Set in the not-so-distant-future of 2045 — albeit one where the USPS still exists, and young professionals speak about Atari 2600 lore in hushed tones — Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) offers an effects-heavy thrill ride that points a mirror at our current Internet and nostalgia-obsessed culture. It’s based on Ernest Cline’s debut novel of the same name, in which young Wade Watts (Tye Sheriden) and his online friends search for an elusive Easter Egg hidden in the virtual world of OASIS. The challenge has gone unsolved since the death of OASIS co-founder James “Anorak” Halliday (Mark Rylance), who promised enormous wealth and full control of the virtual world to whoever finds all three hidden keys that unlock the Egg. OASIS is a massive world where users can conceivably lose almost everything if they “die” — but considering the dystopian reality they’re escaping from, you can’t blame them for trying.
Not surprisingly, its founders created OASIS as a tribute to the movies, video games, comic books, music, toys action figures, and other pop culture items they grew up with: Back to the Future, The Shining, Godzilla, Buckaroo Banzai, Gundam, Street Fighter II, He-Man, and countless others are all name-checked, referenced, or even make appearances, which makes Ready Player One feel like a never-ending string of in-jokes that you may or may not get. The film attempts to keep its narrative going around all those shout-outs, which follows the adventures of Wade — known as “Parzival” in the OASIS — and friends “Aech” (Lena Waithe), “Art3mis” (Olivia Cooke), “Sho” (Philip Zhao), and “Daito” (Win Morisaki). They’re pursued by members of corporate juggernaut “Innovative Online Industries” (IOI), led by quite possibly the most uninspired villains in recent memory: mustache-twirling CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and exotic cyber-babe F’nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) who has black pumpkin bangs, is probably good at hacking, and even basically says “enhance” at one point. But, let’s face it: this is the bare minimum of plot and mostly an excuse to string references together.
Of course, the plain-sight and hidden pop culture references aren’t the only things borrowed here. The first or second time through Ready Player One, viewers might recognize story and plot similarities to past films including (but not limited to) The Matrix, Wreck-It Ralph, Inception, both Tron movies, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Avatar, and Existenz — and those are just the ones that immediately come to mind. This does manage to work in the film’s favor at times, what with the whole nostalgia overload and all, but that doesn’t make Ready Player One any less numbingly familiar from start to finish. There are very few surprises here for anyone paying attention, which makes Spielberg’s film rely even more on its admittedly striking CGI than most big-budget blockbusters. It’s also a movie that likely plays better in a group setting: there’s so much going on at times, I felt I needed an extra pair of eyes to take everything in.
So, is Ready Player One a fun ride in spite of its obvious faults? Well, kind of, at least the first or second time through. The film’s attention to detail is admirable, from its virtual re-creation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel to the hundreds of tiny background characters and set decorations that demand the unlimited pause benefits of home video viewing. (Other details are sketchy, like Atari’s Adventure holding the first video game Easter Egg [it doesn’t] and *spoiler alert* The Iron Giant melting in lava, which isn’t nearly hot enough to do that.) But boring quibbles aside, Ready Player One doesn’t offer much more than all those shiny visual achievements and fun Easter Eggs: it’s all flash and very little substance, bloated at over 130 minutes, and switches between too simplistic and needlessly confusing on at least two separate occasions. The dialogue is often cringe-inducing and most of the supporting characters are woefully underwritten. But hey, while we’re talking pop culture references, I’ve can perfectly summarize Ready Player One with just two.
Unless you absolutely flipped for this one in theaters, Ready Player One is the very definition of “try before you buy” — which is a real shame, since Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray combo pack is an otherwise appealing package. Featuring a top-tier A/V presentation that’s practically demo-worthy for the format (also available in 4K and 3D editions, if you’ve got the equipment) and a surprisingly decent collection of bonus features, there’s enough here to make established fans happy. But with so many reservations about the film and its obvious lack of replay value, I see Ready Player One as a potentially fun weekend diversion and nothing more. Game over, man!
Framed its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Ready Player One looks as perfect as expected on Blu-ray. The film’s stylized color palette holds up nicely, image detail and textures are top-notch, and nearly all of the film’s CGI effects blend in seamlessly with the live-action footage. No obvious digital imperfections — including edge enhancement, excessive DNR, banding, compression artifacts, etc. — could be spotted along the way, ensuring that we get a visual presentation similar or equal to most theatrical showings. (The separately available UHD 4K release will obviously yield an even stronger output with its increased resolution and Dolby Vision HDR capability, so die-hard fans with the proper setup may want to go that route instead.) Make all the cracks you want about Ready Player One’s obvious “style-over-substance” mentality, but it’s still pretty tough to complain when the end result is this visually striking.
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The main attraction is a Dolby Atmos audio track (which unfolds to a TrueHD 7.1 mix if your receiver doesn’t support the format, although a lossless 5.1 option is the default) adds more than enough weight to give Ready Player One a formidable presence from start to finish. Surround channel activity is extremely frequent with strong separation, plenty of LFE punch, high dynamic range, an onslaught of panning effects, and crisp dialogue that’s balanced fairly well for smaller home theater setups. There’s obviously a lot going on at all times during Ready Player One and this Blu-ray will most certainly keep your ears fully entertained. French, Spanish, and Portuguese dubs (Dolby Digital 5.1) are included during the film, as well as subtitles in English, SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Presented in Warner Bros.’ typical no-frills style (and strangely silent, which was actually kinda nice), the menu interface is smooth, basic, and easy to navigate with options for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) is packaged in a dual-hubbed keepcase with a matching slipcover. A Digital Copy redemption slip is also tucked inside.
Not surprisingly, the extras are mostly short to mid-length featurettes that explore different aspects of Ready Player One’s source material and A/V effects. The most substantial by far is “Game Changer: Cracking the Code” (57:22), which offers a broad overview of the story adaptation and entire production by way of short interviews with key cast and crew members. The focus narrows to more streamlined looks at the visual effects and sound design during “Effects for a Brave New World” (24:38) and “Level Up: Sound for the Future” (8:03), while “High Score: Endgame” (10:02) talks about the contributions that Alan Silvestri — filling in for John Williams — brought to the film. Meanwihle, “Ernie & Tye’s Excellent Adventure” (12:01) offers a short and fluffy chat with author Ernest Cline and star Tye Sheridan, and “The 80s: You’re the Inspiration” (5:38) features Cline and Steven Spielberg discussing the decade’s pop culture and what was cut out of the film. This is a decent enough pile of bonus features, even if many are a little predictable. Also, no Easter Eggs?
Like its source material, Ready Player One is a layered mash-up of existing films, books, video games, and other stuff from the past 40-odd years, pureed together in an attempt to create something new and refreshing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed: when you’re done playing “spot the cameo” and being led around the nose by its visual effects, Ready Player One offers an entirely conventional ride to places we’ve all been before — but the first or second time through, it’s at least kinda fun while it lasts. Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray goes all out in the A/V department (even more so, if you opt for the 4K edition), while the extras are predictable yet still worth a once-over. Die-hard fans will enjoy themselves, but there’s just not enough lasting appeal here to warrant a purchase for most. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.