Past and future collide in Steven Spielberg’s epic adaptation of Ready Player One. But is this a nostalgic fantasy best viewed through rose-tinted goggles?
Based on the best-selling novel, Ready Player One is a film with a pleasantly straightforward premise. The year is 2045 and the world is a dull, dull place. Thankfully, everyone can now escape to the OASIS – a free virtual reality created by a nerd-turned-trillionaire called James Halliday. In the OASIS, you can do whatever you want, and be whoever you want. It’s like the internet, but bigger, and every player assumes the role of their own digital avatar. Then, one day, Halliday dies. In his will, he leaves the OASIS and his fortune to whoever can complete his last, nigh-impossible challenge. Hidden deep within the OASIS is an Easter Egg, but to unlock it, you first need to find and win three mystical keys. And really, that’s the story in a nutshell. Over the course of 140 minutes, the race is on to crack the code and claim Halliday’s treasure!
Our hero is Wade Watts (aka Parzival), a young Gunter (short for “Egg Hunter”) who desperately wants to win the prize and turn his life around. Armed with a small group of virtual friends and an incredible knowledge of Halliday’s life, he soon becomes one of the frontrunners in the quest for the Egg. However, if he’s going to be the first to the finish, he also has to outsmart the IOI conglomerate. This evil business wants to bank Halliday’s fortune and turn the OASIS into an ad-filled corporate nightmare. They’ll stop at nothing to win the contest, even if it means destroying real and virtual lives along the way…
It’s a simple, predictable plot with obvious good guys and obvious bad guys. It ends exactly the way you would expect it to. But that’s fine. Ready Player One isn’t concerned with being complex or deeply-layered. Instead, it just wants to pack as many non-stop thrills into its runtime as possible. It’s about the journey, not the destination! And if you’re willing to strap yourself in, you’re in for one exciting rollercoaster…
There’s no denying it: Ready Player One is a spectacular looking film. But it’s Spielberg! Did you really expect anything less? It’s a visual treat, bringing the colourful worlds of to life in mind-boggling fashion. It also boasts some of the most impressive CGI in a blockbuster yet. Which is a relief, as about 85% of the movie is animated. The scenes on Earth are drab and slow by comparison, but really, that’s kind of the point. To these characters, the real world is empty and boring compared to the OASIS. Speaking of characters, all of the actors put in solid, entertaining performances – both as themselves and as their avatars. Tye Sheridan is likeable as Wade/Parzival, Olivia Cooke is enigmatic as Samantha/Art3mis, and Ben Mendelsohn has a ball as the villainous Nolan Sorrento. There’s even a cameo from Simon Pegg, aka The Editor from Doctor Who Series 1.
It’s not just a feast for the eyes though. Ready Player One also rocks one of the best movie soundtracks we’ve heard in recent memory. Alan Silvestri (of Back to the Future fame) provides a scintillating score, with some mischievous music that fans will adore. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a full-blown licensed soundtrack of 1980s classics too. (“Stayin’ Alive” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” cue in at particularly brilliant moments.) It truly is a euphoric, immersive experience, and one that you won’t be forgetting even long after the credits roll.
However, just as the Gunters need to know all about Halliday to get the most out of their hunt, you’ll need to know as a lot about pop culture to get the most out of Ready Player One. Our advice? Do your homework first, because there are nostalgic nods at every turn. Some are subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss-them winks to the die-hard, but others are quite integral to the plot. It’s perfectly fitting and ironically meta for this film, when you think about it. For example, an entire section is based around Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s one of the smartest sequences in the film, but the references will go completely over your head if you’ve never seen the source material before. It all does still work as a tense, scary set-piece, but it’s clear you’re meant to know what to expect in order for the (not-so-surprise) twists to properly land.
This sequence also exemplifies one of the other recurring problems with Ready Player One – its tone can be all over the place. One minute it’s a bright, colourful adventure, seemingly perfect for both kids in age and kids at heart. Then the next minute we’re deep within the world of The Shining, complete with zombies, axe-wielding murderers, and blood pouring out of lifts. It’s only a small part of the runtime (and we want to stress: it’s executed with aplomb), but it still feels a bit misjudged compared to everything else around it. At its core, this is a feel-good story with a poignant (and surprisingly contemporary) message at heart. Sometimes it just gets a little too lost within its own reverence.
Welcome to the Next Level
Funnily enough then, for a film so in awe of things that came before it, Ready Player One differs quite noticeably from its own inspiration. Several major beats from Ernest Cline’s novel are switched up here, though arguably for the better. These tend to revolve around Halliday’s challenges, and we can understand why things were changed here. In the book, Wade wins one key by beating someone at an old arcade game. It wasn’t especially exciting on the page, and it would have been even worse on the screen. So, instead, it’s replaced by a high-octane death race that makes Mario Kart look like child’s play. As you do. Things still feel a little bloated at 2 hours and 20 minutes long, yet the film never really drags. It’s a sheer adrenaline rush of entertainment, and all the nostalgic-driven references act as delicious icing on a very sugary cake.
The story may all be a fantasy, then, but the reality is very simple. If you’re the sort of person who thinks they’d enjoy seeing King Kong and a T-Rex chasing the DeLorean from Back to the Future, then Ready Player One is for you. It’s a giddy thrill ride of unfiltered nostalgia, absolutely bursting at the seams with pop culture references for those willing to appreciate them. It isn’t a film for everyone, but if you happen to be the target audience, this might even stack up against the classics it honours so greatly.