You can watch the newest Spielberg film in three ways: as a coming-of-age arc, as a love story between misfits, or as a videogame full of opportunities for epic wins.
But you can also just watch Ready Player One as an action and adventure tale of a misfit finding the balls to go on his heroic journey. Which is to say, what a relief!
Listen. This adaptation of the 2011 Ernest Cline novel had a lot riding on it when news of a movie deal broke. While there was much to love in the novel it was necessarily a niche subject talking about a subculture within a subculture so that many thought, including us, the filmic translation would be bogged down by all the incunabula that made it cool to those who shared our world view in the first place but alienated, well, basically everyone else.
We're happy to report that it is not thus. Spielberg has made the brilliant decision to juggle the laundry list of geekdom references with the story of Wade Wats (X-Men Apocalypse’s Tye Sheridan) set in a dystopic future where the one percent gap has become so wide that everyone escapes into a VR world.
There’s plenty of frontloaded world-setting up front but the movie does its best to make it interesting even through voice-over as we watch Wade climb his way down from his vertical trailer park home in Columbus, Ohio to his makeshift private room among a pile of derelict, crushed cars. Living with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, Wade’s budget housing is one among many shipping container houses in the vast sprawl of “The Stacks.”
Through tiny living rooms, outdoor grilling, and across suspended van interiors, Wade declares that it is the year 2045 and that the real world is a harsh, crappy place beset with overpopulation unemployment, poverty, and general hopelessness.
Good thing there’s the OASIS, a gigantic and immersive digital universe where most of humanity spend their days escaping the pile of shit that is their ordinary lives. Indeed, as he descends The Stacks, Wade observes his neighbors logged in with VR helmet and gloves on, miming various tasks that correspond with what they’re doing inside the simulation like a bad Tron dramedy rip-off about an alternate future where mobile technology got thrown out the window and replaced with crude helmets and goggles.
Like a massive Second Life world the OASIS lets you go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone, so Wade has chosen to be his character Parzival—a homage to the epic about Percival, the Arthurian knight who sought the Holy Grail.
Ah, but Parzival isn’t just your garden variety escapist to the OASIS. Logged on, he is a Gunter, short for Egg Hunter like his online buddies Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), Daito (Win Morisaki).
What are these precious “eggs” they hunt for? Simply put, the treasures would give them control of the OASIS universe.
See, the OASIS was created by the brilliant, eccentric, and also very dead programmer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon his demise, and sans an heir, he broadcast a worldwide message of his final game: find three hidden keys (the proverbial gaming “Easter Eggs) found somewhere in the OASIS that had corresponding challenges, and whoever captured all three keys first would be able to unlock the ultimate prize.
Said prize being, in part, the ownership and inheritance of the OASIS.
In a digital universe populated by gamers of all kinds, Gunters soon became a specialty profession among the few brave citizens and within it a smaller number, like Parzival who’ve made it to the front ranks of the search, were an elite class.
Set against the Gunters is IOI (short for Innovative Online Industries), a giant corporation headed by the power craving CEO Nolan Sorrento (a bucolic Ben Mendelsohn), who’s also playing for Halliday’s Keys, trying to gain the OASIS so they’ll have total control over everything through brute force. If IOI wins, it would generally be the equivalent of one single corporate entity controlling all of the internet. And no one but the Sixers, the faceless player characters employed by IOI, wants that, especially not the Gunters.
The challenge to the first key is a race with plenty of obstacles along the way, including wrecking balls, shifting spike barriers, the Jurassic Park T-Rex, and King Kong himself. There may be a bit of the uncanny valley happening with the characters, but by God the action within the race is dizzying, fantastic, and total eye-candy gorgeousness as racing Gunters get smashed, flattened, wrecked, and generally torn to smithereens as their corpses bleed coins like a dead Mario when they die, needing to respawn again if they want to get back in the hunt.
Through his obsession with Halliday’s life Parzival/Wade eventually conquers the race, first among the challenges, and wins the first key. Through an encounter with famed Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Parzival’s group becomes a well-rounded team called The High Five and they find themselves hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.
There was real danger of this movie becoming a nerd’s shopping list of coolness for the sake of coolness. There’s certainly plenty of nods to 80s culture, from the opening sequence set to Van Halen’s “Jump” to the early 2D videogames that are now coined “retro” and “vintage” for their associations with pure enjoyability as is their simplicity, but Spielberg calmly adjusts the dial to make this one appeal to people across the board, not just for those who can pick out a Battle Toad or a Lara Croft in the mass of Gunters.
It’s far from perfect and it does inherit the prickly, uneven world-building that Cline suffered in his book that includes setting up interrogations with the gaming community’s proclivity to introversion and anti-social mental illness, the perils and pleasures of an unregulated online world, and the sad truth about how the lack of social skill can lead to an unfulfilling and often sorrow-filled life: no matter his genius, Halliday died alone and loveless. None of these are resolved well or satisfyingly.
There’s also several characters (like Hannah John-Kamen’s egregious, murderous, and totally vestigial F'Nale Zandor) who have no actual role in the story development except as glorified trope wallpaper, like NPCs that fade away when their functions are done.
Spielberg also pulls out his signature emotive tricks, albeit pulled straight out of the Ernest Cline playbook, to give us escalating stakes as we root for Parzival and his underdog team of Gunters, even as he gives passing lip service to the budding love between Parzival and Art3mis and glosses over the motivations for corporate takeover by Sorrento and his cronies leading to a kind of 2D villainy.
What is genuinely appealing here aren’t just the pitch perfect moments of gaming evocation or depictions of geek culture, that feeling of the epic win taken from a boots-on-the-ground perspective with Spielberg flair, but how it all ties up into a gestalt of the good elements.
What Ready Player One at its heart is a journey of realization and, thus, wisdom. Just because you escape the real world doesn’t mean your problems can’t follow and, boy, do Parzival and Art3mis’s online adventures have real-world consequences, which is about the only chance that Tye Sheridan’s acting gets interesting.
It isn’t the coolness of slapping a Ghostbusters decal on each door of your customized Delorean with a Kitt soundfont and moving light bar (though those are pretty cool), or having the best connection with someone who revels in all the same pop culture references mistaken for love (“You don’t know me at all!” shouts Art3mis to Parzival in one intimate scene), nor is it about the series of epic wins or accumulation of digital coin in-game.
To make your virtual win matter, you must employ the same strategies and grit in dealing with real world problems. “Going outside is highly overrated,” declares Parzival early on in the movie. Eventually, as he progresses through his hero’s journey, he understands that often, putting down the controls and stepping outside are the only brave things to do.
“Game Over” simply means respawning in the real world.
One last thing: See this one on 3D.
Ready Player One is rated PG and screening in IMAX, IMAX 3D, and regular cinemas on Black Saturday, March 31