READY PLAYER ONE (Dir. by Steven Spielberg, 140 minutes, 2018, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Ready Player One is director Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 best selling novel of the same name. Considering the book itself was a love letter to a decade in which Spielberg reigned supreme, it is something of a meta move for Spielberg to helm the film adaption. Curiously, Spielberg chose to tone down the book’s dozens of references to the his own work, while taking some fascinating liberties with the material. The resulting film is Spielberg doing what he does best: Spectacle with a heart of gold.
Ready Player One takes place in 2045, in world that “is trying to outlive its problems, rather than fix them.” Terminal pollution, overpopulation, and catastrophic climate change have driven most of the world’s inhabitants to escape the dystopia of IRL in an online VR simulation called the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) where they can do anything and be anyone they want to be. When its architect James Halliday passed away, he willed his creation to the first player to complete three hidden challenges that will earn him/her the three keys to his kingdom. This is where our protagonist Wade Watts aka Parzival (Tye Sheridan) comes into the picture, he is one of millions of Gunters (“egg hunters”) trying to not only find, but also complete the challenges before the evil mega-conglomerate IOI (Innovative Online Industries) can. Using an army of indentured gamers called the “Sixers,” IOI connects users to the OASIS and supplies the best VR gear for accessing it and is intent on completing their monopoly by winning ownership of Halliday’s creation.
The challenges have the Gunters not only culling through the pop culture that inspired Halliday for clues, but also poring over every recorded moment of his life that is available for players to view. As a result, Halliday’s obsessions prove to be a gateway to the kids’ indoctrination in 80’s culture. Chief among them is Wade Watts who hails from The Stacks, a trailer park on steroids in dystopian Columbus, Ohio, where the grimyy double-wides are stacked atop one another in a dizzying mosaic of futuristic rural American poverty. Wade sees winning ownership of OASIS as his ticket out from beneath his abusive aunt and her rogues gallery of white trash boyfriends.
The nature of the challenges have been heavily altered from the book, and Spielberg has chosen to imbue the film with his own fanboy obsessions while also throwing in more millennial-friendly references so as not to alienate that key 18-24 demographic. Spielberg’s revisions take this material to the next level. My favorite set piece in Ready Player One is the part where the High Five, as Parzival’s group comes to be known, has to play through a challenge based on the Stanley Kubrick horror classic The Shining. High Five’s CG avatars are in the infamous room 237 of the Overlook Hotel where they are tasked with figuring out how Halliday’s only date — a night at the movies to see The Shining — went so terribly wrong. Given every Easter egg and super obscure reference to a forgotten 80s film (Krull Anyone?), this gorgeously rendered blood-soaked homage won me over right before Spielberg goes full on Goonies on us.
Wisely, Spielberg fleshes out Parzival’s love interest, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), making her an actual thinking/feeling person, not just the prize to be won along with the OASIS she is in the book. Tye Sheridan and Cooke have a palpable chemistry, both in their IRL and CG forms that gives the film an emotional center to rally the his clan around. My biggest gripe however has to be Mark Rylance take on James Halliday, which was less Steve Jobs, Dungeon Master as I expected and more this awkward George Mcfly/Garth. Thankfully Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) saves the day as the heartless president of IOI Sorrento, chewing the scenery while creating yet another charismatic baddie every moment he’s on screen. While it’s doubtful the film will ever occupy a sacred place in the pantheon of its influences and it occasionally struggles to evoke that same feeling you had watching one of the many films it channels, Ready Player One is still a solid watch. Even if doesn’t ask much of its audience other than seeing how many characters or references you can identify on screen at any given time, it’s a fun distraction. Really, what more could you ask of a summer blockbuster from the man who invented them?