How much fictional material is left untouched relative to the potential technological advances of society and the dangers of losing oneself inside a screen or a fictional world that replaces reality? Whatever medium you choose, you’ll find the stories, warning of the issues that arise from progress, and that expands past the imagination to actual news coverage. World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Call of Duty, Halo, all of them have been the subject of articles or television reports discussing newfound addictions that have led people to lose their jobs, their morality, their spouses, their children, and in some cases even their lives.
It happens in real life. It also happens in books, television shows, music, and certainly in movies. Every time anyone posts an article on a robot doing something cool, the easy joke is to leap to the conclusion that Robert Patrick is about to morph out of liquid metal and chase our speeding car down the highway on foot. It’s easy to tell these stories, because none of us know the complete capabilities of today, much less what’s to come tomorrow. Fear comes from what’s unknown or hard to define, rather than what we expect and understand. It’s why many are wary of the dark, because what we can’t see allows our own minds to paint a picture far worse than our eyes could confirm.
With that said, Steven Spielberg has brought us a movie that’s a rarity in one key area, and although it may not sound like a compliment, it actually is. Ready Player One is so much fun to watch and take in, you may forget that the story is relatively thin and predictable. That’s perfectly fine, because I loved the ride, despite knowing exactly how it would end before the title hit the screen after the briefest of introductions.
This exact story (well, something awfully close at least) has been told before, with a rebellion rising up against a corporate overlord that seeks to monetize and control a game changing resource. It’s not an anti-capitalist message here, but it’s a screed against how advertising and greed, mixed with a loss of interpersonal relationships, can override empathy for humanity. Again, there’s very little new in Ready Player One‘s basic notes, but in this case, Spielberg and his team benefit from the ability to delve into nostalgia, Easter eggs, and visual excitement to overcome a straightforward plot.
In 2045, much of the world has fallen into a created world called the OASIS, developed by a reclusive, socially awkward genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Within the landscape, people become avatars of whatever gender, body type, and style they wish, including pop culture characters, and they walk, they talk, they work, they spend money, they make money, they learn, they play, and they fall in and out of love.
The “real” world is much less appetizing following the depletion of resources, poverty, class issues, and bandwidth riots, of which the latter has been prophesied by economists and tech junkies for years. But, when you put the VR headset and the uniform on, you escape from what’s real into what’s not. However, what’s thought provoking about Ready Player One is that EVERYBODY is in the OASIS. This isn’t a bunch of “losers” or gamers, this is housewives, it’s the elderly, it’s every occupation, and it’s schoolchildren and teachers during school hours. OASIS is legion. It’s canon. It’s everything.
Without spoiling more of the story, which is based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel, the film becomes a quest story to achieve a goal placed in the original software by its creator. The prize at the end of the contest is unilateral control of OASIS, including seemingly trillions of dollars, and the ability to play God in the world most people choose over their own existence. As the film begins, we find out there are three separate challenges that must be overcome, and though many years have passed, not one person had even successfully completed one of them.
Wade Watts is an 18-year-old Ohio kid that lives with his aunt. His home exists in a group of low rent houses known as the Stacks, so named because the residences are piled on top of one another. Think Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, but stack all the huts and houses like a game of Jenga and you get the idea. He’s also addicted to OASIS, which isn’t a problem, as yet again it’s what everybody does. His avatar, Parzival, travels and searches through the world for the answer to the first challenge, which nets him one of three keys required to complete Halliday’s mystery. He has a friend, Aech (pronounced “H”), within the world, and as with most relationships in Ready Player One, the two have never met one another.
Parzival is a “Gunter,” a nickname for “egg hunter,” that spends most of his time in OASIS working for the singular purpose of finishing Halliday’s epic quest, which is the culmination of all his work. As a premise, this appeals to me because I love quests and mysteries, but it’s also not particularly original, except that it takes place within the larger construct of a video game. The game world gets far more screen time than its real counterpart, which means a lot of what we see is CGI, rather than acting.
In some ways, Ready Player One is two films, one an animated feature and the other a live action science fiction extravaganza. This works perfectly both for Spielberg and for society, but it brings up a unique challenge this film will always have with its audience. Simply put, it’s not for everybody. Older audiences might not understand the “game” and the various references to video game culture, and thus might enjoy looking at all the nostalgia but might not care much about the surroundings, as visually splendid as they might be.
On the nostalgia subject, never before have we ever seen the sheer breadth and depth of references that this movie provides, and it’s not even a close fight. If you were impressed with Stranger Things and its tributes and homages, know that Ready Player One comes equipped with, no exaggeration, TEN TIMES the pop culture references and nostalgia. Halliday’s entire life was obsessed with 1970s, 1980s, and even a little 1990s television, film, fiction, and gaming. Thus, when he built the OASIS, he created a world that was a shrine to the content that gave him so much entertainment and helped him deal with a real life in which he was uncomfortable.
You’ll see Batman, Marvel, Atari, Blizzard, about 500 (probably) movies, including Back to the Future and The Iron Giant, and plenty of Spielberg’s own classics, among many other blasts from the past. There’s one reference, an extended sequence, that was completely unexpected and was not in any of the marketing. I won’t name it, but I will say this, that five minutes makes Ready Player One completely unacceptable for young children. It’s going to scare them. There may be nightmares. Be warned that this scene exists and think carefully before you take that 8-year-old to see this. At least know it’s coming.
While you might think this is a kid’s movie, it really isn’t. It’s for people in their 30s and 40s that remember their childhood, seek an escape back into it for 138 minutes, and can enjoy all the nostalgia and the adult humor of the movie. That’s not to say teenagers won’t dig it, but it’s to say the real audience are people closer to my age and not those with bed times and curfews.
As for the acting, it’s not a hindrance, and the casting is good. It doesn’t have the star power of the excellent, highly successful Jumanji reboot from December, but it provides an opportunity for some new names and faces to join the equation. Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse and Mud, the latter of which is a must-see) effectively plays Wade as a driven, likable kid, but one that isn’t confident in himself. Olivia Cooke’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Bates Motel) Samantha/Art3mis wants to finish the contest for a grand purpose, and she’s solid in her scenes. Her chemistry with Sheridan works as well, and both are rock solid in the voice acting sequences that accompany their avatars inside Halliday’s OASIS.
Ben Mendelsohn (Star Wars: Rogue One, Bloodline) plays the film’s villain, and he’s great, just as he was in that otherwise disappointing Netflix series. T.J. Miller (Deadpool, Silicon Valley) provides satisfying comedy relief, and Master of None‘s Lena Waithe, once she arrives, is a fun character as well. Th
The best performance, or the one that stuck with me most, however, is Rylance’s (Bridge of Spies). The James Halliday character, shown through archival flashbacks and story twists, is fascinating. I wish we could have spent more time with him, because there’s so much to unpack there. He was Steve Wosniak, but there was never really a Steve Jobs. He had a partner in Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), but the rift between those two was nothing like what happened with Apple, and in almost every way is more laudable than that story. Neither is evil in any fashion, but Rylance plays eccentricity and disconnection with care and nuance. He’s gold in virtually everything he touches, and Ready Player One is no exception. Without Halliday being so interesting to watch, the film would be far less effective on an emotional level.
I largely loved this movie because I enjoyed every second of the nostalgia and the speed in which it moved. Not much downtime, and not much illogical, because again, the story is secondary to everything else taking place. Plus, the fictional game world makes anything possible and plausible. It’s all so much fun, and ultimately, despite what the Academy Awards might try to make us believe, that’s the number one goal we want from MOST of our entertainment experiences. It’s also a return to the Steven Spielberg we’ve longed to see come back, the one doing action, science fiction, and fantasy, and the one that looks like he had a great time working on this movie.
The story is predictable and the game world construct won’t appeal to every audience, but to those Ready Player One was written to reach, it will. I was smiling ear to ear while watching, and I’d recommend seeing it in the biggest, loudest theater you can. It was the first movie I was sad I wasn’t watching in 3D, and plan to remedy that in the coming weeks on a second viewing. There’s so much to see in the background, posters on the walls that you’ll point at and think, “Hey, that’s ____ from ____. Awesome!”
In the end, despite whatever you take from the plot or the message (or lack thereof), you will have a good time watching Ready Player One if you’re a member of the target demographic. Because it was predictable and simple, I give it a “B,” but I have no problem in saying I’ll likely re-watch it several times over the next handful of years, because again, this is an escape in every sense of the word, both on screen and for those in a movie theater or later for those watching at home. Spielberg delivers a winner, brings back some of his old magic, and I’m eager to read Cline’s novel.
Visually stunning, with a tremendous soundtrack and a strong score, presented at a blazing pace, Ready Player One is a joyful, optimistic movie experience. There aren’t enough of them. It’s also a celebration of much of the more innocent pop culture we grew up with and of which we still retain the fondest of memories. I haven’t had this much pure fun watching a film on the big screen in a while, even more so than the Jumanji reboot, which shares some similarities with it. It’s well worth seeing, but again, hold off on the younger kids. You’ll understand why when you see it…and you should.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Bring the love, the hate, and the extra lives to me there, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.