by Philip Price
Director Steven Spielberg has a way with not only bringing the viewer into the spectacle but making them appreciate the aura of the spectacle he has concocted on screen. We're not just in awe of what we're seeing on screen, but we're in awe of how it makes us feel. Spielberg is a master of this kind of spellbinding visual storytelling, but as the filmmaker has grown older his filmography has naturally become more serious. It’s been a decade since that fourth Indiana Jones movie and while Spielberg has co-directed a motion-capture ‘Tintin’ movie here and an adaptation of “The BFG” there the majority of Spielberg's latter filmography consists of more "adult" projects. With his latest, “Ready Player One,” Spielberg returns to that era he helped define with films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park” and even “Hook” as “Ready Player One” mines the kind of wonder each of those films elicited as they were all, in some fashion, told from the point of view of a child who was allowed to run wild with and fully indulge in their imagination. Some may state that this is the very thing wrong with “Ready Player One” in that it is a little too indulgent in such imagination; reveling in the nostalgia of pop culture rather than relying on its own inventiveness to make it stand apart yet feel familiar. And yet, the way in which “Ready Player One” utilizes these aspects to tell a brand-new story is so creative and so striking in its relatability-especially to a movie-goer-that it feels rooted in a truth that movies were afraid to discuss until now. It may be due to the fact that I came of age in an era where the site of that T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” was something that couldn't have been realized in such life-like fashion prior or because I grew up re-watching “Hook” to the point those lost boys became an integral part of my childhood, but the fact of the matter is “Ready Player One” doesn't just utilize the same tone and a barrage of references to trick audience members who might have an affection for any one of the many cameos this thing trots out in order to make them feel an affinity for this new product, but rather it takes the real world into account, advances it into a hyper, but all too probable reality, and then comments on how it's nice to indulge in our imaginations and appreciate what others have given us with theirs, but that-as with everything-balance is key and it requires real world interactions and relationships and experiences to allow those imaginations to grow. It's not a groundbreaking thesis, but it's executed so well and is such a fun journey to go on the fact its ideas aren't brand-spanking new isn't a deal-breaker. If nothing else, it's a comforting reminder told from the perspective of a filmmaker with fresh (or at least re-invigorated) eyes.
If you're like me and wanted to read the novel, but never made it around to doing so this positive review might comfort you in knowing that even going in blind you are sure to get as much out of the experience as the person sitting next to you who may have actually invested the time to read Ernest Cline's novel. In fact, it is because “Ready Player One” would work with or without its this basis or its vast library of pop culture references that makes it so good and compelling. Cline, who is credited as a co-screenwriter on the film alongside Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), created a world from that of his childhood-a place where he and all his fellow Buckaroo Banzai-loving friends could hang out and play games, race their favorite vehicles, and explore the environments of their favorite movies, video games, and TV shows. To be honest, walking into “Ready Player One” I was somewhat preparing myself to not understand many of the references as the visual style of the avatars within this world of the Oasis resembled something from a Japanese anime (of which I have no knowledge) with many of the supporting characters and worlds resembling those from a multitude of video games (of which I have minimal knowledge), but while I'm sure there were plenty of things I didn't catch or even understand that will maybe enhance the viewing experience for others, the adventure the story takes even the most clueless of viewers on is worth taking for its pure inventiveness and fun. There is a strong story here-and one that is so expertly structured and executed it will be interesting to go back and read the source material to see how they compare. Having never been one to do that, but instead being one to typically make a point of reading the book prior to seeing the movie I enjoyed “Ready Player One” to the point there is a desire to see what more the world of the Oasis has to offer and how it compares to what Spielberg has created for the screen.
“Ready Player One” is set in the not too distant future of 2045 and follows the orphaned and largely alone Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he navigates his way not so much through life-no school, job, or aspirations are ever mentioned-but more through who he imagines himself to be in the Oasis. In this future it's also as if the world itself has stopped caring about structure as the only corporation to seemingly remain is that of Innovative Online Industries or IOI as run by the evil Nolan Sorrento (an always menacing Ben Mendelsohn) who looks to take control of this virtual playground known as the Oasis and turn it into a cash cow. This would of course be at the behest of its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who passed away five years prior to the events of the film, but who left multiple challenges for the many players of his game to decipher and if successful could garner full control of the Oasis and Halliday's trillion-dollar fortune. In the beginning, Watts AKA Parzival as he is known in this virtual world, is simply looking for an escape from his rough reality where he lives with an Aunt who seems to have been physically and verbally abused by a string of bad boyfriends among a mountain of mobile homes referred to as the "stacks", but in joining forces with other rogue players including his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), their comrades Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), and the mysterious Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) they become the unsuspecting leaders of Halliday's revolution; piecing together the mysterious creator's clues and gaining access to three different keys that unlock the ultimate Easter egg.
The key word here is fun. “Ready Player One” is the first Spielberg film in quite some time where it feels as if the director wasn't weighed down by his material, but more that he found something new and interesting to invigorate his senses with. As solid of films as “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” are there is this sense with each that Spielberg was going through the motions of these interesting, but safe projects where he knew exactly how to accomplish what he needed to accomplish before a single frame was shot. With “Ready Player One” there is this sense of discovery in the fact of how big and overwhelming it feels to be as audience members and so to try and imagine how Spielberg and team must have felt when coming to terms with having to bring such material to life in the first place must have made for a scary but welcome challenge. This may sound like pure speculation but witnessing this film on the big screen it's impossible not to gravitate towards this sense of necessary imagination to make these events spring to life in the way they do. By allowing the film to take its time in the first hour, establishing the world as Wade experiences it if not who Wade really is within it, as well as all the players within the game not to mention the weight of the story that forms the backbone of the Oasis that concerns Halliday and his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), we are granted a peek into this future that we can't help but to become invested in despite a fair amount of our heroes being little more than thinly drawn archetypes. Is Wade anything more than your typical hero? Not really, but Sheridan makes what is a blank slate of a guy someone with an endearing drive who isn't out to necessarily prove anything or anyone wrong, but more to simply try and make connections in ways that are meaningful as no such relationships in his life exist. The more interesting character is that of Cooke's Art3mis or Samantha as she's known in the real world. We are only given a single line of dialogue that hints at her motivations for doing what she's doing, but from the moment her avatar shows up in the Oasis alongside Parzival's DeLorean Art3mis is as intriguing to us as she is our hero. Aech is a fine example of supporting comic relief and Mendelsohn knows how to walk the line between camp and palpable intimidation and demonstrates that sense of awareness keenly throughout, but for my money's worth the most interesting dynamic the movie hints at is that of the one between Morrow and Halliday and how it informed the tasks and challenges our present heroes must overcome in order to win the game. The truth that “Ready Player One” isn't really about the characters, but the journey they take us on becomes irrelevant when discussing Halliday and Morrow because without them there is no adventure and there is no meaning to this sequence of events. This kind of mythical friendship is glimpsed just often enough to maintain its mystery, but still offer the right amount of answers to hammer home that thesis. To this point, Spielberg elicits another stellar performance from Rylance.
Sure, the movie has some issues with character development or lack thereof and it is maybe a little too long when it could have shaved a solid ten minutes off, been all the more subtle for it, and therefore slightly more effective as a result, but given the target audience it is understandable as to why Spielberg felt the need to spell things out more than he might have were he making this in the vein of one of his more "adult" pictures. Still, it's hard to find fault in the film's running time when spending as much time as is done in this world is pure joy. For starters, the way the title card is positioned is fantastic-classic Spielberg (which I'm a sucker for anyway), the soundtrack is fantastic without being overbearing, especially early on when we venture into Aech's workshop for the first time and she's blasting "I Wanna Be Your Lover" not to mention Alan Silvestri's score that compliments the nostalgic-inducing tone perfectly as the composer elicits inspiration from some of his own “Back to the Future” movements. Spielberg can lean on his friend Robert Zemeckis often as not only does he borrow the score and iconic elements from that filmmaker's prized trilogy, but also his name as "The Zemeckis Cube" is a tool to be purchased in the Oasis that allows a player to rewind any moment in time 60 seconds. This goes back to the point that "The Zemeckis Cube" could have been anything and still functioned as it does for the sake of the story, but the fact it gets to function the same while making a nod to a piece of well-known pop culture only makes it even more fun if not admittedly a little cute. After this first hour has embedded us into the Oasis the audience really begins to understand the crux of the story and are fully on board for the adventure Parzival and Art3mis are on. We begin to understand that the game is all about coming to better understand not only Halliday and his love for all things eighties pop culture, but who he was and who he desired to be as a person. While there are plenty of things it seemed, Halliday wished he might have done in his lifetime the moral of the story seems to be that of being aware of the moments we exist within and being able to stop and experience them as they are. This light at the core of all the CGI wizardry and non-stop adventure is who Halliday was as a person and what he desired to stand for or at least convey to all those eager to follow in his footsteps. “Ready Player One” is an extremely well-structured film with the caveat of maybe moving through each of the challenges a little too quickly given the game had been stagnant for five years prior, but during unraveling these challenges Spielberg places on full display his ability to craft some truly classic cinematic moments. This can be seen in how naturally the clues for the final challenge are layered in and executed, but more in a sequence that takes place in the middle of the film that will, let's just say, inspire new generations to discover Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining.”
On top of character, story, and theme “Ready Player One” is just a ton of fun and that can't be emphasized enough. For starters, it is genuinely and consistently funny in ways that were unexpected while also finding clever ways in which to integrate those much-discussed references. The CGI, of which I was concerned-especially since the movie seemingly relied on the avatar characters for the majority of the runtime-are so lifelike and natural in their movements it's astonishing such visual effects are even possible. The look of the film is spectacular in all regards as the sheen of the Oasis is naturally intriguing, but the live action sections contain a grain to their aesthetic that places us in the mindset of watching so many of the movies “Ready Player One” references that Spielberg isn't only inducing nostalgia through references, but through as many senses as he can. In other words, everything about the film just feels cinematic. And so yeah, one could look at “Ready Player One” as another movie where a corporate asshole tries to corrupt the purity of an artist's endeavor that is meant to make humanity a better place and leave it at that, but being done in this fashion where every aspect truly does feel as if the time was taken to ensure it was conveyed in the most creative way possible while still remaining intriguing throughout is what gives the movie this sense of life; this heartbeat that is impossible to suppress. We all inherently have these incredible imaginations as children but depending on where and when we go to school, what style of parenting is enforced upon us, and what friendships we make there inevitably comes a time when we begin to limit that imagination or begin to shape it. While it's easy to forget we can use that imagination in our day to day grind to survive it is always there and it is always ours and it's kind of magical. “Ready Player One” reminds those whose imaginations might have went dormant some time ago of this possibility and for those who were lucky enough to have that imagination cultivated the movie reminds us of what is possible with this magical part of the brain. In using our imaginations, we tap into other imaginations and both Cline and Spielberg have tapped into something special here. I loved the little details at play-Sorrento's very telling password, Parzival's ThunderCat belt buckle, the expert use of their single F-bomb, and the expert use of Madballs, but underneath all of that is this subtext that life was never meant to be a single-player game and that, in the end, our relationships with those we love and respect are what come to mean the most. That may sound like kind of a groaner, but it works and “Ready Player One” will work on many levels for many kinds of viewers. A true sign of transcending the art form and coming to stand as something larger in our society. In this regard, “Ready Player One” should accomplish that which it so unabashedly idolizes, but only time will tell if this is to be.