There are three scenes in Ready Player One that are full of pure movie-making adrenaline, the product of a director at the top of his game. The fact that the director is Steven Spielberg is infinitely rewarding because, once someone who could do no wrong early in his career, he’s proven that no one is perfect and can indeed have missteps… more missteps than successes, perhaps, in the last 30 years. This is the perfect movie for vintage Spielberg, one that celebrates pop culture from the era in which he was king. At 71-years old, Spielberg’s still a kid at heart, and it’s wonderful to watch him come out and play.
The plot of the movie has potential to be complicated. Having read the novel by Ernest Cline, I was skeptical about how it would translate from page to screen. Cline and Zak Penn have done a terrific job, though, at simplifying it. All you really need to know is that in the year 2045, there’s a high stakes contest in a virtual reality world called, “The Oasis,” where players from real life use avatars to hunt for three literal keys to the kingdom. There are good guys and there are bad guys. We, of course, want the good guys to win. That’s it. However, if you want to layer detail on top of that, you can…
The kingdom in this case is The Oasis itself. When its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies, his legacy is to award complete ownership of his virtual world to the winner of the contest. Clues to the three challenges associated with each key are found within his personal history and love of pop culture. They’re not easy challenges; in fact, when the movie begins, it has been five years since his death and not one person has been able to crack the first clue. Enter Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager who we’re told later has the most extensive knowledge of Halliday and his movie, TV, and video game obsessions.
The bad guy is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a company that has made huge profits from selling accessories and equipment for use in the Oasis. He wants to win the contest so he can own The Oasis and turn it into a commercialized venture, complete with filling every empty space in players’ goggles with advertising. At first, his intentions alone don’t necessarily make him a formidable foe, but when Wade finds the first key and appears at the top of the leader board, Sorrento learns his true identity and exercises deadly force in the real world to stop any further progress.
In The Oasis, Wade is Parzival, an avatar not much unlike himself, except thinner and more physically fit. His “best friend” is Aech (name withheld to prevent spoiler), a hulking creature with a knack for building and repairing equipment. They encounter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a beautiful alien/punk woman who is at first a rival, but soon becomes an ally… particularly since Wade/Parzival is falling in love with her. Here, Ready Player One skimps a little with its potential to maximize the drama among the avatars and their real-life counterparts by favoring non-stop action. The book had great fun with imagining who’s really playing the game.
Contradictorily, the movie ends up spending more time in the real world than the book. With this focus, the moral becomes a little heavy-handed. We get it, the real world is better because… it’s real. Halliday had his regrets and wants the winner of the contest to realize spending your entire life in a virtual world is not all it’s made out to be. So, with an additional real world chase, the movie doesn’t quite know when or where to end. Even when it’s over, there are at least three extensions of the story that aren’t really needed. I get it, Spielberg and company want us to relate to real people; they are the true heroes. But their avatars have so much fun…
…so let’s stop nitpicking and return to the movie’s strengths. The three scenes I mentioned earlier happen in relation to the challenges for the three keys. The first is a race through a virtual city with ever-changing obstacles, including an unbeatable King Kong. The second is a trip inside one of Halliday’s 11th-favorite horror movie, The Shining. The third is the epic conclusion when Sorrento and IOI cover the final challenge with an impenetrable dome and Parzival rallies the players of the world to battle them while Art3mis infiltrates the enemy’s headquarters in hopes of disabling the force field.
Each of these scenes is packed full of more 80’s pop culture images than I think you could ever identify, accompanied, of course, by an 80’s soundtrack (when the score by Alan Silvestri is not utlizied). Look carefully and you’ll see the Batmobile! There’s Mechagodzilla! Parzival drives a Delorean! Art3mis rides the motorcyle from Akira! In a world where you can create anything, why not bring to life your own geek favorites and make them do things you’ve only imagined. Just be careful: if your avatar is destroyed, you have to start over, any coins you’ve collected exploding into the air for others to grab.
If this all sounds like you have to be a video game player to enjoy Ready Player One, you don’t. I’m not. While there is a lot of first-person shooting (I guess that’s what it’s called), the final challenge comes down to playing Adventure, the Atari 2600 video game released in late 1979. I sat with a smile on my face for much of the movie, my nostalgia itch regularly scratched. Next to me sat a boy, probably 10-years old, rocking in his seat, eyes glued to the screen and throwing his arms up as he cheered. This is a real crowd pleaser for all ages and experiences. The best part of it for me though, was again witnessing vintage Spielberg. Are you ready?