By Marty Mulrooney
Ready Player One is a science fiction adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on the 2011 book of the same name by Ernest Cline, the film adaptation stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, an orphan with an intentionally superhero-sounding name that prefers virtual reality to his real life in the desolate future slums of Columbus, Ohio.
Steven Spielberg became one of the earliest pioneers of cinematic CGI when Jurassic Park was released in 1993 (following James Cameron’s equally ground-breaking special effects in 1991’s Terminator 2). However, the prolific director has always tried to ground such computer-generated special effects with real life footage. Ready Player One is therefore something of an oddity and a sharp departure from Spielberg’s oeuvre to date; after all, it’s a film where the vast majority of the action takes place in a completely computer-generated world. On this project, the challenge for the 71-year-old director was undoubtedly ensuring that the special effects didn’t overwhelm the story.
For the most part, he’s succeeded. For those who haven’t read the book, the virtual reality of Ready Player One is called the OASIS. As the future of 2045 depicted in this film is fairly grim (although nowhere near as desperate as the future of the book), the OASIS more than lives up to its name for the majority of the population, serving as an escape from their dreary lives. Wade Watts may live in the ‘stacks’ (trailer homes stacked on top of each other to form dangerous slums) but he only feels truly alive when he’s inside the OASIS, the virtual reality world created by the late James “Anorak” Halliday (played by regular Spielberg collaborator Mark Rylance, who also played the live action BFG).
When Halliday died he left a video message to the world, explaining how he had placed an Easter egg in the OASIS – a hidden prize that can only be accessed by finding three hidden keys. Whoever finds this Easter egg will be given complete control and ownership of the OASIS. Gunters (“egg hunters”) search endlessly for clues but keep coming up empty handed. Unfortunately, this competition has also attracted the attention of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and its new CEO Nolan Sorrento (played by a slimy Ben Mendelsohn).
Of course, underdog hero Wade Watts will be the first to find a key, setting off a chain reaction as both friends and foes follow in quick succession. The first challenge of the competition is a pedal-to-the-metal race that nobody has ever won, in part because of a very angry – and destructive – King Kong. The race itself is exhilarating to watch. Wade – who goes by the name Parzival in the OASIS – must start at the back of the pack because he doesn’t have enough fuel. As other players ‘die’ and their vehicles are destroyed they burst into coins, prompting Parzival to throw open the gull-wing door of his DeLorean to collect and exchange them for fuel.
The blistering sense of speed throughout this sequence is insane and the pop culture references come thick and fast, from Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus rex and a huge King Kong, to fellow Gunter Art3mis’s vehicle of choice (it’s the motorcycle from Akira). Those references offer only a small taste of things to come; self-professed pop culture geeks will find this film to be an embarrassment of riches. Yet the Ready Player One book was described by the author himself – who shares a screenwriting credit here with Zak Penn – as unfilmable and that claim still stands.
Compromises have undoubtedly been made when translating this imaginative adventure to the big screen, but it’s also undeniable that nobody but Steven Spielberg could have pulled this bold adaptation off – the rights clearances alone must have been a nightmare. There’s just something wonderful about The Iron Giant and Chucky being in the same movie, with the latter character earning one of the film’s biggest laughs. The best scenes come in the middle and centre around another film entirely, but what that film is or how it factors into the story won’t be spoiled here. Let’s just say the special effects during this sequence – and you’ll know when it arrives – manage to wow even in a film full of wow moments.
Ready Player One is a tough film to review. It has its fair share of problems including paper-thin characters, the heroes falling in love with each other far too quickly, massive deviations from the source material and unclear rules about how the OASIS actually works (scenes with players running through the streets of Columbus, Ohio with their OASIS VR headsets on just don’t make sense). However, as pure spectacle – as a blockbuster assault on the senses with a killer ’80s soundtrack – it works. It’s not the book, but judged on its own merits it’s one hell of a trip to the cinema – especially in IMAX 3D.
8 OUT OF 10