUKWES

      who would want to watch a movie with the screen door effect and someones head bobbing around

      • mirak

        This is really not the point …

  • Jim P

    I will see this movie but shitburg is a douche.

  • mirak

    I didn’t experienced nostalgia in this movie.
    When someone in the movie uses a gundam avatar or a Akira bike it means they like it right now.
    I didn’t felt this people where using this items by nostalgia, so I didn’t felt nostalgia.

    As for the Atari 2600 I felt more the guy wanted to show that that essence of video games is not about technic.

    So I don’t think you automatically experience nostalgia with this movie, but if you are subject to easily experience it, and don’t want that then yes you should avoid that movie ^^

  • bschuler

    I didn’t read the book, and thus, loved the movie. The book readers seem to be the only ones not liking the movie, as it isn’t what they envisioned. As for nostalgia, etc.. I didn’t know half the references and still enjoyed it and the minute they mentioned a certain company, I knew the ending, but still enjoyed that as well. I think Spielberg did a great job of making a movie for the average person. It was a bit rushed and could have had some more character development. Plus the female lead was a casting mistake, I think. Too pretty. But otherwise.. awesome movie that I plan to see once more in Imax 3D before it leaves the theaters, and I haven’t seen a movie twice in a theater since the 80ies.

    • Bundy

      She was pretty in the book too.

  • KUKWES

    Ready Player One was alright. THey removed a big part that I loved. They changed and moved a lot of stuff and by doing so removed the dramatic flare. It was oversaturated with easter eggs instead of slipping them in and making them feel special.

  • I haven’t liked it. The plot is too simple. The characters are too shallow. VR isn’t depicted as a truly positive thing.

  • Tommy

    Nostalgia is not my thing. Heck I’m gonna be really honest here and say I did not even read the book.
    But I truly enjoyed the movie!