The sentence 'Jumanji 2 is the superior film' really isn't something I expected I'd write. Ever.
That's not to say Ready Player One is bad. It just took two viewings to work out exactly how I felt about it. It flies along at a rollicking pace, it's got action, humour and that indescribable Spielberg magic that is inherent in even his lesser work. Which begs the question: is this comparable to 1941? Always? Hook? Comparisons to the latter have already been made by critics with far more credibility than myself, Hook being a film beloved of those of a certain age but critically far less favoured. Ready Player One seems destined to leave a similar legacy, though admittedly for different reasons.
The plot itself is perfunctory: the year is 2045, and the world has gone to shit (hasn't it always?). Well, maybe not 'to shit' - more 'to Birmingham', though I can see how the two could be confused. To be fair, it's actually refreshing to see a future not quite as world-endingly bleak as we're used to - sure there's a divide between the slums ('stacks') and the glass office blocks filled with wretched hives of scum and villainy, but if the worst this particular future has to offer is a white, none-more-British sky the likes of which we've not seen since Kubrick used Beckton Gasworks to stage the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket, I'm happy with that.
So it goes that most folk escape their grim reality in the Oasis, a massive worldwide virtual universe created by James Halliday (a beautifully nuanced turn from Mark Rylance) - a shy, nervous genius who, after his death, reveals he has hidden an easter egg (tech parlance for a hidden item or feature) that if found will bestow his entire accumulated wealth and control of the Oasis on whoever finds it. Cue Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a quintessential everynerd who, along with a few friends he manages to pick up along the way, wins the first of three challenges opening up further clues that lead to the egg.
Obviously there's a villain on his tail in the shape of Ben Mendelsohn's Nolan Sorrento, CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a company desperate for control of the Oasis so they can monetize it beyond reason (his opening sales pitch that they can sell "up to 80% of a player's field of vision before inducing seizures" paints him as the Zuckerberg of the future). Wade and Sorrento cross paths, Sorrento makes a few moves to try and see him off, Wade evades them and yadda yadda lots of races and fights and explosions and Mechagodzilla and The Iron Giant and the chestburster from Alien and Clark Kent and Gundam and The Shining and Buckaroo Banzai and- wait, I didn't mention any of this yet, did I?
You see in the Oasis, anything can exist and you can be anything you want to be. Hence, Wade Watts' avatar (Parzival) drives a DeLorean / K.I.T.T. hybrid. Potential love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) rides Tetsuo's bike from Akira. He dresses as Buckaroo Banzai to impress her one evening (honestly, I think I was the only one in the cinema who knew who Buckaroo Banzai was, but that's because I'm an arsehole who assumes a multiplex crowd surely won't have seen W. D. Richter's insane 80s no-budget sci-fi with Peter Weller's dimension-jumping, rock band-fronting neurosurgeon who has a cool line in 80s upturned-suit collar threads).
It's this kind of permanent pop culture referencing that will either a) give you a nostalgic sugar rush every time something pops up you recognise; b) not bother you at all, because it serves the story, or c) annoy the fuck out of you. I think I flitted between camp A and B, but I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking Ready Player One is either the best film ever or the death knell for cinema as we know it. I'd say it was Marmite, but I think that's doing it a disservice.
The fact is, Spielberg is just good at putting this kind of stuff together, no matter how questionable certain aspects of it are. Tye Sheridan paints a bland, charmless picture in the real world, and sure if you're going to compare him to Michael J. Fox's Marty (Art3mis even refers to him as McFly at one point), it's an impossibly high watermark to reach. It's Parzival who's on the charm offensive here, not his real life counterpoint. Nolan Sorrento is a cardboard cut-out bad guy, but Mendelsohn imbues him with enough quality acting chops that you can forgive his two-dimensionalism.
There's much however that's sadly reductive of gaming and an assumed 'gaming culture' - it tries its best to be all-inclusive (the 11yr old ass-kicking Asian kid, the black lesbian with a male avatar) but everyone still comes off as the kind of Robot Wars loners and oddballs the general public expects to be into video games, shacked up in scrap yards or squatting in hellishly untidy abandoned offices. It's not something I was particularly bogged down by when watching it, but people who play video games don't all wear logos and badges referencing every bit of pop culture they can think of (a Mortal Kombat sticker here, a Wonder Woman patch there). If you start to unpick the threads holding it together, it becomes very unstable very quickly.
But maybe this is missing the point. The book (and as such, the film) is essentially a love letter to 80s ephemera, from John Cusack's ghetto blaster in Say Anything... to Chucky going apeshit on a bunch of IOI stooges. The protagonists literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. Oh, and there's section in the middle - let's call it 'the haunted house' - that is arguably worth the price of admission alone. It's a scene that is testament to the craft and care that has gone into constructing not just the Oasis, but Ready Player One as a whole.
Alan Silvestri's score masterfully weaves in cues from his Back to the Future suite - not the main theme, but moments that are instantly recognisable to those who know it. And if you don't know it, no big deal - you're not missing out, because it fits the story perfectly. The fact the film is rammed to the gills with 'things' and 'stuff' that an audience may recognise isn't what it lives or dies by; you don't have to be in on it. It's just a bonus for anyone with a keen eye - a film about an easter egg littered with easter eggs. But if you're not on the hunt for them, you'll still have a blast (watching a T-Rex and King Kong take down a Bigfoot monster truck and the 60s Batmobile in a chaotic street race is fun for all the family).
It's already been said that Spielberg has phoned it in; I would say nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, so much has gone into this film that it was always going to come off as some sort of grand folly. I don't want to compare it to the likes of Coppola's One From the Heart or some other auteur passion project; I doubt Spielberg has had a burning desire to make something like this for decades. But it speaks volumes about his directing ability that a film so ripe for criticism from so many angles can, ultimately, be a massively fun experience irrespective of its flaws. Compare it to the recently-released Pacific Rim: Uprising, for instance - another big daft film full of big daft robots, but with less than a hundredth of the charm Ready Player One has (even John Boyega's boundless charisma wanes when he's sprinkling toppings on ice cream like Salt Bae - there's a very fine line between comic and cringe).
With a tentpole release such as this, one could say you shouldn't have to watch it twice to know if you liked it or not. And with films such as Raiders, Jurassic Park and Tin Tin in Spielberg's oeuvre (the latter his most recent comparable work, considering the amount of CGI involved), his work proves you don't need time to process what you've just seen. They're solid, complete works of entertainment; perfect examples of big budget, mainstream cinema. But maybe Ready Player One is the more interesting film precisely because it's not perfect.
Would it work without the sheer onslaught of pop culture touchstones, perfectly-placed to distract and deceive? Possibly not. It's a proper romp, with enough cleverly-deployed twists and turns that all have their respective pay-offs. But so many of the pop culture touchstones are key to the narrative; it simply wouldn't work without them (neither would the book, for that matter). Could the material have been handled better by another director? Honestly, I doubt it. Even if Ready Player One is far from his best work, it's a film surely destined to garner a cult following. It taps into a desire so many of us have to hold on to memories from our childhood, even at the expense of what is happening in the real world. But hey, the real world is a pretty shitty place; maybe Ready Player One's Oasis is the sugar rush we all need right now.
Unless Jumanji 2 is on the cards. There's simply no contest.