Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.
So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.
Ready Player One was released last month and received praise for its visual effects from most corners. It currently maintains a 74% Fresh rating on Rotten tomatoes. We revisited the month-old film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.
And so, at last, Ready Player One is in our rearview mirror. The peculiarity of our age is that time seems to both move glacially and at light speed. It’s only been a month since it premiered at SXSW, generating a tidal wave of thinkpieces ranging from the thoughtful to the “you must be so embarrassed to have said that” (to quote Daniel Ortberg). But the Great Wheel of Pop Culture is now lurching towards Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War, leaving the deepest thinkpieces to percolate until awards season.
As important as I truly believe the discussion surrounding this film is, this finally leaves us alone with the film—not the book, not the cultural dialogue, but the film itself—to judge it on its own merits. So what did this FANGRRL think?
Ready Player One would work just as well, if not better, if you took out the specific pop culture references. Heck, it might even become a better representation of the joys of gaming in the process.
The pop culture represented in Ready Player One is overwhelmingly targeted at geeks like me—you know, white nerds who were bitten by radioactive I Love the '80s as children and go into ecstatic fits whenever they hear the opening chords of Van Halen’s “Jump.” I went into this knowing full well that my lizard brain would be overjoyed, even as I side-eyed the underdeveloped characters of Daito and Sho, the Japanese brothers who bring up the rear for Wade Watts’ ragtag crew of gamers. It’s the catalyst for both the original book’s existence and the flashpoint for the dialogue surrounding the film.
And it distracts from a perfectly serviceable throwback adventure film, wherein a ragtag group of gamers band together to save their favorite MMORPG, though ultimately friendship—both the one-on-one friendship of what becomes the High Five and the camaraderie of the OASIS gaming community—saves the day. At its core it’s a Steven Spielberg movie, just the way he used to make ‘em.
But there is something terrifically recursive about the Steven Spielberg of the aught-teens (oh god, are we old now?) essentially covering the Steven Spielberg of the '80s. Few of us will ever have a career so long-lived and varied that we can pastiche specific eras of ourselves, so to see such a rare phenomenon play out before my eyes was fascinating. It creates an additional self-conscious layer to the styling that isn’t present in the actual '80s films that both Cline and Spielberg are referencing, from Back to the Future to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. There’s something curiously defensive to some scenes, like when Wade calls the film’s villain out for being a fake geek—resulting in the infamous line “a fanboy always knows a hater,” which feels like something a robot would say if you pumped it full of enough GameFAQs forum posts—and when Wade automatically refers to something being Halliday’s “11th favorite horror film.” That’s when the film bumps into the kind of curation that feels less like the joys of curative fandom and more like an intellectual chore to demonstrate supremacy.
Better are the moments in the film that actually capture some of the joys of gaming. I was endlessly charmed by the first puzzle, a race no one has ever won, because it features a counterintuitive yet totally intuitive solution. Watching the race twice wasn’t repetitive, but challenging and fun—like the best video games. And, to my utter surprise, much better are the characters of Aech and Art3mis.
Lena Waithe’s Aech walks away with the movie, as both her cyborg ogre avatar Aech and as Helen. (That final shot of Helen grinning at her crew through the open doors of the van? I swooned. A little. Waithe just has charisma coming out of every pore.) She’s funny, she’s supportive, and the moment I was most scared of—Wade meeting Helen and realizing his friend is someone very different from him—actually was one of the moments that touched me the most. On the run from some very bad dudes, Helen rescues Wade. They recognize each other by repeating familiar friendship patter and their face just light up. It’s such a pure, sweet moment, and as bland as I can occasionally find Tye Sheridan, their friend chemistry is legitimately wonderful.
And as for Art3mis, also known as Sam, who could very much run the risk of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? I actually really enjoyed her entire arc, from legendary gamer to revolutionary to member of the crew. I legitimately teared up when, after being so ashamed of her birthmark, she added it to her avatar. Of course, the more I found myself enjoying and intrigued by these characters, the more I began to wonder why Wade was the lead. Much of Ready Player One feels like a throwback, for better or for worse, and having Wade be a more or less “generic” protagonist is definitely for worse. Because it's assumed that the audience is just like Wade, Wade gets no real character development. He just sort of feels there the same way Twilight's Bella Swan does. It's Sam who actually gets the bulk of backstory and character development in the film—which, to me, would communicate who the story should be about. And the choice to focus on Wade over a more developed character says a lot about who the intended audience for this film is, to the point, perhaps, of exclusion.
Before we leave the Thunderdome, I did want to touch on the film’s decision to continue using T.J. Miller even after the sexual assault and transphobia allegations made against him. i-R0k is a totally CGI character, created by motion capture, CGI, and voice work. As much as the motion capture can't be recouped without starting from scratch, I found their decision to not at least dub the character troubling at best and lazy at worst. It's not feasible to undo months and months of effects work, but with the amount of resources at Spielberg’s disposal here, something could and should have been done.
Ready Player One is perfectly fine. It might even work better if you took out specific pop culture references and replaced them with more of a general vibe. It’s a deliberate nostalgic throwback, which can feel a little awkward (down to some of the racial politics), but Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke do such solid, solid work as Aech and Sam, respectively, that they end up leaving poor Tye Sheridan in the dust. The dialogue this film has generated is good and important, but the film itself? I’d give it a solid B-.