Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Reber’s Rating – A
I fully acknowledge that Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, two of the most wildly imaginative Hollywood visionaries who are responsible for most of my childhood, have been off the radar for a steady duration of years at this point. Spielberg works on passion projects whilst Zemeckis toys with documentaries and the occasional Hollywood project. These men could move mountains with their brilliance and creative juices operating in overdrive. So for me to sit here and blurt that the Zemeckis-inspired Ready Player One is easily Spielberg’s best film in seventeen years to me – since 2001’s underappreciated A.I. Artificial Intelligence – I’m not saying that out of the sheer glee that has overtaken my iota. From start to finish, the amount of tender care given to appreciate the nostalgia is the very touch that most of the great 1980’s films wove into their bright hearts.
The world of Wade Watts lacks any sort of normalcy that you and I are accustomed to on the daily. After all, the year is 2045 and the world has taken position to no longer solve problems. He resides in a division of Columbus called the Stacks, inhabiting a small sliver of space atop a washer and dryer in his aunt’s residence with her flavor of the week. When he escapes into the OASIS though as Parzival, his world is flipped upside down. He’s not just a nobody wandering the decrepit streets hoping to see the next sunrise. There he has friends, coin, credibility and a purpose. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passed five years prior and left three keys hidden among the vast worlds occupying the online community. The player who discovers all three keys will inherit the greatest Easter egg of all – ownership of the OASIS and the remainder of Halliday’s fortune. Everyone wants the glory, to be crowned the victor. Wade just wants to uncover Halliday’s tucked-away secrets. And after discovering the first key five years into the grand game, Wade’s mundane world roars to life – another player he swoons for, his clan the High Five assisting in the grand scheme, and an evil organization titled IOI (may as well be Apple) nipping at their heels.
Yes, this is a hell of a lot like Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. (We were so close to having the great Gene Wilder serve as Anorak/Halliday but, alas, the legend passed on the role.) That’s the point though. Children in the 1970’s had the wonderful imaginative narrative of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, a yarn about a wide-eyed young boy who saw the world differently than the greed of his peers. Today’s generation now has the story of Wade Watts chasing the man he views as his idol, a man who created a whole world with such a muted social awkwardness that no one on Earth can understand why Halliday was such a guarded fellow. Art3mis/Samantha, who’s the perfect companion like Rose to the Tenth Doctor (ever equal to David Tennant’s Time Lord), at one points muses aloud “The contest has got to be about connecting with someone, connecting with the world.” Therein lies the subtlety to the plot. Sure, five friends band together to save the day from the nefarious villain who just wants more money, power, and control. At the heart, much like Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, there’s another insinuation you may miss – take a peek around and you may miss the world around you.
After all, the three keys to Halliday’s greatest puzzle are more than just the regular old Macguffin from every other movie in creation. The three keys, you could say, are more like symbols that allude to real nuances that surround us in our everyday lives. On the surface, the adventure that Parzival and Art3mis engage to thwart IOI is bombastic, a sweet serenade into the tense and horrific, one’s life teetering on the brink of having to respawn and start again. But this is a Spielberg movie through and through, Penn and Cline working with the visionary to connect with the adults in the crowd. Those of us now adults were the children of a whole different age – no high-end technology, just vivid and wild imaginations with no bounds. The amount of love poured into Ready Player One evokes the optimism, innocence, beauty, and a sense of wonder and throwback adventure that wowed us thirty, forty years ago. The old school theatrics worked for great effect and have remained ingrained into our hearts and souls to this day. The keys stand for more than just keys to the kingdom – they are keys to reconnecting with reality.
The further our society advances into the unknown with technology – virtual reality, interactive gaming, and getting wholly immersed in the ever-growing online gaming population – the more we disconnect with the society around us. The more we become obsessed with having a status online feeling more brazen among other players. Feeling special, feeling unique. Standing out on your own, people following your every move on platforms such as Twitch to gain fame, gain fortune. The world around us is more fixated with money, wealth, power. Is 2018 not unlike the world of Ready Player One, albeit people huddled closely in hastily-built apartment clusters? Losing their own identity to be more of a person online than in reality? Though Ready Player One has a much different story to tell – and I’m getting to that – at the very core of the narrative is never forgetting that physicality and emotion is much more gratifying. There’s no shame in holding someone else’s hand, losing your gaze into someone else’s soul, the softness of two sets of lips pursing together, telling someone you love them. That’s reality. And reality, per Ready Player One, serves more of a purpose than anything else in our lives.
Aside from the complexity of the core of Ready Player One is a grandiose adventure of classic Spielberg nature, a protagonist on the run from forces beyond control. Most of today’s big budget blockbusters, in retrospect, lack the charm and sense of awe left upon your senses with the visuals. Guns and senseless violence are tossed aside here from more traditional video game affair, the type of thrills you’d across playing an Xbox or PS4 game at home on your television. The heroics are more about innocent teenagers defending what makes them happy, avoiding the more violent tendencies of the adults who wish to spurn their virtuosity. Surprisingly though, most of Ready Player One isn’t even set in the real world but actually inside of the OASIS, bringing to life some of the most stunning virtual sets ever witnessed. The worlds of the OASIS are jaw-dropping in scale, scope, and amount of vivid detail. You quickly forget what you’re watching is a vast creation by Industrial Light & Magic. You feel as if you belong among those who live and breathe in this animated world, hobnobbing with all sorts of people with the same fascinations on their childhood as you.
If you’re like me, then I know what you want to see most – all of the references and Easter eggs to popular culture. Now, I’m a total pop culture nut; I live, breathe, and embrace pop culture more than most average folk. The amount of license rights that Warner Brothers and Amblin Entertainment were able to obtain is so staggering I caught only 25 percent of them all. On the surface we see the heavy influence of the 1980’s – the aesthetics of the posters, the clothing, the decorations, even the Dorito bags. (One poster I noticed asked us to appreciate Will Wheaton. Now that is an Easter egg.) Look deeper, you’ll see an onslaught of pop culture properties and characters. Battletoads. Ninja Turtles. Robocop. Knight Rider. Back To The Future. Star Trek. Street Fighter. The Terminator. Master Chief and the Space Marines. Aliens. Overwatch. Batman. Street Fighter. Spawn. The Iron Giant. Buckaroo Banzai! Hell, even characters from Zootopia show up, I kid you not. The A-Team. Battlestar Galactica. Doctor Who. Hell, Spielberg showcases his admiration for mentor Stanley Kubrick in an expansive set piece occurring in the midst of 1980’s The Shining – literally in the actual movie, sets recreated and all. And that’s the tip of the iceberg, without including visual cues. A movie boasting this sort of care to preserve the nostalgia is worthy of at least two or three viewings just to catch all of the characters.
Ready Player One is more than just average sci-fi escapist fare, no, this really deserves a fall release. Ben Mendelsohn’s refreshing villain isn’t on a murderous rampage – he seeks to control the most important resource remaining on our planet in the vast complexity of the OASIS, behaving more akin to a camper hiding in the corner of a packed multiplayer match waiting to steal the glory from his team. T.J. Miller’s henchman serves as the comic relief to break up the action, his impeccable comedic timing working well with Mendelsohn’s conniving nature. And Alan Silvestri, who has served as Robert Zemeckis’ musical muse, orchestrates a pulse-pounding score that breathes life into the plot and action, making Ready Player One feel alive. Even the brief appearances by both Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance are enough to push Ready Player One onto a whole different level. In fact, had Spielberg cast recognizable names as the High Five – Tye Sheridan gets a pass, as he was a fresh face when initially cast – I doubt our ability to relate with the young gamers seeking to escape everyday life would have as much an impact.
The wave of nostalgia that flushed over me like a tidal wave had me feeling like the same child who laid in front of the television watching Back To The Future and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on loop, the same toothy grin ranging ear to ear planted on my cheeks. There are times that we need an icon such as Steven Spielberg to whisk us back to a much simpler time, to open our eyes and play upon a trope within our own society to teach us a lesson. Ernest Cline, who wrote the novel and helped shape the screenplay, should feel greatly appreciative. Spielberg proves why he remains the master of storytelling in an era where spectacle takes precedence over plot. Ready Player One is the type of thrill-ride trip down memory lane we never knew we needed, yet don’t want to end when the credits roll. See it once for the story, but see it again to catch all of the cameos and feel like a young child all over again.