Review: Spielberg's 'Ready Player One' is a World of Pure Imagination
by Adam Frazier
March 29, 2018
In a legendary career spanning more than four decades, Steven Spielberg changed the film industry with his influential science fiction and adventure movies. Timeless films, such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993), are revered as archetypes of contemporary Hollywood escapist cinema. Along with other pop culture touchstones of the era, like Star Wars (1977) and Superman: The Motion Picture (1978), Spielberg's movies paved the way for the massive blockbusters that now dominate the box office year-round. With his new film, the unabashedly entertaining Ready Player One, Spielberg adapts author Ernie Cline's NY Times bestseller, a love letter to the 1980s that would not exist without the director's unparalleled output.
Set in the year 2045 - the world is a harsh place, beset by unemployment, poverty, overcrowding, and utter hopelessness. 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of Mud and X-Men: Apocalypse) lives with his aunt and her deadbeat boyfriend in a rundown vertical trailer park in Columbus, Ohio, called the Stacks. The only time he truly feels alive is when he escapes to the "OASIS", an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spend their days. As Wade says, "People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do. But they stay because of all the things they can be." Once in, he disappears into his avatar, Parzival, a name inspired by the knight who found the Holy Grail. Parzival is everything he isn't: confident, brave, resourceful.
The OASIS was created by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance, of Bridge of Spies, The BFG, Dunkirk), an eccentric genius who left his immense fortune and ownership of the OASIS to the winner of Halliday's Easter Egg Hunt, a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. Wade idolizes Halliday and has devoted countless hours to studying every detail of the video game developer's life, looking for any insight that might help him in his quest to be first to the Egg. When he finally conquers the first challenge, he and his friends attract the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a rival corporation that creates all the hardware and gear you need to be able to play in the OASIS. Sorrento has recruited an army of players, called the Sixers, to find Halliday's Easter Egg so he can take control and monetize Halliday's brainchild.
Set to a soundtrack of 1980's hits like Van Halen's "Jump", Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover", and “Blue Monday” by New Order, Ready Player One mainlines the zeitgeist of the '80s with Steven Spielberg's signature sense of wonder and visual inventiveness. Any doubts about Spielberg's ability to make a compelling adaptation of Cline's novel are dispelled in the film's first action sequence. Parzival competes in a dizzying, full-throttle race through the OASIS in Doc Brown's DeLorean from Back to the Future alongside other iconic vehicles like Bigfoot, the Batmobile, Stephen King's Christine, and Shōtarō Kaneda's motorcycle from the anime Akira. The track is littered with obstacles, from wrecking balls and gnarly Hot Wheels-inspired ramp jumps to rampaging monsters like King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park. It's the perfect toy box for Spielberg to play in.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the never-ending barrage of pop culture references and video game imagery would feel like overkill, but Spielberg strikes the perfect balance. He knows precisely when to pull back from the CGI spectacle to focus on the characters — especially the tumultuous, budding romance between Parzival and fellow gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). In-between thrilling action sequences and intimate character moments, Spielberg finds room for social commentary, too. It's a blessing to be able to escape this bleak reality, but in doing so, humans are depriving themselves of real contact. The virtual bond between Parzival and Art3mis spills over into the real world and gives them something to fight for; something they can feel without a rig full of sensors and displays. It's the heart of the movie, and the always sentimental Spielberg knows when to tug at those heartstrings for maximum effect.
I love the way Spielberg and director of photography Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) employ different techniques to create a visual dichotomy between the OASIS and the dystopian reality of 2045. The OASIS is an intense visual experience with a vibrant color palette, while the real world is desaturated and depressing. As the action moves from the artificial realm to the physical world, Spielberg switches from filming digitally to shooting on film. There are some surreal moments here – by far some of the wildest, most out-there stuff Spielberg has ever done – like a mind-boggling sequence in which Parzival and his companions find themselves inside an iconic '80s horror movie I dare not spoil. The visual effects wizards at ILM and Digital Domain recreate the environments and characters of this beloved film perfectly – it's pure movie magic. It's easily one of the most entertaining scenes in any Spielberg movie.
There are a couple of things that don't work in the movie, however, mainly TJ Miller's computer-generated bounty hunter, i-R0k. I don't find Miller amusing in the slightest and after the recent sexual assault allegations, it's surprising (and problematic) that Spielberg didn't bring in another actor to voice the character, especially when you consider the lengths Ridley Scott went to in order to replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in last year's All the Money in the World. Miller adds nothing to the movie – he only hurts it – so why keep him in it?
Otherwise, the performances are pretty solid. You can tell Mendelsohn enjoys playing the villain, but his performance doesn't offer anything we haven't seen in previous roles, like Rogue One's Orsen Krennic or The Dark Knight Rises’ John Daggett. Sheridan carries the film in a dual role, bringing life to both Wade and Parzival in ways that are contrasting and complimentary. This is the 21-year-old's best performance since Mud, and I hope we get to see him work with Spielberg again. Likewise, Olivia Cooke and supporting actors Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao manage their dual roles nicely, delivering heart and humor in equal measure. Perhaps the most significant standout, however, is Mark Rylance as James Halliday. Rylance, who collaborated with Spielberg on Bridge of Spies and The BFG, brings the eccentric offspring of Willy Wonka and Steve Jobs lovingly to life with vulnerability and a kind of terminal shyness.
When Ready Player One was first published in 2011, it became a cultural phenomenon, praised by NPR, USA Today, The A.V. Club, and others. Huffington Post called it "the grown-up's Harry Potter." But now, years later, it's cool to hate Cline's innocuous, nostalgia-invoking fantasy. The source material has its issues, no doubt, but the script, written by Zak Penn (The Avengers, X2: X-Men United) and Cline, improves upon the book in nearly every way and makes it a truly visual experience. Interestingly enough, it's cool to hate Spielberg these days, too. Since 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the filmmaker has been labeled as out of touch – better suited for stodgy historical dramas like War Horse and Lincoln instead of the big, blockbuster moviemaking that made his name. Ready Player One proves that not only does Spielberg still have it, but when he's on his game, no one even comes close.
At one point in the movie, Wade tells Sorrento that he knows the difference between a fanboy and a hater – noting that Sorrento is a hater with no real appreciation of the world James Halliday built; he only wants to exploit it. That kind of sums up the experience of watching Ready Player One. If you're a hater, you'll find a million reasons to hate this movie. However, if you're a pop culture enthusiast who, like Wade, embraces nostalgia and escapist entertainment to avoid an increasingly bleak reality, you will no doubt appreciate the imaginative virtual world Spielberg and company have created.
Ready Player One is an absolute joy; a big-hearted cinematic treasure hunt that rewards multiple viewings. See it on the biggest, loudest movie screen possible and lose yourself for two hours and twenty minutes in the OASIS, where you can go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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