Ready Player One | Steven Spielberg | March 29, 2018
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One was greeted as a loving homage to 80s pop culture as well as pop culture into the late 2010s, but it has since been reevaluated in light of its problematic elements and Gamergate. Vox has a comprehensive explainer on it, but that’s not totally what we’re here to discuss. The film at hand is Ready Player One, directed by wide-ranging New Hollywood auteur Steven Spielberg off of a script from Cline with rewrites co-credited to early Marvel/MCU film (and Last Action Hero) scribe Zak Penn.
In the year 2045, most of the world (or just the US, really) escapes the real-world economic problems by spending their time (and money, in some cases) in the OASIS, a VR world created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). During the 5 years since Halliday’s death, nobody has found the Easter Egg – preceded by 3 keys attained for completing 3 challenges of varying skill – that Halliday created as a challenge to decide his successor. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known in-game as Parzival, is one of the many Gunters (Easter Egg hunters) and an early 20-something resident of the trailer park stacks in economically depressed Columbus, OH, along with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her abusive boyfriend du jour (The Witch‘s Ralph Ineson). With his small circle of in-game friends Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe), Daito/Togarashi (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao), as well as crush/love interest Art3mis/Samantha (Thoroughbreds‘ & Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s Olivia Cooke) and their collective knowledge and in-game library of Halliday lore, Wade manages to complete the first challenge, which kicks the Easter Egg hunt into high gear and attracts the attention of IOI head Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to take over the OASIS and overpopulate it with ads. Adventure and peril ensue, as you’d expect, both in the real world and within the OASIS.
If it sounds thematically similar to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (or similar treasure hunt/inheritance movies) with a whole lot of pop culture references, you’re not far off. Penn and Cline tone down the seemingly incessant explicit 1980s-2010s pop culture references from the book, instead turning them into updated blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos and references that are bound to leave audiences obsessing over which split-second cameo they enjoyed the most. I’m split between Marvin the Martian, StarCraft‘s Jim Raynor, Chucky, and Overwatch‘s Tracer. Maybe the best-executed one is the second challenge, focused around one of Halliday’s romantic regrets and set in an amazingly ripped-from-the-screen recreation of a ghostly Colorado hotel.
The film does a better job with the characters and setting than the novel does. By compressing the events into, I’d estimate, several days to a week and keeping things in the Columbus area, the plot is expedited – and there’s more time spent in-between the real world and the OASIS, and less on travel. However, the full realities and world of Ready Player One aren’t fully grasped. There are hints of the state of technology (with pizza delivery drones – now a reality – and IOI’s surveillance drones) and the economy, but the state of the US and the world as a whole isn’t explored, since the focus is primarily on Wade in the Columbus area. Given Spielberg’s prior dystopian films (A.I. & Minority Report), it’s a little disappointing.
As for the core ensemble, Lena Waithe is fun to see as Aech a little more than Helen (more screentime for the former than the latter), Art3mis/Samantha has some shining moments, and Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) have a good line or two and are decently defined. Ben Mendelsohn chews the scenery a bit as Sorrento, and Hannah John-Kamen gets to do more on screen (than she did in Tomb Raider) as F’Nale Zandor, his head of security and the indentured servitude department. Additionally, Rylance (almost a Spielberg muse by now) chooses to play Halliday as being on the spectrum, which is fitting, given the character. I also liked the decision to reframe the challenges around Halliday’s regrets, which added a Willy Wonka-like test element and a good bit of introspection.
But speaking of disappointments, there are problematic issues with character development. Samantha is better defined in the film and she’s not as much of a princess/prize, as she solves the second challenge and provides key support during the final in-OASIS/in-reality battle. However, she still fits in the love interest trope, and given the 80s genre influence, the end result is clear. Helen, meanwhile, is referenced in passing in the novel as being a lesbian, and that’s never explicitly stated in the film – erased, all but for a passing bit during the second challenge. Instead, there are a few brief “not what you expected” moments when everyone meets up – much sooner in the film to move the plot along – given the “you don’t really know your online friends, do you?” mentality and identity creation that comes with MMORPGs. In addition to the mixed representation, there’s the aforementioned Rylance decision on how to portray Halliday. Apart from that, there’s also T.J. Miller’s vocal and mo-cap appearance as I-R0K, an opportunistic hitman/hacker for hire who reflects more of the trollish traits associated with Gamergate – like helping Sorrento essentially dox Wade. But he isn’t in a majority of the film, which is a relief, especially given the assault news about T.J. Miller as of late, the less Miller the better.
On a broader note, it’s a very familiar yet fun (and slightly longer than it needs to be – if you count the end credits) escapist and wish-fulfillment film. Alan Silvestri’s score is mostly lost to the 1970s/1980s soundtrack, but there are a few sly John Williams cues that you may be able to make out. But for all the fun, it doesn’t quite have the heart in it. Yes, there are references galore, and yes, there’s a nod to playing games for fun, but when the hunt is on, Ready Player One is focused on the thrill of the hunt.