Ready Player One is the most un-Steven Spielberg film that Steven Spielberg’s ever made.
But don’t worry – it’s very good.
It was one of those “I really need to go see that” movies that I didn’t end up seeing on the big screen, so I had to settle for a much smaller screen at home when it came out on DVD and Blu Ray in July. And I’ve only just watched it, in August.
Anyway, preamble over. Let’s get to it.
This didn’t feel to me like a Spielberg film largely because so much of it takes place in an entirely CGI-realised virtual reality world called the OASIS. Set in 2045, the protagonist (an orphaned teenager called Wade Watts, whose father was a comic book nerd, naturally) is one of millions of gamers making regular use of the OASIS to escape from their less-than-glamorous lives through their avatars. As his avatar Parzival, Watts experiences this unrestricted world where anything goes and anyone can be whatever they want; he spends most of his time there with Aech, a gaming buddy who he’s never met in real life.
If you’re a parent of online gaming teenagers, this element of the film will immediately strike a chord with you.
The OASIS was co-created by eccentric designers James Halliday and Ogden Morrow. After Halliday’s death, his avatar Anorak delivered a pre-recorded message to the users of the OASIS announcing that whoever locates the Golden Easter Egg hidden in the game will be granted full control of the company – gamers must find three ‘keys’ that unlock the gate to the Easter Egg, each of which are scattered somewhere in the OASIS and can only be found by solving riddles. Naturally, this attracts the attention of every gamer hooked into the OASIS, as well as Nolan Sorrento, CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and his “Sixers”, labourers forced to pay off debts by working for IOI within the virtual world. Parzival, Aech, and fellow egg-hunter Art3mis team up to find the keys and win the Golden Easter Egg, and ownership of the OASIS.
Phew! I’ve probably made that sound more convoluted than it really is – apologies if you’re lost/bored already.
Actually, Ready Player One is easy to follow, as long as you’re listening. There’s a lot of initial exposition by Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), but not so much that you feel bogged down in it. The film is well-paced with only a few main characters to worry about.
This is very much a movie for teenagers (the very occasional profanity throughout may rule out younger viewers), especially those who make heavy use of online gaming. However, the pop culture references constantly exploding out of your screen will appeal to a certain demographic of adults too.
Pop Culture Overload
And there are a lot of pop culture references in this movie. A lot. I can’t emphasise this enough, actually. Lots and lots.
If you like anything directed or produced by Spielberg in the 80s and 90s or connected with him in any way, this is the film for you. As a pop culture enthusiast, I found myself straining to take in every single movie and gaming reference on the screen. I was amazed that Spielberg – even Spielberg – had managed to acquire the rights to so many instantly-recognisable characters, vehicles and, for a particularly spellbinding portion of the film, sequences from classic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He apparently spent years gathering them, and still didn’t get everything he wanted.
I had a lot of fun trying to take it all in, and I still probably only managed to ingest about fifty percent of it. If you’re like me and you know your DeLorean from your chest-bursting Xenomorph, I think you’ll really enjoy this film. If you haven’t watched a lot of movies, it may feel like a bit of an overload, however.
Ready Player One is visually dazzling from start to finish. Industrial Light and Magic created the film’s extensive visual effects, expertly directed by Spielberg from a Zak Penn script. Sheridan’s lead is supported by Olivia Cooke (Art3mis), Ben Mendelsohn (Sorrento), Simon Pegg (Morrow) and the wonderful Mark Rylance (Halliday), who I loved in The BFG and Bridge of Spies. The actors slip easily between their “real-world” selves and their avatars, the seamlessness of which is a credit to them and their director.
My only real criticism of the film is its length. With a run time of 140 minutes, it can definitely feel long after a while, especially by the time the third act rolls around and you’ve already been blasted fairly relentlessly with dozens of pop cultural references and roller coaster CGI. In addition, adult viewers may sometimes find that the narrative and dialogue are aimed too squarely at the younger audience, who are likely to absorb the video game-like action sequences more readily.
The Bottom Line
But don’t let that deter you. Ready Player One is a totally immersive and entertaining experience as a film. I went into it not really knowing what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can view it as a commentary on contemporary gaming culture, in which people invest themselves to such a massive extent that their identities start to become transferrable between virtual reality and actual reality. Or you can just enjoy the visual spectacle and not worry too much about what it means.
Pop it into the Blu Ray player on your next available Friday night and let Spielberg take you with him on his own pop culture homage train – who better to go with?
Verdict: (4 / 5)