Ready Player One
PLAYING FOR THE HIGH SCORE IN LOW CULTURE
When measuring the sophistication and advancement of a people, scholars typically look to the presumed obligations of organized society—education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, and the like—along with its refined arts—such as architecture, ballet, dramatic theater, opera, painting, and sculpture. Sociologists do not study the objects of mass appeal when searching for cultural high-water marks. When seeking the heights, you don’t look down.
But Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg’s latest science-fiction film, like the Ernest Cline novel upon which it is based, grounds itself firmly in pop culture. More specifically, its roots burrow deeply into the landscape of the 1980s, when the children of the Baby Boomers, collectively known as Generation X, came of age. Ready Player One doesn’t strive to be Casablanca; artistically speaking, it would rather be Star Wars or even TRON—a fun, action-laden movie that makes just enough sense to stay with it, and that contains enough heart to make for an enjoyable journey.
Set in the middle of the Twenty-first Century, in a dystopian America characterized by severe income inequality, the film follows twenty-year-old gamer Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)—so named by his father in order to mimic the practice of Marvel Comics creative force Stan Lee giving his superhero characters alliterative monikers like Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Bruce Banner (Hulk). Having lost his parents, Watts resides with his aunt (Susan Lynch) in the Stacks, a lower-class exurb of Columbus, Ohio comprising heaps and towers of prefabricated trailers, vehicles, and other structures. With most of the population living in poverty, people spend much of their time in a shared, worldwide virtual reality. The creation in the 2020s of programming genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS provides not just a gaming experience, but a place where individuals attend school, go to work, and socialize.
When Halliday died five years earlier, a recording revealed that he left an Easter egg inside his virtual world, along with a trio of hidden keys to unlock it. The first person to collect all three keys and capture the prize will become his sole heir, inheriting his wealth and complete control of the OASIS. People and teams from all over the world become gunters—a portmanteau of egg hunters—in an attempt to win Halliday’s posthumous challenge. Watts, in his virtual identity of Parzival, takes on the quest. His pursuit leads him to ask questions about the creator of the computer-generated reality, which is rife with the hallmarks of popular entertainment. As his virtual alter ego, Watts drives Marty McFly’s DeLorean sports car/time machine from Back to the Future, while Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his friend inside the OASIS and a potential love interest, speeds along on Shōtarō Kaneda’s red cycle from the anime film Akira. An extended sequence takes place in and around the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining.
Inside the OASIS, Watts studies the life of James Halliday, seeking clues on how to locate and collect the three keys. In his search, Parzival, along with his friends, faces competition from other individuals and clans, as well as from Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of multinational corporation Innovative Online Industries. The audience understands at once who the good guys are: Parzival, Art3mis, and their compatriots, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao). Sorrento and IOI, bent on monopolistic world domination and armed with massive resources built on the practice of indentured servitude, make for obvious antagonists.
Ready Player One does a fine job of crafting alternating plot points that move between the physical world and the OASIS. The story essentially combines treasure hunting with information technology and video gaming. It is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory meets TRON, Raiders of the Lost Ark cross-pollinated with The Matrix. Having scenes set outside the virtual existence ramps up the jeopardy for the heroes. The dual story lines essentially transmute the stakes from winning or losing in an imaginary universe of pixels and computer code to living or dying in the real world of flesh and blood.
Still, despite the numerous hurdles that Watts and his friends must overcome, the nature of the film leaves little doubt that the quintet—who fashion themselves as the High Five—will prevail. Their success feels baked into the DNA of Ready Player One. Sorrento and IOI are effectively comic-book villains—meaning old-fashioned, mustache-twirling, evil-for-its-own-sake adversaries. That’s not the point of the movie. More than anything, Ready Player One celebrates the mass amusements of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, focusing primarily on film, television, and electronic gaming. Batman and other DC Comics characters—such as the Joker and Harley Quinn—appear, as do the massive robot from The Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the eponymous character from Beetlejuice, the Tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park, the chest-bursting extraterrestrial creature from Alien, King Kong, and Mechagodzilla. In addition to the DeLorean from Back to the Future, other prominent vehicles show up, including B.A. Baracus’s van from The A-Team, the haunted Plymouth Fury from Christine, the Mach Five from Speed Racer, and the giant mechanical spider from Wild Wild West. Other artifacts include a photon torpedo from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a Martian fighting machine from The War of the Worlds, Clark Kent’s identity-hiding eyeglasses from Superman, and the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are references to numerous video games, such as Minecraft, Mario Kart, Halo, Asteroids, Centipede, Joust, and Adventure. Indeed, the film is chock-full of visual and auditory shout-outs. When the characters are inside the OASIS, the screen is often densely packed with images—too many to identify all at once. When the movie becomes available to watch at home, intrepid viewers will no doubt study it frame by frame to discern every bit of pop culture included by the filmmakers.
Tye Sheridan imbues Wade Watts and Parzival with earnest authenticity, while Olivia Cooke does a fine job as the initially mysterious, always cool Art3mis, and as her real-world counterpart, Samantha. Lena Waithe fully inhabits both her virtual avatar of Aech and her actual persona, Helen. Ben Mendolsohn’s performance as Nolan Sorrento comes off as a bit over the top, but that tracks with the feel of the film, which unfolds as a fairy tale of nerd culture and gaming geeks. Mark Rylance does a nice turn as Halliday, the socially awkward creator of the OASIS.
Steven Spielberg directs Ready Player One with vibrance and vitality, even in scenes set within the chimerical OASIS. The film moves along at a steady pace without flagging. Despite the screen sometimes filling with so much detail that it threatens to overwhelm the audience, editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn manage to maintain a continuous sense of story. The flashy computer-generated imagery is readily identifiable as such, but that works within the context of the tale being told.
In a film like Ready Player One, which not only evokes popular entertainment but seeks to contribute to it, it may prove futile, perhaps even foolhardy, to look for themes. Nevertheless, the film touches on the dangers of craving immersion in virtual reality. At the beginning of the story, Wade Watts says, “They called our generation the missing millions—missing not because we went anywhere; there’s nowhere left to go—nowhere, except the OASIS.” He goes on to admit that virtual reality is “the only place that feels like I mean anything.” By tale’s end, he makes a conscious decision to spend time outside the OASIS, to live in the real world. There’s no meaningful exploration of those ideas throughout the course of the film, which makes Watts’s final choice a bit jarring, more lip service than genuine consideration of the idea that real life bests fantasy, but it seems like a responsible message to include: Kids, don’t try this at home.
Obviously, Ready Player One is not Citizen Kane—though it does reference that classic film. Still, it’s a fun movie filled with nostalgia and action. After you spend two hours in the theater watching it, though, think about going outside and actually participating in an event in the real world.
***¼ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III
2018 • 2 HOURS, 20 MINUTES
WARNER BROS. PICTURES • AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT • VILLAGE ROADSHOW PICTURES • DE LINE PICTURES
• STEVEN SPIELBERG
2018 ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS (1)
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