Sometimes a property aligns too close to its most obvious inspiration. Ready Player One joins Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as modern adaptations taken on by the clear choice of filmmakers. When this sort of thing happens, the results can feel redundant. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Steven Spielberg, a director renowned for both his ambition towards anticipating the future and heavy regard for the past. With The Beard directing the film based on a novel that is heavy with references to tons of pop culture, including many of Spielberg’s films, Ready Player One somehow manages to be unlike any blockbuster one can see. It’s also the exact blockbuster so many have grown up loving in an innovative new form.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian future Earth (the year 2045), where cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s required blown out lighting has the world appearing as a constantly gray and desolate place to live, despite overpopulation. Fortunately, much of the world now insists on spending all hours in the OASIS, a virtual reality program that allows people to engage however they want to with the many players around them. This means taking on skins and personas based on their favorite movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games. Additionally, Spielberg shows further proof that having his status allows for cinematic miracles to happen, such as bringing together a massive amount of licensed IP into one movie. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Wreck-It Ralph may have featured an impressive amount of existing characters, but no film has featured anything like what Ready Player One has to offer.
With the world established and plenty of exposition about how the OASIS works delivered by the film’s hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), I could not help but find myself continually curious about more of the inner-workings of society at this point in the future. Because of the devotion to making the ideas from the novel a cinematic reality, Spielberg has done a terrific job in keeping me intrigued to the point that is almost detrimental to what I’m supposed to be concerned about.
The actual plotting is a full-on hero’s journey that happens to look spectacular, with some stellar VR-based action sequences to go along with it. Watts is involved in a mission to find hidden clues in the OASIS that will allow him to own it. He’s joined by some friends and allies (Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe, among others), and pursued by an evil executive (Ben Mendelsohn) looking to seek control of the OASIS for nefarious purposes (money). During Wade’s search, he’ll also be put on the path of discovering what it truly means to take control of the OASIS, adding more weight to the idea of pulling off this victory.
If one takes out all of the references and technical innovation on display, the story is about as generic as it gets. Even the film’s clearest themes and final moments can be glossed over as understanding that having a game is great, but don’t forget the real world that’s also out there. However, I don’t presume to think Spielberg takes on a film like this with no investment in ideas beyond the shallowest of thoughts. Baked into a film that packs in a simultaneous level of wonder and eye-rolling thanks to the deployment of so many pop culture references is an undercurrent of heart-breaking self-reflection.
Two of the film’s most interesting characters are Mark Rylance as James Halliday, the deceased creator of the OASIS, and Simon Pegg as his friend and co-creator Ogden Morrow (who we do not see nearly enough of). While perhaps not direct parallels, it was hard for me not to see these two as analogs of Spielberg and his pal George Lucas, the two filmmakers most closely associated with creating blockbuster films. Locking into this idea, Ready Player One works carefully to show particular dimensions of this friendship, ideas based on where the OASIS came from, and an understanding how the dependency on nostalgic love for icons of the past has only been outdone by the ability to access it and have it replace a standard of living. For a film that champions the excitement that comes from watching the DeLorean from Back to the Future race across an ever-changing highway, while King Kong seeks to destroy every player in its path, there’s some bleak messaging taking place.
Is Spielberg, an admitted gamer, criticizing the world he helped to create? Does he have an agenda to course correct the future generation that will no doubt grow closer to the reality that his film presents? And if so, why make a movie that works its hardest to make the world of the OASIS so enticing as far as, at the very least, sampling the opportunity to exist in a VR program that can let you battle as The Iron Giant? These intriguing questions are what had me looking over whatever pitfalls I found in the film’s constant barrage of visuals, suggesting teams of people did an ample amount of research to please every cinephile, gamer, comic geek, anime fan and more, who will find something to associate with during the film’s two-hour and twenty minute runtime.
Even the score by Alan Silvestri, a nice nostalgic touch, manages to infuse a few keys from Back to the Future Part II into the proceedings, fit for a film that practically works as that sequel’s future reality pumped up on steroids. While Ready Player One feels set to rub some the wrong way for just how on-the-avatar-nose many of the references are, my admiration for the film’s VR world comes from both the minute details (i.e., Easter eggs) to catch, as well as Spielberg’s talents. In a time when heavily CG-based blockbusters arrive frequently and are taken for granted, watching a master filmmaker make it clear that he can handle this sort of spectacle quite easily is impressive, despite knowing full well he could pull it off in advance.
Spielberg claims this to be one of the hardest films he’s ever made (ranking up there with that one with the broken shark prop and that war movie featuring hundreds of actors on a beach). I can understand why. Even with a comparatively weak narrative, building a large-scale fantasy world and finding a way to balance cutting back and forth to the real world properly requires an understanding of how to maximize excitement, while telling a story. With a young cast, there’s little to question as far as Spielberg’s ways of bringing out the childlike wonder in his characters, but matching that to the wild events that precede them makes for quite the visual display that is handled with aplomb.
As a hybrid of live-action and animation, there’s plenty to admire in the look of the film. I salute Ready Player One for embracing the weird and letting the visuals do a lot of the explaining. It’s not about having photo-real characters in the OASIS, and the film runs with that to a useful degree. This allows for the physics to be bent, but never feel out of line with how this massive online game world functions. I still walked away with concerns about how the world works with so many people on the streets wearing their VR goggles. Some answers were neat, such as the sight of omnidirectional treadmills, but I couldn’t help but be concerned with the state of the world’s government, economy, and climate. Although, perhaps the movie’s ambivalence to these factors is part of the point.
There’s plenty to champion in Ready Player One, as it provides a unique sci-fi/action setup that delivers a one-of-a-kind visual experience. While I haven’t grown at all tired of Spielberg’s civics-based historical dramas, there is not any part of me that minds having him delving back into gleefully fun matinee territory. Having spotted the more profound ideas about the state of the world when it comes to its embrace of the past and obsession with technology-based simulations of an alternate life, I was pleased to grab onto more than the standard narrative had to offer. It also doesn’t hurt to have Spielberg’s current muse, Rylance, efficiently working to symbolize some essential aspects of the movie either, and provide such an incredibly delivery for all of his lines. There’s fantastic spectacle to behold in Ready Player One, but it doesn’t shy away from addressing a game over scenario either.