Steven Spielberg hits the ground running in a wondrous and thrilling adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel, Ready Player One. It’s a movie about the rewards and pitfalls of entertainment, specifically of the video game variety, and how an obsession can lead to works of wonder but also to dissatisfying regret. That may sound heavy, but it is with a light heart that the movie plays on that idea, taking spectacle and the push to succeed in the virtual world and bringing its characters into challenges that test them and their obsessions.
The OASIS, a mixture of an online game and virtual reality, holds a competition upon the death of its creator, where players must complete three tasks to become its owner. Tye Sheridan’s character, Wade—known as Parzival in the OASIS—is out for the prize, along with Olivia Cooke’s Artemis. At their heels is an evil corporation out for the same prize, using swaths of players to try and game the system and win it for total domination.
The year 2045, as depicted in the movie, at times, does not feel that far off. The world outside of the game is disheveled and disrupted, its inhabitants logged on for vast stretches of time and ignoring everything around them. It is a telling analogy for the life we now live, glued to the devices in front of us and missing the world that passes us by. The themes of the movie are tied into that, becoming central to the balancing act it performs in alternating back and forth from reality and virtual reality.
There are long portions of the film that are completely inside the OASIS. It is here where the movie shines brightly. The world is gorgeous and alive, well-realized with shots that are at times completely stunning to watch. We are told its rules and dive into a race sequence that is the stuff current video games could only ever dream of. The locations in the OASIS are unique in their own way, with nightclubs, casinos, snowy castle keeps, misty city streets, and an extended sequence in a faithfully recreated location film fans will love.
The pop culture used in the promotional campaign may have set some on edge, but in the film, it’s used in a way that leaves it less a distraction and more like something that is indeed nostalgic. The characters are heaped in the history of gaming, movies, and television, coming through in their dialogue and their need to pass the trials ahead of them.
And out of all of this comes a sense of fun. Spielberg’s films, apart from his more dry drama work in recent years, have a sense of joy and child-like excitement built into them, a sense of awe that something magical can happen at any moment. Released into the world of the OASIS, where anything can happen, he manages to capture scenes of near mayhem (including the aforementioned incredibly chaotic but never confusing race) that not many other directors could achieve. The movie is brisk and moves with urgency, even with its hefty running time. It’s the work of someone comfortable with such a massive undertaking, handling it with ease, even with impressive amounts of digital animation that takes on a large amount of the film.
Some of the real-world future scenes have flashes of a more rundown version of Minority Report (2002), a grungy dystopia that has not fully collapsed yet but is well in the process of doing so. The film’s message does become a little depressing because of this but still works despite that. It was in these reality scenes that the film does suffer a little, mostly in the corporation scenes. Ben Mendelsohn is perfect as the villain, as he always is, but there are points of searching for the heroes and coming short, and threats, and then more searching, that can become a little tedious. Those scenes are necessary to break up the scenes in the OASIS and so become a conundrum. The romance, too, between the two leads, does not blossom as well as intended, but both Sheridan and Cooke are very good in their performances (both in physical and digital forms) so it is not too much of a detriment.
Ready Player One plants its flag in the nostalgia and pop culture world, never pandering or hoping to grab attention with it, but rather using it to tell a story of those raised and surrounded by it. The references, the visual representation of many, many movie and video game characters, it’s all there as a window dressing to the bigger story: the connection of reality to technology and where that divide creates a connection in the real world. Spielberg manages to answer that quite well, creating something fun that at times can be lacking in movies of this size.