Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Simon Pegg, T.J. Miller
When introducing Ready Player One before its premiere at South by Southwest, director Steven Spielberg stated that in bringing Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel to the screen he was trying to make a movie, not a film. The resulting work sees the legendary director back in a fun, crowd pleasing mode he hasn’t played in for a long time, and in doing so the filmmaker who practically invented the modern blockbuster shows that he has still got it.
In the year 2045, people all over the world escape the mundanity of the real life by donning a headset and disappearing into the Oasis, a virtual universe in which you can do anything and be anyone. Before his death, the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), devised a Willy Wonka-like scheme to find an heir. He built into the Oasis three hidden challenges. The first person to successfully complete the challenges and find Halliday’s Easter Egg would inherit control of the Oasis. Five years on, no one has yet completed the first challenge. One of the many dedicated gunters – short for ‘egg hunters’ – out there is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known in the Oasis by his avatar, Parzival. In the real world, Wade lives with his aunt in the poor district of Columbus, Ohio. He is a disciple of Halliday and is determined to be the first to the Easter Egg, largely to ensure that the Oasis doesn’t fall into the hands of Nolan Sorento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose company Innovative Online Industries (IOI) have employed an army of players, known as Sixers, to try and win them control of the Oasis so they can monetise it. After Parzival crosses paths with famous gunter and underworld revolutionary Art3mis (Olivia Cook), he finally unlocks the secret to completing the first challenge, which puts him in the crosshairs of Sorento.
Ready Player One is a movie for those who grew up on a diet of Spielberg. It is a feast of pop-culture allusions and references. Halliday was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, a gaming and popular culture nerd, and his nostalgia for that time infuses the digital world he has created and the challenges that he has set. In the first challenge, a street race, we see the Delorian from Back to the Future racing against the 1960s batmobile and a light bike from Tron through a course with obstacles including the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and King Kong. By thrusting together different icons of popular culture Ready Player One offers a similar viewing pleasure to films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Lego Movie. However, while much of the movie’s joy is in the recognition of these references, they are never central to the plot. As such, it is possible to follow and enjoy the narrative even if you lack an encyclopaedic knowledge of video games, cartoons and 1980s blockbusters.
The story plays out on two planes: the real world and the Oasis. The Oasis is a visual feast. Spielberg presents this weird and wonderful mash-up of a world in a distinctly different style to those scenes taking place in reality, using impossible camera angles and a disembodied, floating point of view camera that moves seamlessly over, under and around out characters. While he has for a long time been one of the more high profile holdouts for shooting on film, Ready Player One has given Spielberg a reason to work digitally and he has clearly embraced the freedom that comes with not being confined to the practical. Interestingly, however, the result is not a hugely immersive experience. Rather than feeling like we are in the world of the Oasis with Parzival, playing the game, the experience is much more akin to watching someone else play a video game. As a setting, though, the Oasis is also versatile. After the first challenge shows us this virtual world in all its mind-bending, transformative glory, the second challenge features the characters entering into the setting of an old film film (to mention which one would spoil what is the most fun sequence of the film), which shows us a different side of the Oasis, its ability to create a coherent but alternative space.
After spending much of the first half of the film inside the Oasis, those moments when we do escape into the real world serve as as valuable opportunity to catch your breath. They also give the story real stakes. The Oasis is actually a game in which, by completing tasks, players earn coins which they can redeem for various upgrades and abilities in the virtual space. If you die in the Oasis, your character re-spawns but you lose all of your coins. So for players who have been building up a treasury over years, even decades, the prospect of dying in the Oasis is devastating. But when the competition for Halliday’s Easter Egg spills over into the real world, those stakes are raised to the level of life and death.Rather than building around an A-list star, Spielberg has compiled an interesting cast of fresh, young faces and character actors. However, with the characters themselves being largely types, not much is demanded from these actors. Wade Watts is another fatherless Spielberg protagonist. Ben Mendelsohn’s Sorento is a moustache twirling corporate villain. Mark Rylance, who is fast becoming a Spielberg favourite, does get to have some fun playing Halliday at different points in his life. Largely the fun with these characters comes from our engagement with them as digital avatars. These avatars are a form of social performance, a projection, and some humour is drawn from the disconnect between how people present themselves in the Oasis and who they are in the real world.
While not a mind-bending, Inception-like experience, Ready Player One is just a bit smarter than it could have been, enough to be interesting. The futuristic competition between corporate entities seeking to financially exploit the Oasis and those users who believe in its utopian potential is as much a commentary on the way we use the internet now as it is a warning about the future of virtual reality. But at the end of the day, as Spielberg suggested at SXSW, Ready Player One isn’t trying to be a profound piece of social commentary. This movie is primarily about fun, and on that front it delivers in spades.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Ready Player One? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.