Okay, right off the bat I feel I have to give away a major spoiler for Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel (Cline also co-wrote the screenplay). Don’t worry, I’m not telling you how it ends, just how it doesn’t end. You see, it’s a sci-fi film from Spielberg, but for once, THERE ARE NO ALIENS!
In all seriousness, Ready Player One is a feast for the eyes, a two hour-plus nerdgasm filled with better than average CGI, a bit of heart, and a metric fuck ton of 80s references. The film is also very fast-paced, ostensibly to ramp up the dramatic tension of the main story, but also because a lot of the logic of the near-future dystopia kind of falls apart if you slow down long enough to think about it.
Tye Sheridan stars as Wade, a gamer from the futuristic slums of Columbus, Ohio, in a neighborhood called “The Stacks,” because poor people are so hilariously mistreated in 2045 that their ghettos are literally a bunch of trailers stacked on top of one another. Despite that abject poverty, he and everyone around him is deeply immersed in a virtual world called “The Oasis,” (somehow they can all afford the hardware) where he is known as Parzival, and looks like your standard Japanese Role-Playing Game protagonist. Seriously, he could easily be the lead of a Final Fantasy knockoff.
The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, died a few years before the events of the film. Under the wizard-like avatar of Anorak, he created a grand quest before his death. There’s an Easter Egg hidden somewhere in the game, which requires three keys to unlock. The first person to do so will inherit the Oasis, as well as his personal fortune worth half a trillion dollars. The principle action of the film begins with Parzival and his best friend (in-game) Aech (pronounced “H”), attempting the first key challenge.
This initial challenge demonstrates the visual depths of this gaming world. It’s a race in New York City from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, but along the way players are met with destructive obstacles, everything from spikes and chains to a Jurassic Park T-Rex and King Kong himself. Inside the race, Parzival encounters a manic pixie gamer girl called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke from Thoroughbreds, this time showing emotion in her virtual and real-world forms), and he’s instantly smitten and trusts her implicitly because of the power of boners.
Before long, the trio – along with two other friends – form a “clan” called the High Five, attempting to use Parzival and Art3mis’ encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s life to complete the quest and save the Oasis from the devious tech company IOI, led by one of Halliday’s former interns-turned-dickbag CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is using the full force of his corporate might to win the quest and control the entire virtual world.
Sorrento is a piece of work in his own right. In this dystopia, corporations have apparently become so powerful that IOI can in essence arrest civilians and conscript them into virtual indentured servitude (called “Loyalty Centers”) to pay back nebulous debts. In the game, they’re known as the Sixers, because none of them have names, just numbers. As a lifelong Philadelphia 76ers fan, I say BOOOOOOO! In addition, apparently IOI has summary judgment rights, as Sorrento employs a personal assassin who goes by the name, F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen).
Still, all of this urgent plotting is in service to the cavalcade of visual effects and references. At least half of the film is fully CGI inside the Oasis, and a lot of the stuff is pretty awesome. From the opening narration sequence you get a feel for the fanboyism on display, as characters dressed in Halo gear fight hand-to-hand with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Some of it looks cheesy, and you wonder how much of all this fan service is limited to properties Spielberg himself was involved in, rather than the licensing budget they used (I’m guessing most of that was used on the 80s catalog soundtrack). Also, just on principle I have to deduct half a letter grade for the sin of using the Michael Bay Ninja Turtle designs instead of the myriad other forms that wouldn’t piss us all off. In a film about pop culture nostalgia, why would you even allow two seconds of screen time to something that is near-universally agreed to have ruined our happy childhood memories?
Obviously, the best moments in-game are the three key challenges. The level designs are highly detailed, and you can tell they were given all the special attention they deserved. The best for me was the second challenge, centering on Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. The Overlook Hotel is recreated to an astonishing degree, with Spielberg even reenacting exact shots from Kubrick’s film. There are odd game elements added, and because the film is PG-13 they had to omit the nudity for one key moment, but that was when the nerdgasm hit me the hardest. I could feel my eyes watering up with joy.
There was also one really inspired bit of casting, in the form of Oscar-winner Mark Rylance playing James Halliday. His droopy, deadpan look is perfect for an aging eccentric programmer with a melancholy disposition. Also, his unique charm and wit was the absolute perfect touch to get me to relate to the character. There are also sly touches of Christopher Walken and Quentin Tarantino in his performance that seem like winks to the target audience without devolving into parody.
Again, a lot of the disparate elements of the movie don’t really hold up under scrutiny. It doesn’t make sense that all these poor people can afford VR rigs, or that Twitch would still exist in 2045. Also, the headset implies a full-dive system, yet Wade and others can simply lift their visor to interact with people in the real world. They somehow have to take the helmet completely off to log out. And funnily enough, despite all this tech, I never once saw a power source, which is really odd considering Wade has his system hooked up to an abandoned van in a junkyard. I imagine these and other plot holes are covered in better detail in the actual book, but it’s part of the Spielberg machine to keep chugging along, whether things make sense or not.
All that said, this was a really fun movie, and one worth seeing multiple times in an effort to spot everything in the background. That’s kind of the whole point, as the quest is about finding an Easter Egg. I saw this in standard format, and I didn’t notice anything that truly justifies a 3D upcharge, so no need to spend extra money unless you really want to.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was your favorite reference in the film? How the hell do the stacked trailers process plumbing? Let me know!