Being well-versed in the “geek” world, I’ve heard quite a bit about Ernest Cline‘s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, since it was published. I never got around to reading it, but many a friend of mine said it was right up my alley. In it, we see a world not-to-distant from our own in time, barely surviving. With people literally stacked on top of each other, the world offers little in the way of hope in the day-to-day, so enjoyment, commerce, and really life as they know it is found digitally within the virtual-reality game platform, the Oasis, constructed by the late James Halliday. In it, users, almost every waking minute of their life, immerse themselves in an almost infinite array of ways, relishing the nostalgic games and entertainment properties they love as they distract themselves from trying to make things any different. After Halliday’s death, the IOI Corporation, suppliers of the gear that this culture shift has necessitated, want full control of Halliday’s company and the Oasis, as having this essentially assures them marketplace domination worldwide.
Yet, it isn’t that easy. You see, posthumously, Wonka…I mean, Halliday has promised the world that the first person to find three keys hidden deeply within the experience will be granted full control of the Oasis and company. Wade Watts, a young man with nothing to lose, like many, digs deep into the Oasis as his character, Parzival, and devotes himself to studying Halliday’s life quotes, and work for any clue as to how to “win” the game the world is playing.
If the premise sounds fun and adventurous, it totally is. From what I hear, the book crams on top of that an insane amount of pop-culture references and callbacks that make most any of the nostalgic fanbases in existence all giggly inside. The book was a big hit, and now, we have the result of that book’s success: the almost inevitable film adaptation. Can a film do justice to a premise so self-aware and license-heavy as this demands to be? Are its odds increased under the direction of cinema’s surest hands in commercial filmmaking, Steven Spielberg?
I have watched the film…I mean, I have experienced it. Perhaps, better than any other “video game movie” before it, it nails that experiential aspect, something that gets lost in most all other films of the nature. I realize this is more a film about video games (thus negating correlation with Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia, or two decades full of other adaptations). Still, aside from attempts in movies like the first-person action sequence in DOOM, such things never make the transition.
Steven Spielberg was the absolute best pick for director here. In fact, it’s genius that he was approached and a miracle he said yes. The entire thing could have been an absolute debacle, if not for someone with the chops and the understanding of audiences like he has had for decades. After mostly “smaller” award-contenders over the past several years, this is the most unabashed crowd-pleasing movie he has directed in quite some time, and while there is no telling how many more films we will get from the man, he proves here that he still has the right eye to wow the people. The reverence of nostalgia has elevated much of Spielberg‘s work as director and producer to the upper-echelons of fan adoration, and it’s fun in this film to see Spielberg play with the toys he built in his earlier films. While licensing prohibited some properties from being used or mentioned, audiences will be amazed at the amount of things they know and love that show up. It’s because of this that I instantly wanted a rewatch. I feel it’s no accident that this film releases just prior to Easter, as I’ve never seen, read, or played anything with close to the amount of “Easter Eggs” stuffed into this.
I heard a theater worker say to another person as I left the film that it was impossible to try and describe all he saw. I disagree; I could tell you the plot, beat by beat, as it’s pretty standard stuff. Spielberg knows tropes; he also knows we do to, so he uses it all to hook us right in. Still, I do think it’s advisable to stay clear of plot outlining and spoilers, as there are entire sequences in the film I genuinely never saw coming, and they dazzled me with their creativity and sheer movie-magic. The heavy use of 80s music throughout gives audiences from broader demographics a way into the story, and it further strengthens the flashback scenes that helped birth the film’s premise. Also, the score is doing its best to mimic the late Alan Silvestri to fantastic effect!
You might think I can’t say anything bad about the film, but I will get to it. Overall, the cast does admirably, but the material is a lot to take in, especially as the premise requires quite a bit of burdensome exposition. As Wade, Tye Sheridan really gives it his all, but I felt he never commands the screen like a lead should. He, as well as the rest of the cast, exists mostly on-screen in animated form. Oddly enough, he emotes more effectively in virtual form than he does in live-action. His castmates, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe, fare better in live-action than he does. Still, the fact that much of the story takes place in the Oasis creates a real conundrum: surrounded by the sound and fury of the wonders on screen, it makes audience empathy and character investment that much harder, especially as most all of the avatars in the film are envisioned with larger-than-life qualities that lessen their visual humanity. The whole film had an emotional distance from my perspective that it never seemed to cross; weirdly though, when you see that that distance effectively illustrates the main resolving point of the film, it somehow elevates it all in hindsight and makes it all the more endearing.
A favorite actor of mine, Ben Mendelsohn is our villain here, but that’s no spoiler: within moments of seeing him, you’ll know. He encapsulates corporate-evil effectively in live-action, and then, in the Oasis, he appears almost like a Bizarro Clark Kent, square-jawed and a mountain of muscle with burning eyes that deny any semblance of goodness. Still, he feels even more dangerous in person, a true credit to Mendelsohn. He is joined by T.J. Miller, who plays I-Rok, a mercenary player enlisted to hunt down Wade; portrayed as almost exclusively a comic-relief, he’s a hit-or-miss. Still, appearance-wise, he is fully formidable, looking like a fantasy game end-boss. That creates a dichotomy in voice and appearance that is the most interesting thing about the character.
I’d be remiss to not highlight James Halliday himself, played with understated eccentricity by Mark Rylance. He becomes a favorite of mine, more and more, as I see his films; here is no different. He makes Halliday memorable and lovable, as he relates the true parables and real-world relevancies behind the whole film. His scenes are few, but they are always greatly done.
This book and film come at a watershed moment in technology, as VR-tech has made the transition to living rooms in recent years. I’ve written about the potential spiritual implications of VR before; I even have it published here on colbybryant.com. One can debate whether it is actually taking off or not if they like, but the truth is that while the Oasis allows users to test their imagination, the possibility of something like it isn’t a stretch of the imagination from the writing on society’s wall. This makes it all more than just a spectacle (which it most assuredly is), but it allows it to become even a cautionary tale as we progress daily into uncharted waters, societally.
Content-wise, while it may be even a toning-down of the source material I haven’t read, it isn’t completely kid-friendly. Think more Goonies with regards to language, but even more. Profanity was more than I felt it needed to be, with a very unnecessary “F-bomb” towards the end. I didn’t anticipate some of the sexual content either, but as the characters wear haptic-feedback suits as they engage in the Oasis, anticipate how touch factors into the experience. There wasn’t actual nudity, but one scene uncomfortably made me wonder if there would be. Violence and havoc abound, and the real world stakes in the film prove more impacting than any of carnage online. With regard to Christian content, I think the film opens up discussions naturally about the changes technology bring to every aspect of our lives. Surely, we see some positives, but as we watch people on-screen flail about in headsets, trying to be oblivious to the hopelessness of life around them, it’s easy to make parallels to how our society is fully enraptured to sin around them and see no need to leave it. Also, the allure of nostalgia should be seen as the film shows, both a great and terrible thing. It can comfort, but it can simultaneously incapacitate those enjoying it.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed the film. It’s fun-filled and cram-packed with references galore while creating a cinematic playspace very much its own. Admittedly, the story is fairly conventional, and the cast is only mostly successful with portraying it all, but the relevance of it all and complete sense of wonder elevate the experience and make it a trip worth taking again and again.