If the world of so called ‘geek culture’ is a full time occupation, then it might be fair to say that I’ve got a part time summer job. I’m not nearly as well read and well versed in the depths and details of what it takes to be truly literate in the sub sections of pop culture, but I’ve certainly dipped my toes in enough cult films, games, bands and TV shows to have formed an immediate interest in the marketing of Steven Spielberg’s latest offering. The lure of nostalgia combined with the lure of a true living legend of a filmmaker were definitely enough to have me excited about Ready Player One.
Based on a popular novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is a science-fiction adventure that should bring joy to any film and game lover with a reverence for the old school. Set in 2045 in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio, the film tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18 year old who spends most of his time, along with all the other citizens of the world, in a virtual reality universe called the Oasis. As his avatar, Parzival, Wade is known as a Gunter, or egg hunter, committed to completing a challenge set by the Oasis’s creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) before his death. Whoever can navigate solves the clues, collect the keys and find the ‘Easter egg’, wins control of the Oasis and Halliday’s gargantuan fortune, and alongside a fun group of fellow Gunters, the narrative unfolds as a race against time between the virtuous free spirits of the Oasis versus the corporate overlords, ruled by rival tech CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
Don’t be scared if that brief synopsis sounds a little technical for your taste, because the real joy of Ready Player One is in the watching. The film is filled the to absolute brim with pop culture references from the past four decades and beyond, and even though I’m sure there were many that flew straight over my head, the content of the adventure feels accessible and wide ranging enough for anyone to feel included at some point or another. The basis of the great Easter egg hunt around which the plot revolves is all about accessing the memories of Halliday, a man who grew up and developed his tastes in the 1980s/1990s era of pop culture that is oh so in right now, and this gives the film a really timely quality even though it’s set in a dystopian future.
Of course, the metaphor and message of a world whose citizens spend more time in front of screens, immersed in virtual reality than in real life, is unashamedly on the nose and admittedly gets to be a little preachy come the film’s conclusion, but I can forgive Spielberg’s heavy handed final message thanks to the immersive, innovative, addictive and most importantly, super fun adventure that proceeds it. The film does some crazy stuff and goes in some directions that I would never have thought a big budget PG-13 would go. And when I say unexpected, I’m talking an extended sequence set in the universe of The Shining, terrifying twins, blood elevator tidal wave, and room 237 rotting lady all present. Let me tell you, there were more than a few parents in my screening who became slightly panicked for a few minutes!
I wouldn’t usually be so crazy about seeing a film so heavily reliant on CGI, but the very conceit of the Oasis, in this case, makes the virtual world on screen much more palatable. The balance between live action and virtual action feels just about right, and the picture overall really is a feast for the eyes from the eery, bleak visualisation of 2045 Columbus to the vibrant, ever changeable worlds of the Oasis. It is a film that is fun for the eyes and fun for the mind. It might be unfair to compare them, but I can’t help but feel that Ready Player One succeeds in nearly all of the areas in which A Wrinkle In Time failed.
As Wade/Parzival, Tye Sheridan is a strong if not slightly predictable lead. His performance is solid and he is certainly enigmatic enough to steal the focus in a sometimes hectic environment, and there is much enjoyment to be had with his characterisation if you surrender to his purity and selflessness, this is, after all, underneath all of the pop culture and the cool CGI, a classic tale of good versus evil.
Ben Mendelsohn as that evil is having a great time as Nolan Sorrento, serving user friendly, camp, sinister villainy that feels just right. He doesn’t have to stretch himself in any capacity to master the role, but in all honesty, Sorrento isn’t a character who is destined to steal the show. We all know how this kind of story is going to turn out. Making great contributions as Wade’s fellow Gunters are Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis, Lena Waithe as Helen/Aech, providing a little balance and bringing some female presence to proceedings, not something that is always displayed in gaming culture.
Overall, there is simply too much incorporated in to Ready Player One for me to do it justice in a mid length review, but suffice to say, it is a true love letter to the world of geek culture. It’s a film that will certainly benefit from repeated viewings, with new references being unearthed with every watch. Steven Spielberg sure does love to make a long film, but at nearly two and half hours, the breakneck pace of Ready Player One makes it feel like one of his breeziest to date. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in the cinema for a little while, and getting to see ten year olds around me in the theatre having the time of their lives might be better testimony than I can give in any amount of words anyway.