Few people have more of a reason to be nostalgic for the 1980s and 90s than Steven Spielberg. The veteran filmmaker filled those decades to the brim with his most crowdpleasing hits (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park) as well as his most critically acclaimed and well-respected work (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List).
It seems like a match made in heaven, then, for Spielberg to bring an adaptation of Earnest Cline’s nostalgia-fueled novel Ready Player One to the big screen. And, for the most part, that assumption proves correct. Like the book itself, Spielberg’s latest sci-fi extravaganza is equal parts breathtaking, cheesy, self-indulgent and deeply geeky. Most importantly, however, it’s a ton of fun.
The fairly boilerplate story is set in a futuristic, dilapidated version of Columbus, Ohio, the hometown of the legendary gamemaker James Halliday (Mark Rylance), where acolytes have flocked to gain some wisdom from the man who redefined their existence through his creation called The Oasis. Think of it as a virtual reality version of an MMO, with people plugging in to tune out of their semi-apocalyptic existence. In The Oasis, you can be whoever you want to be, go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of those acolytes, and like many others he is hoping to gain access to Halliday’s ultimate easter egg. Upon his passing, Halliday left announcement claiming that he hid three keys across The Oasis. Finding the keys leads to a door, which leads to a golden egg, which represents complete control over The Oasis and access to Halliday’s vast riches. In order to improve their real-life existence, thousands of people must obsessively pore over pop culture history and spend most of their days inside The Oasis in order to crack the code and overtake the most powerful company on earth.
Wade enlists the help of a team of misfits including his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and a mysterious resistance fighter known in the virtual world as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). After Wade, whose digital handle is Parzival, finds the first key, he becomes a celebrity, drawing the attention of adoring fans but also the murderous ire of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Sorrento leads a powerful corporation hell-bent on solving Halliday’s puzzle and using the Oasis to sell advertising, but their ownership of the company could have nefarious real-world implications as well.
Ready Player One has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, not all of it positive. The backlash to the book has been severe, with many calling it glorified nostalgia bait, a series of references in search of a story. The same complaint could theoretically be leveled at the film version. Adapted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn, the script spends a great deal of time calling out pop culture references both visual and verbal. But, like the book, I think the film does a good job of tying said references into the main thread of the story. After all, to win Halliday’s challenge our heroes must obsessively geek out over small, minute details of pop culture past. I for one think it’s rather brilliant to essentially ask the audience to do the same thing along with the characters. Are there references for the sake of references? Sure, but they fit well into a virtual world where everything is a walking advertisement. I understand folks who despise the idea of a movie concocting a reason to show us a bunch of other stuff, but how many of these critics have stepped foot inside a comic convention, where every booth is pandering to our fondness for things we already like in order to sell us a product?
That’s not to say that the film is flawlessly written. It’s definitely too long, and Spielberg struggles to make the real-world action match the intensity and thrills of the virtual set-pieces. Also lost in adaptation are some of Cline’s richly drawn characters. Parzival and Art3mis’ relationship is given enough depth, as is Art3mis’ complex reasons for desiring the egg. But Aech is less fleshed out than the character deserves, acting more as a walking set of references and phobias than an actual person. And Sorrento is a typical walking suit, obsessed with money and prestige and little else.
I love seeing some of my favorite young actors working on such a massive project, but my favorite performance and character in the film is Rylance as Halliday. He brings a subtlety and a sadness to a story that doesn’t have enough of either. On the other side of the coin, I absolutely loved T.J. Miller’s I-R0k, a powerful shaman inside the Oasis who provides the film’s best comic relief. His one-liners are golden, and I’d put money down for a spin-off film starring him (especially since we don’t ever get to see his real-world identity here).
One advantage the film adaptation has over the book is its visual design, and this is truly the movie’s selling point. This is a technological stunner, perhaps the biggest leap forward visually since Avatar or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s often difficult for movies to convey the full visual weight of a universe where choice is at the center, but this is an easy exception. Every frame is bursting with color, every shot filled with something to dazzle the eye (were those Battletoads charging into battle alongside the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?). So many of the references are fun precisely because you can’t catch them all. Half-second flashes of favorite characters fit nicely alongside the more blatant references, keeping us on our toes as we scan the screens for glimpses of our favorite character.
Ready Player One is essentially half-animated, and thankfully Spielberg handily avoids the uncanny valley, with fun character designs inside The Oasis and expressive facial animations that rarely look creepy or unnatural (not anymore than intended, at least). However, it’s the action set pieces that truly knock this one out of the park. Check out the twisting car race that leads to the first key, featuring shifting courses, King Kong and a giant T-Rex. Or my favorite scene, a gripping bravura set piece set inside Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The epic final battle feels less engrossing, but perhaps that’s because, aside from the sheer variety of characters that fill the screen, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Ready Player One is pretty much exactly what most people will expect going in. It’s ambitious, silly, over-the-top and a total blast. Those who scoff at the film’s very premise are not going to be swayed. Those anticipating a good time will certainly find it here. But, at its core, the film has a genuinely good heart and a sprinkling of that inexplicable Spielberg magic. Think of it as a really long roller coaster ride: fun while it lasts, not exactly life changing, but something I can’t wait to ride again. This is one easter egg worth cracking.