One needs only to recall the 2013 Disney animated film “Wreck-It Ralph” to be familiar with what “Ready Player One” by Warner Bros. Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is trying to evoke; and it’s not even an original in-house concept but adapted from a surprise best-seller from 2011 by Ernest Cline. What it is, is an experience of celebrating pop culture, but while the Disney film was focused on videogames, this one, while mostly set in a game itself, is a tribute to geek-centric culture, with more references from various entertainment genres than you can shake a stick at.
The world of “Ready Player One” is our own, a few decades into the future, where things have begun to slide into dystopia that urban housing has devolved into stacking cargo containers refurbished for habitation. Even worse, humanity does not even seem to bother fixing up its global economy, ecosystem, society, or anything…because they’re all so caught up in the ultimate entertaining distraction. That distraction is virtual reality, in particular the online cyber-scape called the OASIS, where players explore and travel across interconnected environments ranging from sedate to violent, all based on some pop cultural period piece from the past.
How else would you explain a VR game where you can arm yourself with firearms from “Aliens”, fight monsters on the home planet of the evil empire from “Voltron”, take a ride in the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future”, or use Monty Python’s “Holy Hand Grenade”? It’s that kind of pop-culture trivia overload that will thrill anybody who has lived in the 80s or 90s, though the shout-outs seem evenly spread across the decades. In-universe, the OASIS was created by tech wizard James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a socially awkward genius fusion of Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka.
Then all of a sudden, Halliday dies. His will reveals that he had hidden a virtual item “Easter Egg” somewhere in the OASIS environment; whoever can pass his final game challenges would receive this egg that will net them a massive cash bequest…and proprietorship of the OASIS tech and software. This spurs an excited pursuit across the game world by players who choose to be “Gunters” (egg-hunters) in hope of passing Halliday’s trials and getting the Easter Egg. Not only individuals, but corporations have joined in to fight for control of the OASIS, in their case to profit from it.
These then are the circumstances of Columbus, Ohio gamer and Halliday fan-boy Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays the OASIS as the Gunter Parzival. From his viewpoint, the egg-hunt has been going on without results for five years, but a random idea gotten from researching at Halliday’s “Memory Museum” enables him to pass the first test (a death race) and be one step closer to finding the egg. His success catches the attention of fellow Gunters like Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) whom Wade crushes on, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), who copy his trick to progress.
With these five Gunters making the first progress in Halliday’s quest (thus being known in the OASIS as the “High Five”), competition kicks up a notch. A more serious threat comes from Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries/IOI which makes OASIS tech accessories. Sorrento wants to acquire the VR experience in order to seriously monetize it under a pay-to-play model. His company actually makes use of indentured IOI customers as an online army called the Sixers, with henchmen like i-R0k (TJ Miller) and F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) as henchmen operating in both VR and the real world.
Wade quickly finds himself in over his head when the competition for Halliday’s egg, IOI especially, start treating the OASIS as less of a game and more a battleground. It is then that he discovers Art3mis is actually an anti-IOI activist in real life with a score to settle against the company for personal reasons. Realizing that he cannot let a corporate dirt-bag like Sorrento win the egg, Wade and his allies push to complete the other two challenges with help from the Curator (Simon Pegg) of the Halliday Memory Museum, though he seems to act unlike a game character.
The “Ready Player One” movie has certain alterations to plots and characterization from the original novel, though the author Ernest Cline has fully worked with Steven Spielberg in adapting the work for the screen. All told, the narrative flows at a constant pace, with events being presented to be as unambiguous as possible. This enables the producers to focus on the visual aspect, with some incredible CGI work and motion-capture. Wade’s Parsival avatar and Art3mis make for some distinctive character designs that help to invest the viewer in their quest, and all those licensed property cameos rock mightily in action.
Soundtrack maestro Alan Silvestri is brought in to compose some notable background music pieces, though in my opinion his music has to fight for attention with some key 70s-80s songs that are part of the nostalgia trip, as the creator of the OASIS is presented as a pop-culture know-it-all. Still, there are parts of the film where Silvestri’s notes do manage to shine through, and he mixes genres, depending on whether drama or action is needed. The fact that some films Silvestri worked are referenced in “Ready Player One” gives him lots of chances to do some awesome musical quotes.
In closing, this Spielberg spectacle works as advertised, being a love letter to geeks and their various niche interests in film, TV, and videogames, all implemented in a tech-grounded story with token hits against corrupt business practices, and also on the culture of escapism from the world and its problems. One line of dialogue in “Ready Player One” seems to stand out with how it seems to go against the grain of the movie’s setting, seeing as it comes from the creator of that virtual world himself. So the best thing about reality is that it’s real? Good point, there.
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