‘I’ ON CULTURE
Stephen Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a fun romp, a sort of combination of The Goonies and Raiders of the Lost Ark with an overlay of virtual reality. While hardly the director’s best film, it provides a good time that manages to combine the future with an adoration of 1980s pop culture. Based on a popular science fiction book by Ernest Cline, the action begins early and runs mostly non-stop to the end.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is orphaned, living in a stack of trailer homes in 2045 with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend but spending most of his time being his computer avatar Parzival in the virtual reality world called OASIS. Things in reality are terrible, and most people spend much of their time in this unreality zone, where they can be anyone they wish.
Parzival, like many people, as well as the huge corporation IOI, searches for three special “Easter eggs” — special keys that will lead to ownership of OASIS, a contest created by founder James Halliday (Michael Rylance) at his death. The value is estimated at half a trillion dollars. The first one can only be reached by winning a race that ends at a special park. Cars crash each other, roads move up and down, a T-Rex (perhaps a reference to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park) and King Kong are there destroying cars and blocking all who enter. After five years, no one has done it. But Parzival figures out how it can be done and wins. Friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waith), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Phillip Zhao) join him. That brings the evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of IOI, after them. Essentially, the movie is rather simple: the good guys must find the keys to get to the treasure, battling the bad guys.
But there are many motifs within the plot. Yes, we have young people battling a clearly evil corporation. But virtual reality is another metaphor for addiction. People spend most of their time within, avoiding their real, boring lives. Many of the avatars are not even close to who or what they represent. One of the other motifs is the importance of reality, something that often comes around to hit the characters hard.
Spielberg sets up scenes that are irresistible. The race, with roads flying around, cars spinning, not to mention the great ape and dinosaur, is incredible. And we have a ballroom where gravity doesn’t exist, allowing incredible dancing. There’s even a long riff on The Shining, inside what looks like a perfect replica of the old horror movie. There are huge battles between corporate clones and just about everyone else, all done through avatars, ending in a massive battle, which in true Spielberg fashion, is not the true ending.
Spielberg does set things up in black and white mode. The good guys are really good (a bit of a change from the book, but it does not really harm anything in the film) and the corporation really nasty. There seems to be no one around to block the bad guys from whatever they want to do. They have a group of nerds who work together to figure out all the gimmicks and hundreds of thugs trained in fighting through their avatars. Added to that they have a few killers, both in virtual reality and in the real world.
The acting job for most of the performers must have been strange. They did a lot of their work using computer-generated effects for their avatars (who did not look all that much like the real people). Sheridan and Cooke did have some nice romantic scenes together as actual people. We got far more scenery chewing from the bad guys, all of whom were appropriately evil. There was a major problem there: we know they want to take over but there is no back story. They seemed to be going to all the trouble just to get advertising space.
Spielberg has done many of our classic films over the last 40 years. This is not one of them. But it provides a great time at the movies. If you’ve never played any computer games or gotten into science fiction, there might be a bit of confusion, but essentially we have a fun quest with the special effects creating more interesting backdrops than normal. It is worth seeing.