Steven Spielberg’s homage to the golden age of digital pop culture is a symphony of sounds heard before- but that’s far from a bad thing.
Ernest Cline’s debut novel published in 2011 was a runaway success on various levels, not least for re-igniting public interest in science fiction literature but also for starting a bidding war over film adaptation rights before it had even been published. Fast forward to 2018 and we’ve been delivered one of the most ambitious films in recent memory.
Set in the sprawling Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, Ready Player One explores a desolate future where overpopulation and poverty have driven people indoors, retreating to the simulated world of the OASIS. In this virtual universe almost anything can be imagined into existence. Children can be superheroes in their living rooms, men and women can earn a living, and tycoons make billions selling dreams to the poor.
Mark Rylance and Ben Mendelsohn are the standout performers as two such tycoons in a film that asks little of traditional acting skills and more of green screen gallivanting. Rylance plays James Halliday, the recently deceased creator of the OASIS who has placed the literal and metaphorical keys to his VR universe inside three cryptic puzzles, the completion of which will gift control of the OASIS to the victor. Tye Sheridan is a fine lead as everyday teenager Wade Watts, devoted “player” who finds himself opposite Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn), competitive CEO with visions of complete market control, as the two race to complete Halliday’s tasks. Olivia Cooke does well to act her way around a blandly written love interest but the rest of the supporting cast are largely unnecessary and take screen time away from an underdeveloped cast.
Generally speaking, Ready Player One’s biggest pitfall is it’s somewhat waffley plot. The never ending battles and gyroscopic camerawork would be more of an issue if it weren’t for the visual effects, which are magnificent but conveniently distract from that fact that this story really needed simplified for the big screen. Ready Player One can be taken as a film made for two very distinct audiences; the sheer amount of expository dialogue and dazzling visuals constantly remind you this is a children’s film, while the jargon and easter eggs scream tech humour only those with a lifetime spent at a computer would understand. Yet strangely, the two work on entirely independent levels despite never really meeting. It’s a film that every filmgoer will appreciate to a different degree which has naturally led to a very mixed response.
It’s sense of humour is well tuned to a family audience and the references to pop culture and video games are literally too numerous to count, but there’s also a huge element of modernity and social awareness for a film whose heart quite definitively beats to an 8bit drum. There’s a strong underlying theme of escapism and there’s never been a more appropriate time for it. Spielberg’s rushed production of political thriller The Post and aforementioned themes within Ready Player One itself marry his personal and professional beliefs, promoting a diverse, young and engaged America.
The creative trifecta of Spielberg, DoP Janusz Kaminski and composer Alan Silvestri prove that old dogs can still learn new tricks by recycling old material- it’s a strange phenomenon. There isn’t much originality to be found across any of the film, from the score that heavily references Silvestri’s work on Back to The Future to the many visuals cues, entirely borrowed sequences and quote heavy dialogue. But originality doesn’t necessarily spell success (just ask Marvel, set to release their 19th superhero movie in 10 years this month) and Ready Player One proves this is the case as what is possibly best described as a child friendly Fury Road is incredibly entertaining if you just shut off your brain and enjoy the ride.