If you know me, you know I can’t shy away from a Steven Spielberg film for two main reasons: 1. Because I always have to support my Jewish filmmakers; and 2. Because Steven Spielberg makes good movies! Spielberg has not released a blockbuster since 2011. Hard to believe, seeing as Spielberg is the reason we even have a summer blockbuster season, and the term blockbuster in general. Ready Player One (2018) certainly welcomes the director back into the blockbuster fold, and while he may have taken his own artistic turn on the source material, it’s clear that Spielberg still knows how to make an action/adventure fantasy.
Based off the Ernest Cline novel of the same name, Ready Player One takes place in 2045 when most of civilization engages with society via the Oasis: a virtual reality where you can do quite literally anything, so much to the point where individuals attend school in it because the real world’s resources have been all but depleted. Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis. Wade and the rest of the Oasis devotees are in pursuit of three special keys hidden throughout the simulator, and the first to find the three keys wins the ‘Egg’ that grants total ownership of the Oasis and the vast inheritance of founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The real world isn’t worth ruling anymore, so players are eager to rule a virtual world with far more value (both in quality and money). Of course, in hot pursuit of these keys is Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of IOI and the face of corporate douchebaggery (*cough* EA). Along the way Wade manages to recruit Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe) and a few more egg hunters (referred to as ‘Gunters), and the race is on between corporate fascism and the users to save the Oasis.
What makes the most sense in Ready Player One is the anonymity of the Oasis users. Since the very beginning of online multiplayer, players have wanted to take on a secret identity of sorts. Players hide behind a username and a headset to create a persona of their own independent of physical connection. Anyone who has access to the Oasis changes their avatar into their wildest dream-self. People dress up as Harley Quinn before jumping into their Mystery Machine or throwing the glaive from Krull (1983). It makes you wonder what your avatar would look like and what weapons you’d wield or vehicle you’d drive in the Oasis. Me, personally, I’d be the narcissist that I am and make my avatar look like the coolest version of myself; probably something all black with a leather trench coat like I’m in an early 2000s sci-fi film. While it’s the most unoriginal idea, I’d definitely fly an X-Wing, no question.
As someone who read the book, I found it easiest to let go of any expectations I had pertaining to faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg certainly puts his own spin on a number of set-pieces and character roles but he never does anything that doesn’t fit the world he builds. One decision Spielberg makes that I applaud him for is taking a supporting character like Art3mis and turning her into a full-blown main character involved with a majority of the narrative. Wade is still the protagonist, undoubtedly, but he relies on Art3mis and other users far more than in the book where he’s almost a Mark Zuckerberg-type (without the standoffishness). Wade knows he doesn’t have all the answers in this movie, and his character demonstrates far more depth than the know-it-all in Cline’s novel. While the heroes are fun to watch on their journey, I can’t not give Ben Mendelsohn credit for perfectly encapsulating what it means to be a corporate jerk. Sorrento tries to act like the cool guy who cares about the users and the community when he’s in the same room as Wade, but even Wade knows that he has a team of IOI gamers feeding him facts and references in an ear-piece as artificial as Sorrento’s intentions.
What makes Sorrento that much more of a compelling villain is that his type exists here and today: he has no stake in the quality of the experience of the Oasis and he is only there for the monetary value. He’s in his position for all the wrong reasons while Wade, Art3mis, and the rest are there for the right reasons – to fight for the users.
When you have a movie with as many references to pop culture and 80s nostalgia as Ready Player One, there’s almost an anxiety that sets in about catching every possible Easter Egg on screen. While it makes rewatches fun, I also like to assess movies at face value and there is such a thing as too much information on the screen (I’ll gladly take GBT’s coveted ‘Pretentious Sentence of the Week’ award for that one). Having said that, when I saw some of my favorite childhood characters in the most absurd fashion possible, I couldn’t help but be excited, which only speaks to the quality Spielberg-ian action you get with Ready Player One. The first action sequence takes place at a race track through a warped Manhattan while movie references try to kill the players. This chase is pure bedlam and so much fun, and that is exactly what this movie is.
While the movie has its share of throwbacks (one set-piece in particular will polarize film nerds, and I’m taking the side that loves it), it also paints a fairly accurate portrait of where we might be headed. We live for social media; we are advancing virtual reality every day; VR MMO with monetary value is probably already happening; the world is going to Hell in a hand basket – Ready Player One could be something we end up living… is it weird that that excites me?
If there is a gripe to be had with Ready Player One it’s that as great as the Oasis is and everything that goes on in this virtual reality, the scenes that take place in the real world are comparably a drag. Yes, the game world SHOULD be more interesting than the real world because that’s just a fact, but story-wise if the two worlds were on par with each other, it would enhance the viewing experience a lot more, rather than leave me sitting in the theater thinking, “Can we get back to the Oasis?”
I will admit I was nervous heading into Ready Player One. I was afraid if how I pictured it when reading the book didn’t align with Spielberg’s vision, that I’d automatically write it off. While I found the ending of the book more entertaining than Spielberg’s choice (however, I didn’t like the ending of the book that much either if I’m being honest with myself), the man delivers on just about every check mark there is for an action/adventure movie. Great action; characters worth rooting for; a jerk villain; a few laughs; some heartwarming moments; and a good-enough resolution to tie a bow on it.
If you’re looking for a genuinely fun time at the movies, I would put Ready Player One (2018) at the top of your list. Spielberg proves he’s still capable of directing something besides a biopic or period piece in his later years. There’s plenty of rewatch value and a good-enough plot that it shows potential to live among Spielberg’s top-shelf films; but only time will tell.