'Ready Player One': What the Critics Are Saying

Despite a wave of cynicism on social media ahead of its release, the SXSW premiere of Ready Player One has unleashed some surprisingly positive reviews for Steven Spielberg’s virtual reality celebration of the pop culture of the 1980s. Not everyone was bowled over by the movie, which certainly seems to have its faults, but haters who were convinced that not even Spielberg could bring Ernest Cline’s novel about future gamers with a retro fetish to the big screen might have to eat their words, it seems.

“Gamers are far from the only ones who will respond to this virtual-world-set picture, which strikes an ideal balance between live action and CGI,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore, adding, “The movie's biggest attractions can't be described here without ruining the fun of mystery-solving and spoiling surprise appearances of characters we treasure from our own childhoods. The trailers reveal the very welcome presence of the Iron Giant, whose role in the climax is sweetly true to the character's nature. But other guest stars play significant roles in the action as well, and they're not necessarily the ones fans of the novel will expect.”

Others agreed that the movie was an unexpected success. As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn puts it, “It runs too long and drags a bunch in its final third, but make no mistake: This is Spielberg’s biggest crowdpleaser in years, a CGI ride that wields the technology with an eye for payoff. It’s also his most stylized movie since A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, though a lot more fun, with a cavalcade of visuals leaving the impression that he watched a bunch of Luc Besson movies and decided he could outdo them all. The result is an astonishing sci-fi spectacle and a relentless nostalgia trip at once.”

The trick, according to Tasha Robinson from The Verge, is that the director knows when to shut up and let the movie be a movie. “Spielberg doesn’t have Wade talk audiences through [the nostalgia], and he doesn’t spell out the references. He just slaps the car down in the middle of a tremendous early action scene, where it’s prominent, distinctive, and memorable,” she argues. “Fans who want the full nostalgia trip, who want to wring every Easter egg out of the experience, will eventually be able to pause the movie and frame-by-frame through it, looking for the flux capacitor on the dashboard, checking the plates, and scanning for extra bonus material. But in the middle of the action, even to people who’ve never seen the Back to the Future movies and aren’t vibing on the connection, the car doesn’t need explaining. It’s just a sleek piece of visual energy, one breathless element among dozens of others. It’s not a citation or a list. It’s an effortless, integrated piece of the action.”

The heavy appeal to audience’s existing fandoms didn’t work for everyone, however, as /Film’s Joi Childs noted. “Nostalgia drips on every corner of this movie to varying success,” she writes. “In some cases, it’s a piece of dialogue, a throwaway line. In other cases, it’s an entire action scene centered around a cult classic film that literally recreates iconic beats. The intentions are well meaning, but the script is just basic enough to cause these references to often feel like a shallow plucking on nostalgic heart strings.”

Dan Caffrey, from Consequence of Sound, agrees: “The problem is that Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn never establish a significant enough sense of reality to explore the moral complexities of virtual reality. We spend most of Ready Player One‘s first half in the [virtual reality] OASIS, so when audiences are suddenly meant to care about Wade’s impoverished aunt, a rivalry with a cardboard villain (Ben Mendelsohn), and his relationship with Cooke’s character Sam (once they actually meet face to face), it feels underdeveloped. The dramatic elements are all painted in such broad strokes, plus we haven’t been with any of it — the script’s actual reality — enough to justify investment in it. What could be a painfully relevant statement becomes watered down. Bring back the ape and the car, please.”

Certainly, the idea that the VR sequences worked better than “reality” is a common thought, as summed up by The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern: “With the minor exception of a clumsy nightclub dance-off, the VR set pieces are massively entertaining, including one set inside an iconic ’80s horror film that had the theater cackling with glee. And the film as a whole never feels suffocated by its rapid-fire film, TV, music, and gaming references — courtesy of co-writers Cline and Zak Penn — most of which land. The real-world scenes are not as effective, owing in part to [Tye] Sheridan more closely resembling a hunky jock than a geeky gamer, but don’t bog things down too much.”

Perhaps that’s the best way to think of the movie, then: as a particularly shiny distraction. That’s pretty much the argument made by Birth. Movies. Death’s Jacob Knight, it seems. “This is Spielberg at his very lightest, delivering a piece of populist entertainment that contains as many empty calories as the popcorn you munch in the auditorium while you watch it,” he writes. “He's not dissecting or interrogating the book in any real way, and for some this will simply not be enough. Yet the craft on display is impossible to deny, as is the acclaimed director's knack for constructing some of the most elaborate escape set pieces in the history of the medium. For those simply looking for a healthy shot in the arm of whizz bang spectacle, Ready Player One will more than delight, as this is still an aging master filmmaker having as much fun as humanly possible while he still can.”

Ready Player One arrives in theaters March 29.