After much anticipation, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One is now available in theaters. Arguably designed for the very purpose of entertaining the “videogame generation”, does Spielberg still have what it takes to succeed in bringing it to the big screen?
It’s a relevant question, despite Spielberg’s mastery of the silver screen – after all, his last live action movie that was designed to simply be fun was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Sure, he did the animated features about Tintin and the Big Friendly Giant as well, but when it comes to live action it’s been more than ten years – it’s been mostly about more serious films that include Bridge of Spies and The Post. Luckily, the master hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to sheer fun – and amazingly enough he proves it with a movie about video games and virtual reality at the age of 73.
Rather than being a video game adaptation of a single game or series, like the recent Tomb Raider or the upcoming Rampage, Ready Player One celebrates pop culture in general and video game culture in particular. There’s a very specific era it celebrates too, and that’s the entire eighties and a bit of the early nineties – if you were enjoying movies and videogames during that era, you’re in for a treat with Ready Player One. The first half of the movie is especially full of references to popular and sometimes obscure titles and trivia from that period, and I caught myself thinking: “look, that’s so and so!” and “I bet they’re talking about this game!” pretty much every two minutes.
You see, the central concept in Ready Player One is a virtual reality environment called the OASIS. In this world, players can do pretty much anything they can imagine – and many of them spend all the time they have available inside this virtual world. When James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, passes away, he announces that he’s hidden an easter egg inside his creation that – when found – will grant a player access to his riches as well as total control over OASIS. It’s enough to drive players mad, at least for a while.
Fast forward a couple of years, and not one of the three keys needed to unlock the easter egg has been found. Many have lost interest, but not the IOI (Innovative Online Industries) organization headed by Nolan Sorrento. Nolan is the clear antagonist of the story, structuring his company for the sole purpose of seizing control of OASIS and Halliday’s riches. His aim? To use it to make profit. His crime? Only caring about these profits and not caring for and understanding pop/videogame culture. He’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goals, and he’s an entertaining nod to the recent influence of decision makers in videogaming who’ve included things like microtransactions and pay-to-win models into games.
On the other side of the story is Wade Watts, who plays in OASIS using the alter ego Parzival and appears to have no friends outside of the game world. Often playing with his buddy “Aech”, he becomes the first player to find a clue to finding the first key – and quickly follows through by claiming it and finding a new clue to the second key location. In doing so, he befriends three more avatars in the game who also strive to find the easter egg: Japanese gamers Daito and Shoto and Art3mis, a female character he finds himself attracted to. Their discovery attracts the attention of IOI, who want to either recruit or eliminate Wade so they can claim the easter egg for themselves.
Watching Ready Player One is like playing a AAA action adventure videogame – non-stop thrills and well-designed set pieces, with little to no room to catch your breath. Most of the characters aren’t especially well developed, but they don’t need to be. What we learn about Halliday mainly serves to push the story forward towards new key locations and Sorrento is quite one-dimensional, so the focus is firmly on Wade as the protagonist.
The real standout performance, however, is quite possibly the achievement of the licensing team behind the movie. Although you’ll catch a quick glimpse of Minecraft in the opening sequence and you’ll see a few Halo soldiers in battle, the vast bulk of Ready Player One’s references stem from much longer ago – which lead me to wonder if nothing good came out between now and the game’s 2045 timeframe. Mixing and matching movies and videogames, there’s a race sequence early one that finds Wade piloting Back to the Future’s DeLorean while evading King Kong, and later on you’ll see a battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla. You’ll see the creature from Alien burst out of the chest of Mortal Kombat’s Goro, and you’ll see Battletoads charging IOI’s forces as they’re guarding an Atari 2600 machine.
If none of that means anything to you, then this movie wasn’t made for you. There’s a lengthy scene dedicated to The Shining as well as references to John Hughes movies and tons of other movies, but there’s a high level of science fiction and videogame nostalgia drenched throughout Ready Player One that makes sure this one fits best with a certain generation. Lucky for Warner Bros. and Amblin, that’s exactly the generation that’s visiting movie theaters in large numbers. The younger crowd will probably still enjoy the movie as a thrill ride, but those who get all the references (and will probably discover more during subsequent viewings) are the ones who will get the most enjoyment out of the movie. For them, it’s the most entertaining movie of the year – a definite thumbs up, like the one we see the Iron Giant give us as he sinks into some lava. Wait, isn’t that from….?