Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.
The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.
One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.
“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.
The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.
When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?
Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.
On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.
Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.
But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.
“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.
* * * out of * * * *