Review: ‘Ready Player One’ Is Spielberg’s Best Film In A Decade

With the official summer box office season fast approaching, the current spring of tentpole contenders continues apace with the arrival of cinema’s grand master of blockbuster franchise filmmaking.

Steven Spielberg returns to theaters with Ready Player One, the sort of big-budget action-adventure extravaganza that turned the director into one of the most successful, beloved, and acclaimed filmmakers of all time.

Can he work his magic again after many years away from the tentpole game?


Source: Warner Bros.
Inside the Oasis, in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

With Ready Player One’s domestic opening weekend shaping up for $40-50 million, international markets will provide a welcome boost expected to exceed $100+ million over the Easter holiday.

Some tracking suggests interest in the film is slowing a bit as we head into the weekend, but don’t be surprised if the numbers tick upward as the weekend progresses.

An average run would see a $150+ million global bow translate into perhaps $300-350 million range. If word of mouth is strong, however, then the initial relatively modest opening numbers (particularly in North America) could give way to solid holds and long legs that carry the film toward $400+ million territory.

With terrific critical reviews pushing it over 80+% at Rotten Tomatoes, a best selling novel to provide branding, Spielberg’s name recognition, and the story’s mix of video games and ’80s-90s nostalgia, there’s good reason to expect audience word of mouth to drive attendance for Ready Player One.

It lacks any big-name stars who could attract an additional fanbase, but these days only a few performers really deliver that sort of star power anyway.


Source: Warner Bros.
Lena Waithe and Tye Sheridan star in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

I’m guessing it opens in the $45+ million range, and perhaps if buzz from the Wednesday and Thursday screenings is good enough $50 million territory.

This is based on the strength of the film (which I’ll get to momentarily in my full review), so watch the audience grade at Cinemascore for an idea of how well it will perform in the weeks ahead.

My bet is a final domestic tally of $120-150 million, and foreign receipts topping $300+ million.

Spielberg used to be the poster boy for blockbuster box office results, as his films through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s regularly racking up several hundred million bucks apiece. After the turn of the century, Spielberg slowly turned his focus away from franchises and big mainstream crowdpleasers, and toward more serious dramatic fare.

As a result, the box office revenue from his pictures declined significantly which, of course, is fine for movies made without need for massive box office results and merchandising potential.

Over the previous seven years, Spielberg directed five new films, only one of which (Lincoln, with $$275 million) took more than $200 million at the worldwide box office. The other four films — War Horse, Bridge of Spies, The BFG, and The Post — all scored an average global performance of about $173 million apiece.

But most of those films had budgets far below $100 million, including Lincoln, so their more modest receipts were more acceptable in that context. to mention the fact all of those five most recent pictures except The BFG received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Spielberg was also nominated for Best Director for three of these movies — Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post.


Source: Warner Bros.
Olivia Cooke, Win Morisaki, Lena Waithe, and Philip Zhao star in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

Ready Player One will be Spielberg’s highest-grossing movie since at least The Adventures of Tintin, and more likely his biggest box office success since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It’s also one of only six of his post-2000 films to top 80% at Rotten Tomatoes, out of 13 total pictures he’s directed during that 18 year period. It could also become his second-best domestic performer in a decade, possibly behind only Lincoln, which took $182 million stateside).

So, why do I think audiences will reward Ready Player One with good word of mouth and long box office legs? Read on and find out.

I grew up on Steven Spielberg movies. Along with George Lucas, Richard Donner, Martin Scorsese, and Roger Ebert, Spielberg helped turn me into a lover of movies and defined my childhood relationship with cinema. My favorite movie of all time is Jaws, which I also consider among the best films ever made (alongside some of Spielberg’s other work, such as Schindler’s List).

Even some of his less popular work is near and dear to my heart — most notably 1941, a film most critics and movie fans hate, but which I think is terrific and hilarious.


Source: Warner Bros.
Olivia Cooke and Ty Sheridan star in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

My childhood love of his work was defined by big mainstream blockbusters like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I grew up, I became enthralled by his turn toward more purely dramatic productions like Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan that still attained big, bold storytelling of the “event cinema” sort and taking in blockbuster revenue around the world.

Nowadays, I also like and respect his recent films, which dial back the sense of large-scale production and blockbuster filmmaking, seeking and finding a comfortably restrained approach to grounded true stories or stories inspired by real events (seven of his last eleven pictures are this sort of storytelling).

There are only two Spielberg feature films (out of 31 he’s directed) I’m not a fan of — The BFG and A.I., but I understand why other people like them and I see much to appreciate in both of them.

It’s been a long while since Spielberg released a film of the scale, tone, and action-adventure escapism found in Ready Player One.

So while I like almost everything he’s made and have faith in his ability to deliver the goods when it comes to a wide range of filmmaking approaches, I wondered if so many years away from helming a big-budget popcorn production of this size and import might make him a tad rusty, or if his recent primary focus on restrained adult mid-range dramatic storytelling would diminish his ability to get back into the mindset of making popcorn fun that wins our hearts with a combination of sympathetic characters and sheer thrill-ride entertainment.


Source: Warner Bros.
The Iron Giant joins the fight in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

Well have no fear, dear readers, because Spielberg quickly brushed aside any such concerns and delivered his best movie in at least a decade.

When I say that, I don’t mean it’s necessarily got better acting than some other film you might mention, or that the cinematography is better than another recent film, and so on.

I mean all around and pound for pound, Ready Player One is a brilliant parade of Spielberg’s finest skills and talents as a storyteller, a joyous declaration that the master is back in town to remind us he helped invent blockbuster tentpole cinema in the first place.

This is a filmmaker remembering what it’s like to be a kid again, having fun applying the latest advances in cinema to his traditional approach and feeling that sense of discovery that shines through in his very best work.

I saw Ready Player One at the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles, at the historic Dolby Theatre. I’ll speak more about the visual particulars in a few moments, but to start off let me just say a premiere experience is always my favorite way to see these types of films — the energy in the room, the enthusiasm, the giant screen and beauty of the classic theatrical setting at Dolby, and of course the visual and audio quality always combine to turn a premiere screening into a magical event.

It always ultimately depends on the movie delivering the goods, of course; but when the film is great, a premiere can wash away all of the business trappings and other external considerations or sentiments that get in the way of being transported by cinema and just giving yourself over to the glory of moviemaking.

A premiere is sort of an idealized fantasy version of what the theatrical experience should be, timeless and focused entirely on celebrating the arrival of a new artistic creation.

The Ready Player One premiere was, then, a perfect party announcing the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s homage to the cinematic era that spawned his career and which he in turn helped define.


Source: Warner Bros.
Sho, played by Philip Zhao, in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

If you’re looking for a comparison to Spielberg’s previous work, Ready Player One is probably close to Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Catch Me If You Can.

They (and other of his films) share a sense of wonder, of a director pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to find new ways to surprise us, of an artist giving us experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before. So, too, does Ready Player One.

I won’t spend a lot of time on the whole nostalgia angle, since it’s obvious the movie is stuffed to the gills with 1980s and 1990s pop culture references, including movies and video games from what could perhaps be called the “golden era” of Spielberg’s filmmaking.

So there’s plenty of appeal for older viewers who remember those decades, and younger viewers who are obsessed with the retro coolness of such things. It’s eye-popping and mind-blowing to see how many little references, Easter eggs, and other hidden gems populate every scene of Ready Player One.

I’m sure people will be discovering previously-unrevealed examples of them for years to come, after the film releases on home entertainment and fans can spend days scanning every single frame.

But you don’t actually need familiarity with those things to appreciate and understand Ready Player One, or to relate to the various characters and their arcs. Think about The Matrix for a moment, and imagine if it was real but everybody had the option to log into it or not whenever they wanted, and we all knew how to bend or break the rules the way Neo and his crew did.

We don’t even need a dystopian future setting to make that sound instantly exciting and desirable, right?


Source: Warner Bros.
The action isn’t limited to the virtual world in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

Now imagine if you lived in a rundown trailer park, the world was running out of food and water and resources. Escaping into a “Matrix” world where anything is possible, where you can be anyone you want and compete for money and gifts and endless entertainment, becomes all the more enticing.

In our age of mobile devices, augmented reality and virtual reality, streaming services, and rising fears of authoritarianism and climate change and possible nuclear warfare, we don’t need a background in 1980s video games and movies to appreciate why the characters in Ready Player One behave as they do, or to enjoy watching their stories.

We are all seeking a balance between our real lives and our virtual selves, so to speak. How do we translate success and knowledge found online into real-world value, into meaningful relationships, into real social change?

Even while Ready Player One immerses us in dazzling visual effects, action, and jokes, it doesn’t lose sight of that question, since it’s what makes the story relevant and resonant to all of us.

Why are these characters in the Oasis (the virtual world of the film), how does it affect their everyday lives, and why do they need to turn their virtual experiences into concrete victories in the real world?

The cast do an exceptional job, with Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, and Ben Mendelsohn providing the film’s definitive performances and arcs.

They each have their own particular pain and self-doubts they’re trying to escape, their own hope that somehow they can make their imaginary successes into meaningful real-life happiness.

That universal longing and fear, and how it all comes down to finding a way to truly connect with other people through love and trust and friendship, is consistently at the heart of Spielberg’s work, and a big part of why he’s so successful.


Source: Warner Bros.
Tye Sheridan stars in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

By the way, Sheridan kept reminding me of a young Harrison Ford, and I found myself wondering if this realization was going to affect me later this year when I see Solo: A Star Wars Story. I hope not, and I still have faith in Alden Ehrenreich’s ability to deliver the goods (for years before he was cast, Ehrenreich was my stated pick to play the son of Han and Leia, and having seen him in the trailers for Solo he reminds me of a young Dennis Quaid, whom I’ve always said could’ve been a good alternate choice to play Han Solo in the original Star Wars pictures). But after seeing him in Ready Player One, Sheridan definitely made me consider the “what if” scenario of him as young Han Solo.

There’s definitely some subtext about the way a virtual world allows people to transcend assumptions and expectations of sex, gender, race, age, and economic class that otherwise dominate so much of our social interactions and cultural conditioning.
However, the film touches on this and puts the points out there, while not really following up on it afterward.

It would’ve been nice to see more attention to those concepts, and early on I expected the film would eventually pull the rug out from under us with surprise reveals and outcomes related to Cooke’s and Waithe’s characters.

Alas, the film isn’t quite subversive enough to take those risks. It still works perfectly well as-is, but I have to admit I think it would’ve benefitted from further exploration of those themes.


Source: Warner Bros.
Everyone gets their game on in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

Visually, Ready Player One is a revelation. I’m lucky I saw it first in Dolby Vision and with Dolby Atmos at the LA premiere, where the gorgeous colors, complex sounds, nuanced little details in the visual effects, and lovely cinematography can be experienced in all of their glory.

There’s a need to distinguish between the heightened color and intensity of the virtual world, and all of its various wild imagery, and the natural world the characters inhabit in their regular lives.

Both worlds are expansive, vivid, and benefit from the unparalleled range of color and clarity Dolby Vision provides. I talk often about image fidelity because it’s an obsession with me when it comes to watching movies and TV, and as someone with color blindness I’m highly motivated to seek out the best color and image clarity to enhance my viewing experience.

Likewise, in a virtual world of perpetual massive battles, chases, blaring rock music, and an endless array of characters engaged in an equally endless array of conversations and missions, having Atmos place the sounds in exact locations in the air around you creates an added depth of immersion important not just for general theatrical viewing, but especially relevant in a movie about the blurring of lines between imaginary entertainment viewing and real life. There are 215 speakers in the Dolby Theatre, to give you an idea of how powerful the Atmos sound experience is there, and Ready Player One put all of those speakers to optimum use.


(Here’s a quick video courtesy of Dolby, with Spielberg and other members of the crew briefly discussing using Dolby Vision and Atmos in making Ready Player One…)

I haven’t been this excited by a Spielberg movie since War of the Worlds (I loved the book and original 1953 film since childhood, and feel Spielberg’s adaptation is wonderful) or perhaps even Saving Private Ryan.

Leaving the theater after Ready Player One, a wide grin plastered on my face, I was anxious to talk to other people and find out if they had the same enthusiastic reaction I had.

I wanted to call my siblings and tell them to buy their tickets for opening night. I wanted to go back into the theater and watch it again, right away.

And therein lies a particularly helpful fact — Ready Player One is so cool, fun, fast-paced, and emotionally satisfying, that it demands a second and even third viewing.

It’s 2 hour 19 minute runtime seems to fly by, and your eyeballs aren’t fast enough to take in all of the scrumptious sights and sounds filled with overt and hidden references to bygone eras. Being so rewatchable will make it easier for those tempted to go back for another helping of “spot that ’80s reference” to do so.


Source: Warner Bros.
Mark Rylance in his virtual form, in Warner’s “Ready Player One”

Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg at the top of his game, a heaping helping of exhilarating summer popcorn spectacle delivered ahead of schedule for springtime. The director reminds us once more why he is recognized as one of the all-time greatest filmmakers, and an original founder of blockbuster cinema.

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