More than any other director ever, Steven Spielberg speaks to the child in all of us, exploring our collective unconscious and exposing hidden dreams, buried memories and secret fantasies. Ready Player One is the latest in this long line of Spielberg explorations, and it’s fantastic.
Based on the bestselling 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, this otherworldly adventure centers on Wade Watts, a teenager living in the poverty-stricken “stacks” of dystopian Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045. Like almost everyone else in this economically depressed, aesthetically depraved society, he seeks emotional refuge in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual-reality game in which one can do anything and be anyone.
But the OASIS is more than a game. It’s an entire existence that, for most gamers, has supplanted the real world and usurped its financial and social structure. So when it’s revealed that James Halliday (the recently deceased creator of the OASIS) agreed to give away his entire fortune and control of the OASIS to the person who could find the “Easter eggs” in his virtual world, Wade seizes his opportunity for immortality. Worried less about immortality than about unimaginable profits is Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a monopolistic corporation that will stop at nothing to obtain the eggs, which are, more precisely, keys to the soul of the OASIS and its eccentric inventor.
This is arguably Spielberg’s fastest-paced and most action-packed film. It’s also his first science-fiction fantasy since The Adventures of Tintin in 2011. As with that film, Spielberg relies heavily on motion-capture technology for the performances in the OASIS, where characters exist not as themselves but as exotic avatars. The results are astonishing and, combined with pure CGI, raise the bar on special effects. (The effects were so time-consuming that Spielberg was able to shoot, edit and release another Oscar-worthy film, The Post, while Ready Player One was in post-production.)
Fans of the book, unless they are nitpickers, should be ecstatic, though the film differs considerably. One departure is easily the movie’s highlight. A mind-bending tribute to one of Spielberg’s mentors, it must be seen to be believed. But that cinematic homage is just one of the countless pop-culture references crammed into a film that demands two or three viewings, and Spielberg’s team deserves accolades for securing the rights to them. They are mostly 1980s characters and songs – because Halliday was an ‘80s geek – but don’t blink or you might miss shout-outs to the 1970s and even a line from the 1949 gem It’s a Wonderful Life. (Ironically, Spielberg limits references to his own canon, which was featured extensively in the book.)
Ready Player One might be the best film of 2018 so far. At the very least, it’s the most fun you’ll have at the movies anytime soon. Yet it’s not without flaws. Spielberg and Cline (who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn) could have given us more real-world exposition at the beginning – as the book did – so we could better understand Wade and the circumstances in which he lives. It’s also not as narratively crisp as the typical Spielberg film, especially on first viewing, when the frenetic pace and sensory overload are palpable. But Spielberg is a master editor, and expanding or slowing the story might have added unnecessary minutes to the already hefty 140-minute runtime.
As Wade, Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) captures both the hard-edged confidence and emotional vulnerability of his character. He’s complemented by an endearing turn from Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as Wade’s potential love interest both in the OASIS and the real world.
Though many of the younger supporting performers are just tolerable, they do project a loveable Goonies vibe, which is understandable considering Spielberg’s ties to that 1985 film. And Ben Mendelsohn, as he did in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, plays a suitable villain. But the movie needs an actor with undeniable gravitas, and, as in Bridge of Spies and The BFG, that is the incomparable Mark Rylance, who brings magic to Halliday.
Toward the end of Ready Player One – once we’ve learned that the race to find the keys has a deeper meaning and this is more than just a fantasy-action flick – Halliday’s message is simple yet strangely profound: “Thanks for playing my game.” Now it’s your turn to play, and you’re gonna have a blast. Get ready.