Film Review – Ready Player One
Ready Player One
The road that brought Ready Player One (2018) to the big screen was a circular one. We start with Steven Spielberg, the most successful director in cinema history. His work, from Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Jurassic Park (1994) have become landmarks in popular culture, influencing countless fans across generations. One of those fans was Ernest Cline, who so loved 1980s and early 1990s pop culture that he would write a book steeped in nostalgia. That book became such a success that it would be tapped for a cinematic adaptation, helmed by none other than Steven Spielberg. It must have been strange for Spielberg to tackle this story because he played such a pivotal role in its inception. He must’ve gone through a bit of an existential episode directing a movie where he actually references himself.
In the near future, society has turned into a dystopia (doesn’t it always?) where space is so limited that people have to live in trailers stacked on top of each other. To escape the harshness of their lives, people put on 3D headsets and bodysuits to dive into the virtual reality world of the OASIS. Here, anyone can become anything they want and do anything their heart desires. For many, this gives them the opportunity to delve into the past, and relish the joy of nostalgic movies, toys, and videogames. Referencing the past is not new in movies, but this may be the ultimate example of it. From the get go, we are bombarded with characters and places that call back to almost every form of popular culture of the 80s/90s. From Super Mario, to John Huston films, to superhero comic books and more, there are so many references it is impossible to catch them all in one sitting.
Spielberg has always been at the forefront when it comes to special effects. Now that he has a narrative where virtual reality is his canvass, he let’s all of his creative tendencies hang loose. An opening shots whisks us into the OASIS with breathless speed, whipping past planets across a digitized universe, some based on the Minecraft and Doom videogames, others based on gambling, some for those that want to experience extreme sports, the possibilities go on and on. Janusz Kaminski’s camera acts almost like a kid in a candy store, eager to look around and see everything while Alan Silvestri’s score highlights familiar musical cues of yesteryear (some of which he composed himself).
The creator of the OASIS was Halliday (Mark Rylance), a Steve Jobs-like tech genius. Dressing as though he were stuck in adolescence, Halliday created the OASIS as a way to combat his extreme social awkwardness. That creation became such a momentous success that Halliday became wealthy beyond his imagination. What’s a guy to do when he has more money than he can spend? Create a contest to give it all away, of course! Halliday created a game in which – after his death – a lucky winner would inherit his wealth (a half trillion dollars) and complete control of the OASIS. The game would require players to learn not only everything there is to know about Halliday’s life, but also of every piece of pop culture that Halliday loved so much. Talk about a challenge!
One of those contestants is Wade (Tye Sheridan) a regular kid living in the stacks. Online, he’s known as Parzival, with an avatar that looks like something out of a Japanese anime. Along with his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade spends much of his time trying to crack Halliday’s code to win the contest. However, at the same time the evil corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) – lead by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – utilize their resources to win control of the OASIS, and thus control of the masses.
On an emotional level, Ready Player One doesn’t quite work. That has more to do with the writing than with Spielberg’s direction. Cline adapted his book along with Zak Penn, and that combination resulted in much of the dialogue coming off stiff. Admittedly, trying to balance genuine sentiment with the desire to constantly drop nostalgic reference points is difficult. On paper, it’s fun to read characters talk about a videogame you recognize. Seeing and hearing real people do the same thing on screen doesn’t ring as true. The characters stay roughly straight through their arcs. Wade/Parzival is more or less the same guy at the end as he was at the beginning, and the romantic hints we get between him and Art3mis fall flat. Sorrento is your basic bad guy and nothing else, although his attempt to convince others that he’s “hip and cool” was pretty funny. And the narrative had a very procedural-like structure, where our protagonists go from one obstacle to the next, talking in expositional phrases the entire way through.
But oh, is this a fun movie to watch. Spielberg, with his control of tone and mastery of visual storytelling, has such enthusiasm with every set piece that we find ourselves wrapped up in the excitement of each moment. Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn’s editing cuts between the virtual and real worlds, showcasing how one affects the other. This is some of the best use of CGI that I have seen. Yes, characters within the OASIS are artificial, but they’re placed in environments and landscapes that have a tangible feel. The way that real and imaginary elements are blended calls to mind the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) but with a 21st century aesthetic. Spielberg flexes his creative muscles, really taking the idea of cultural references and doing something entertaining with it. The best scene – which I will not describe – takes place smack dab in the middle of the film. While I will not get into any details, I will say: if Stanley Kubrick were still alive, I’d like to think he’d get a kick out of seeing that sequence.
Nostalgia can sometimes be a dangerous thing. Falling too deeply into the past may prevent a person from moving forward and growing into a better a version of themselves. But on the flip side, it can act as a means of showing us how far we’ve come, examining the little bursts of joy that helped mold us into who we are today. Ready Player One leans more toward the latter. The character development and emotional stakes may be undercooked, but it’s such a thrill to watch a filmmaker of Spielberg’s pedigree unrestrained and having fun. Will this hold up thirty or forty years from now? Who knows. This is a film that was made to be entirely of this moment, right now.