Ready Player One (2018)
A better reality awaits.
There’s a difference between reading Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel, Ready Player One, and seeing it up on the largest screen possible, as its non-stop barrage of ’70s and ’80s Easter eggs and pop-culture references definitely work better in live-action. See, there’s a certain joy in spotting the V8 Interceptor from Mad Max (1979), the Plymouth Fury from Christine (1983) and the classic Batmobile from the 1966 telly show, or catching a glimpse of Blanka from the Street Fighter videogame series and Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Heck, I literally lost my shit when I saw someone fire a five-pointed Glaive from 1983’s Krull or the fricken’ Battletoads charging into ‘battle’ beside El Dragón from Battleborn! And that’s only just the tip of the nostalgia-glazed treasure trove that is Ready Player One, the latest blockbuster from the great Steven Spielberg, the granddaddy of science fiction/ adventure films such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Set in the year 2045, where much of the world has become a slum-like ghetto due to overpopulation, pollution and climate change, Ready Player One drops us squarely into Columbus, Ohio, where we meet teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a disenchanted orphan living with his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in a dystopian trailer park nicknamed the Stacks. Just like most others, Wade spends the majority of his time plugged into the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a fantastical virtual reality universe where you can go anywhere, do anything and be anyone — although it’s hard to spend a minute in the dreamlike theme park without bumping into a Jason Voorhees, Harley Quinn, Freddy Krueger or Hello Kitty.
Inside the massively multiplayer online simulation game, Wade plays as CGI avatar Parzival — who kinda looks like your archetypal white-haired Final Fantasy lead — and spends the bulk of his days with his long-time cyber pal Aech (Lena Waithe), a mechanical wiz and high-ranking player who’s a cross between Vin Diesel and a hulking ogre. Viewers are introduced to the pair via a show-stopping car chase that sees Parzival race others through a hazardous cityscape in the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, where he encounters threats such as King Kong and the T. Rex from Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park (1993), this accompanied by the rocking sound of ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’ by Joan Jett. You see, Parzival and Aech are what are known as gunters (egg hunters), people who are playing a game created by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the nerd-genius architect of the OASIS. Before he passed, Halliday launched a competition (titled Anorak’s Quest) in order to find his successor, whereby three magical keys were hidden in the game, and whoever attained these artifacts (which unlock a golden egg) would be rewarded with half-a-trillion dollars and total ownership of the OASIS.
Although most gunters had given up in the five years since the challenge was announced, Parzival’s biggest rival is, and has always been, a greedy company called Innovative Online Industries, aka IOI, a VR equipment manufacturing corporation run by a nasty CEO named Nolan Sorrento (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to seize the OASIS so that he can squeeze as much money out from it as possible, Sorrento going so far as to force people who fall into debt to work for him in online labor camps known as Loyalty Centers. Sending out a vast number of paid gunters (called Sixers) to win Halliday’s tournament, Sorrento will stop at nothing until he gains control of the digital wonderland.
When Parzival teams up with famous gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a punk raven-haired babe with the eyes of an anime character, he cracks the first reality-bending trial and attains the first of the three keys, along with a clue to the next mission, this rejuvenating the semi-dormant contest. Now, teaming up with friends and comrades Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), the five set out to obtain the remainder of the keys before IOI and the rest of the digi-verse, eventually topping the global scoreboard to become known as the High Five.
Working from a screenplay by Austin novelist Ernest Cline — who wrote the 2011 book on which the film is based — and Zak Penn, The Avengers (2012), director Steven Spielberg does a terrific job in switching between the real and virtual worlds, keeping things visually exciting even whilst wading through the clunkier character driven bits or voice-over exposition. Although a number of changes have been made to the source material (chiefly in the quests), most work within the constraints of the medium. A mind-blowing alteration, which sees our heroes navigate the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning (1980), is just one of the many crowning moments in RP1; not only is this sequence frightening, inspired and very funny, it’s a prime example of Spielberg using an audiences’ prior knowledge of pop-culture to amplify his story. Steve-o also has fun dropping several shout-outs to his moviemaking buds — for instance, we’re introduced to something called a Zemeckis cube — even if a lot of these don’t add much weight to the overall narrative or stakes.
Unlike many other dystopian joints, there isn’t much density to Ready Player One, the picture more focused on thrills and spills as opposed to delivering some kind of deep and meaningful message; granted, the ‘Berg does try to clumsily slip one into the third act. Moreover, there’s also an underlining thread that speaks about a fanboy’s dedication to their heroes, and how a true fan can always spot a phoney! But really, if escapism and eye-candy is what you’re after, then boy oh boy, strap in for a wild ride. From a ‘Staying Alive’ dance sequence set in a fluorescent floating disco (this after a dressing room bit that sees Parzival try on Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and Buckaroo Banzai outfits to impress his date), to an explosive climactic clash set in an icy landscape, where the Iron Giant and RX-78-2 Gundam duke it out against a ginormous Mechagodzilla, Ready Player One is a spectacular onslaught of light and sound, and one of the most unique motion pictures ever to grace multiplexes; I’d say see it on the biggest, baddest screen possible.
Performances, for the most part, are serviceable, bar the exception of a few standouts. Tye Sheridan, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), is solid as protagonist Wade Watts — a kid who’s given his empty life over to studying that of his hero, Halliday — and his alter ego Parzival, while the spunky Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), shines as clued-up gunter Art3mis/ her real-life persona Samantha Evelyn Cook, a shy redhead who’s uncomfortable about a sizable port wine birthmark on her face. Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), chews the scenery as corporate weasel Nolan Sorrento, Mendo making for a credible baddie in both the real and online planes — at one point, he even sends drones out to blow up Wade’s caravan!
Elsewhere, T.J. Miller (who hasn’t been replaced after sexual allegation claims) steals all of his scenes as a nasty looking bounty hunter/ freelance weapons dealer named I-R0k, who, in essence, represents all those ‘jerks’ and ‘trolls’ on the internet, Miller’s spot-on comic timing working well with the cocky character. Elsewhere, Spielberg’s golden boy Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (2015), does a fine job as James Halliday, the eccentric billionaire and father of the OASIS (basically the Willy Wonka of this Chocolate Factory), Rylance sporting a scraggy Dr. Emmett Brown wig (see what I did there!). Last but not least, Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead (2004), has a few good moments as Ogden Morrow, a co-creator of the OASIS who left the company after a personal falling-out with Halliday, Pegg also voicing the curator of the virtual OASIS library. And oh, look out for Killjoys’ (2015) Hannah John-Kamen, who portrays F’Nale Zandor, the cutthroat head of IOI’s operations in the physical world.
When all is said and done, Ready Player One isn’t a flawless film; it has trouble in its complicated third act (there’s all this stuff about the Atari 2600 Adventure game that might go over people’s heads), whilst feeling a bit hollow, thematically. But, between the ‘loading screens,’ there’s a dazzling adventure that really sucks you in, Spielberg managing to recapture that alluring sense of wonder from his early days. Just goes to show, when Steven Spielberg’s at the top of his game, he’s impossible to beat.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie