The reviews are rolling in for the VR-focused film Ready Player One, and while its visuals sound beautiful, its storytelling seems quite flawed.
Reviews say that the adaptation of Ernest Cline's hit sci-fi novel succeeds where its source material fails, with brisker pacing. But its character development is lacking, and its politics about "true fans" feels achingly regressive. Here's what the top critics are saying about Ready Player One:
In a review at Variety, Owen Gleiberman explains that while Ready Player One is beautiful, and better than some visuals-first films, it still struggles to engage with emotions.
"In Ready Player One, there is plenty of vicarious fantasy combat, notably a war of the worlds that features the Iron Giant as well as the red-eyed, gleaming silver Mechagodzilla. Ready Player One tells a breathless and relatively coherent story … but the movie, first and foremost, is a coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy."
"Ready Player One isn’t an obnoxiously flashy and hollow indulgence, like Speed Racer or last year’s live-action Ghost in the Shell. It’s an accomplished and intermittently hypnotic movie."
"The virtual world that Spielberg creates, though it just about pops off the screen, isn’t an emotionally textured place."
"Ready Player One is set in a dilapidated future where fantasy rules because reality looks hellish by comparison. Yet the movie puts you in a different mindset. By the end, you’re more than ready to escape from all the escapism."
Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair writes that while Ready Player One is more visually charming than Spielberg's other digital blockbusters, but notes the film centers around and promotes some pretty toxic ideas about "true fans."
"Those who were thrilled by the trailer’s references, C.G.I.-enhanced visuals, and vintage Spielberg shots of humans (or their avatars) in the throes of wide-eyed wonder will be even bigger fans of movie itself."
"The C.G.I. visuals of the OASIS—especially in the film’s opening race—can be chaotically overwhelming at times, but they can also be elegant in a way neither Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin nor James Cameron's Avatar—working with slightly clunkier motion-capture technology—managed to be."
"Because Spielberg seems as eager as Wade to get back to the digital fantasy world he’s created, a lot of the human element is elided or glossed over."
"The film never stops making distinctions between the "true fans"—who have encyclopedic knowledge of every pop-culture item Halliday was obsessed with—and the pretenders. It’s embracing a kind of fandom gatekeeping that has, in recent years, soured and turned toxic, especially online."
Tasha Robinson's review for The Verge speaks of Ready Player One as an upgrade to the Ernest Cline's clunky novel, but notes that not all of the flaws were fixed.
"Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of Ready Player One prominently features [the Delorean], but in a context that improves it immensely. Spielberg doesn’t have Wade talk audiences through it, and he doesn’t spell out the references. It’s just a sleek piece of visual energy, one breathless element among dozens of others."
"The film improves significantly on the book by prioritizing the story over the signifiers. The hardcore pop-culture crowd that is this movie’s ultimate intended audience will have plenty to pore over and pick apart in this film. But the story moves briskly enough, and with enough giant-sized, screen-friendly excitement that it doesn’t feel like it’s aimed solely and specifically at them.
"Unequivocally, the film’s biggest problem is the half-assed love story between Wade and Art3mis, which operates on approximately 75 percent wish-fulfillment and 25 percent apathetic inevitability."
"The film version does carry over some of the book’s most notable flaws, especially a suspicious reliance on narrative convenience and coincidence. The characters are thinly drawn, and most of them are little more than cool avatars and signature moves."
Eric Kohn of IndieWire is one of a few critics who point out how the film falls apart when it exits virtual reality, and how its gender politics feel dated.
"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."
"Once Ready Player One winds down, it can’t match the ecstatic contact high of encountering the movie’s trickery from the outset. The bulk of the live-action scenes lack the crisp energy of the Oasis, and Spielberg can’t match the forward momentum with character depth to spare"
"None of that changes the retrograde gender politics: This is a typical boy’s movie that will strike younger audiences as being out of sync with the current moment (just imagine what might happen if Waithe and Sheridan traded places), but then, so’s the nostalgia-laden Oasis."
Alanah Pearce at IGN was also entranced by the visual stylings of Ready Player One, until she noticed how its characters and reality were as hollow as a hologram.
"Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel Ready Player One is far more than just a reference-fest. It’s an action film first, both in the relatively bland real world and in the colorful, over-the-top virtual one, and carries Steven Spielberg’s affinity for thoughtful timing and some genuinely thrilling sequences."
"Ready Player One plays with scale, movement, gravity, and time seamlessly; Spielberg uses the full extent of the unmatched creativity only available in a largely animated movie. Environments twist and shift around characters with careful thought put into camera placement, and every part of the Oasis that you need to understand for story purposes (like inventories, or what happens when players ‘die’) is clearly and effectively communicated – so much so that the Oasis feels like a fully-realized character of its own."
"Ready Player One is so enamored with the world of Oasis that it doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out the dystopian Ohio of 2045."
"Characters’ backstories may as well be ignored, too, since they’re mostly background decorations that are stuffed into 30 seconds before being completely forgotten."