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Review: Ready Player One

Did you know that the first “difficulty curve” in video game history was the result of a glitch? Even today, in the age of near-photorealistic graphics, rendering too many objects onscreen will cause a program to run more sluggishly; the reverse is also true—ergo, destroying ships in Space Invaders gradually eases the burden on the frame rate, increasing the speed of the remaining enemies. Just a bit of nerd trivia I’ve picked up, normally random and useless… but it sprang to mind when the heroes of Ready Player One encountered an unwinnable race that could only be circumvented by clipping underneath the map, greatly enriching my enjoyment of the scene.

Steven Spielberg’s latest crowd-pleaser is tailor made for people who waste hours binging online series like Boundary Break or streams of VR role-plays being invaded by two dozen deformed Sonic the Hedgehogs—in other words, people like me. While movies based on games have a poor track record, movies about gaming and the subculture surrounding it (including last year’s surprisingly enjoyable Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) tend to fare a bit better, so I had high hopes for this one. Nevertheless, the trailer left me with some reservations, particularly surrounding Mark Rylance’s James Halliday; Spielberg’s new muse has become adept at portraying gentle grandfathers in recent years, but the previews of his understated performance here made him look like an odd choice for a whimsical Willy Wonka type. Fortunately, it makes perfect sense in context, and Rylance’s sensitive portrait of a man whose innovative vision is clouded by crippling social anxiety absolutely steals the show.

Which isn’t to say that the rest of it is bad, necessarily. There are plenty of overly bloated exposition dumps, and characters state the obvious on multiple occasions, but these flaws can be attributed to Zak Penn’s script (and were probably already present in the original novel by Ernest Cline, which I have not read). Spielberg, however, does an admirable job of elevating the material. As always, it’s a joy to witness how he adapts his style to the less restrictive medium of animation; in Ready Player One, he takes the glorious, show-stopping oner from The Adventures of Tintin and cranks it up to eleven, sculpting unbridled chaos and mayhem into operatic works of art. Sure, the result is more amusement park ride than cinematic storytelling… but hey, roller coasters are cool.

Lately, I’ve noticed anti-nostalgia sentiments growing in the darker corners of the internet; the harshest critics deride films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, finding them shallow and distasteful for allegedly preying upon our fond memories of childhood. Perhaps I’m simply easily manipulated… but when I’m watching Mechagodzilla throw down with the Iron Giant and Mobile Suit Gundam, or a ragtag team of fantasy archetypes bumbling through The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, I’m having way too much fun to give a damn.

[Originally written March 31, 2018.]

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