Come for the visual spectacular, stay for the killer soundtrack and shameless infatuation with Stanley Kubrick.
On coming out of a screening of Ready Player One, I found myself thinking of a time a few years ago, when I missed seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in theatres and caught it on a long-haul flight several months after its release instead. I was warned against it because watching the visual spectacular on a tiny screen would, apparently, hinder whatever enjoyment I would be able to squeeze out of it, given that I wouldn’t be able to fully grasp the cirque du soleil levels of optic razzle-dazzle. Still, I wandered off that flight vaguely satisfied with the film, perhaps more attune with the depth of narrative behind the visuals which, bar one baffling climax, was impressive in and amongst itself. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One drips with enough visual mastery to rival both Nolan’s space-epic and the end credits to Return of the King, and, for what it’s worth, the level of visual prowess is nothing short of hypnotic. But surely the true test of its finesse will come when Delta Airlines and British Airways adds it to their list of long-haul entertainment options and its main selling point fades to a letterboxed hue of red and orange with questionable levels of contrast?
In all honestly, Ready Player One isn’t terrible and that’s better than I expected. The Spielberg-helmed blockbuster follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), your typical teenage gamer dude, in the year 2045 when Earth’s reality is nothing more than a polluted, corrupted and overpopulated slum. To escape their desolation, people spend time in the virtual reality world of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), an infinite space where people can be whatever they want to be and do whatever the hell they want to do. Wade goes by his avatar Parzival and, with the help of best friend Aech, a male mechanic avatar, attempts to win what is known as ‘Anorak’s Quest,’ a game created by the late creator of the OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The game is simple: the first to find the Easter Eggs within the world, made up of three quests, is promised full ownership of the OASIS. To date, however, not one person has managed to complete the first quest and retrieve the first key and the scoreboard remains empty.
The game attracts a number of ‘Gunters’ (egg hunters), as well as the top-dogs of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a video game conglomerate in charge of most of the virtual reality equipment used for the OASIS, who use a slew of debt-indentured players known as Sixers to seek the prize and gain control of the world. “These days reality is a bummer,” Wade notes in the film’s opening voiceover. OASIS is a bit of a bummer too, what with the corruption of reality bleeding into the virtual world as soon as Parzival’s name pops up on the scoreboard and the IOI risks losing their chances of level-upping their real-life power. And so the fireball heroes of the OASIS (Parzival, Aech, enigmatic but well-known player Art3mis, and brothers Daito and Shoto) team up to rescue the world from the claws of cooperate captivity, taking on each quest with the force of Wade’s virtual DeLorean and Stranger Things levels of stiff pop-culture references.
Make no mistake, Ready Player One is a pop-culture lover’s wet dream. Catch sweetly nostalgic plugs for Back to the Future, King Kong and The Lord of the Rings; spot swooping references to Sonic the Hedgehog, Overwatch and Street Fighter; revel in the killer 80s-drenched soundtrack that will finally take the first association of Hall and Oates’ ‘You Make My Dreams’ away from 500 Days of Summer. The references aren’t subtle, nor do they try to be, but dammit they’re a lot of fun. One particular significant nod to Stanley Kubruck’s The Shining equates to the best fifteen minutes of the film’s 140-minute run-time.
More frustratingly, however, is the film’s romantic strand between Wade and Art3mis (or Samantha, as she’s known in real life). “I’m in love with you,” Wade says after a particularly raunchy blow out to ‘Stayin’ Alive’ on the dance floor. Wade, I’m sorry but you’ve known this girl for, what, ten minutes? Let’s calm down a little. You’d think it’d be some kind of ironic device deployed by the film’s subtext which regularly tries to pin down the theme of identity and reality, some way of making Wade ripe for character development, but then you’d be wrong. Even Date Movie did love better than this.
To be quite frank, Spielberg looms over Ready Player One like his alter ego, the forlorn and friendless Halliday. Oftentimes it’s easy to forget that Spielberg founded the age of the blockbuster with Jaws and launched the CGI spectacle with Jurassic Park. The man’s a household name, as is Halliday in his world, whose efforts have given him untold riches and power, but also, perhaps, the hollow feeling that he hasn’t lived up to his responsibilities. Maybe Ready Player One is his way of saying to a new generation “here’s how you can stick it to the corporations and use the synthetic, fanboy world to break through to the real,” but there’s little substance behind the surface to suggest the notion itself is anything but virtual reality. Whether, in a few months, it is deemed airplane worthy, however, is beyond me.
Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg, is released in the UK via Warner Bros Pictures, certificate 12a.