Ready Player One Reviews Are In—and It's Giving Critics Pop Culture Whiplash

Steven Spielberg's movie, starring Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, is in theaters now

By Zach Johnson Mar 29, 2018 3:20 PMTags
Watch: Tye Sheridan Says Working With Spielberg Is "Amazing"

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline's bestseller of the same name, premieres in theaters nationwide today—but did the beloved filmmaker do the novel justice?

For those who haven't read Cline's story, published in 2011, here's a brief synopsis:

Set in the year 2045, an orphaned 18-year-old named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) creates an aspirational avatar, Parzival, and ventures into the OASIS—an immersive virtual universe where everyone escapes reality. (Literally, everyone goes there to "live.") Before his death, the OASIS' creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), promised his entire fortune—and total control of his company!—to the winner of a three-part contest he designed. Early on, Wade wins the first challenge of the treasure hunt, making him an overnight celebrity. But it also endangers him, since the rival Innovative Online Industries (IOI) is working overtime to seize control of the Oasis. Can Wade and his virtual friends—known as the High Five—stop IOI before it's too late?

Additional Ready Player One cast members include Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook/Art3mis, Hannah John-Kamen as F'Nale Zandor, Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento, T.J. Miller as i-R0k, Win Morisaki as Daito, Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow, Lena Waithe as Helen/Aech and Philip Zhao as Sho. The film has been rated PG-13 and is being screened in 2D, 3D and IMAX formats.

Here's what critics are saying about Ready Player One:

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• Ready Player One seamlessly shifts "between the candy-colored OASIS and the bleakness of reality," Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty writes. "But the OASIS, with its constant blink-and-miss barrage of pop culture references, is the place you want to be—a fanboy nerdvana where you're constantly on the run from King Kong or the T. rex from Jurassic Park while zipping around in your Back to the Future DeLorean as Van Halen's 'Jump' cranks on the soundtrack." The biggest—and least overt—allusion is to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. "For all of the adventure's brave-new-world originality and hyperactive speed, Parzival is Charlie Bucket and Halliday is Gene Wilder's mad confectioner looking for a guileless heir. It's the tale of a kid whose childlike innocence turns out to be the greatest weapon in a world of adult corruption and greed," he writes. "What could possibly be more Spielbergian than that?"

Olivia Cooke Recalls Film Highlights From "Ready Player One"
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• "While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world," The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan writes. Although the film's "complicated plot and busy visuals take some getting used to," the "unlikely" combination of "old-school Spielberg with trendy technology eventually takes hold." It's not a "Spielberg event film," but it likely would've been less effective without him. "Its plot is complexity itself, but its 'kids save the world' soul is simple and earnest as opposed to earth shattering. With apologies to Bill and Ted, it's an excellent adventure, and let's leave it at that."

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• "A loving ode to a few decades that Spielberg made his own, Ready Player One's an entertaining nostalgia trip that wears its influences proudly but throws them at such dizzying force that sometimes you feel like you're buried under Chuck E. Cheese tokens," USA Today's Brian Truitt writes. Though there is an "overload of visuals," some are "quite stunning"—particularly the "sequence set in The Shining's Overlook Hotel (complete with monster lady, creepy twins and ax-wielding maniac) that's the highlight of the entire production." If the references get tiresome, "Think of it as the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of nerdiness: Some might think there are too many, some might think there are too little, but really it's just right."

Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Ready Player One "dives into the magma of fan zeal, male self-pity and techno-mythology in which those once-innocent pastimes are now embedded," The New York Times' A.O. Scott writes. And Spielberg, "a digital enthusiast and an old-school cineaste, goes further than most filmmakers in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of a form that is frequently dismissed and misunderstood." The most fun part of the movie "is its exuberant and generous handing out of pop-cultural goodies," including tributes to the late John Hughes and Stanley Kubrick. "The visual and musical allusions are eclectic enough that nobody is likely to feel left out, and everybody is likely to feel a little lost from time to time," Scott adds. The film plays heavily on nostalgia, undoubtedly, "but what really animates the movie is a sense of history." In the end, Scott writes, "Ready Player One is far from a masterpiece, but as the fanboys say, it's canon."

Steven Spielberg's Greatest Hits
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• "Ready Player One might mark the beginning of a new era in filmmaking or the end of an old one, but either way it feels like a failed experiment in building a new story on the carcasses of old movies, TV shows and video games," The Wrap's Alonso Duralde writes. Accusing the film of "weaponizing" nostalgia, he argues, "The main selling point of Ready Player One has been the plethora of pop-culture icons from anime, TV, video games and movies that are woven throughout the movie; there will no doubt be a fascinating Blu-ray extra in which 'Pop-Up Video' bubbles appear throughout to point out all these hidden nuggets, but the camerawork is so hyperactive and the Oasis scenes are so often muddy that most of these details were lost."

Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• "After the pretentious slog that was The Post, what a thrill to see Spielberg press the rewind button and craft a true spectacle," Us Weekly's Mara Reinstein writes. "A wild, chaotic, ambitious, booming, overwhelming extravaganza," the action adventure is "a movie of the geeks, by the geeks and for the geeks." Spielberg "wanted to make entertaining amusement park ride, and, wow, does he succeed. But don't mistake nifty VR game play with universal, wondrous touchstones such as E.T. healing Elliot or humans triumphing over dinosaurs or Indiana Jones out-running a boulder." But, flaws aside, the film is "old-fashioned futuristic fun."

Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

• "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," The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore writes, describing it as "a rollicking adventure through worlds both bleak and fantastic." Yes, it "makes big changes to the specifics and structure" of Cline's novel, but it also "keeps the spirit and level-up thrills intact." The movie is heavy on nostalgia, but "the deepest throwback is to the spirit of those early home-computer adopters...who deeply believed that wondrous things could spring from the primitive programs they were learning to write," he writes. "If today's digital citizens could step back from their newsfeed troughs and think about a web they'd actually like to be caught in, maybe there's an oasis worth fighting for somewhere out there."

Are you planning to see Ready Player One? Sound off in the comments.