Ready Player One has been described as a number of different things: a metaphor for social media. A haven for gamers. A silo of nostalgia. A runaway book adaptation. All of these may be true, but amid the stunning cacophony of CGI it’s also worth considering as a paean to the hardworking, imaginative individuals behind the scenes in visual effects departments.
This isn’t the first Spielberg film we’ve seen this year. Released in January, The Post debuted in time to receive a few nods at the Academy Awards earlier this month. As is well known, Ready Player One was put on hold as Spielberg dropped everything to produce The Post last year, intentionally poignant under the Trump administration. Now, by bringing out a film that couldn’t be more visually distinct or aimed at a more different demographic, Spielberg has once again shown his versatility as a filmmaker. Yet while these films might seem to be polar opposites, they raise similar questions of integrity, transparency and identity, which is worth considering in light of all the publicity Ready Player One has received.
While the plot has diverged somewhat from Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Spielberg has treated it with artistic license that makes it just as entertaining in its own right. Set in 2045, the story follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan); his alter-ego-like name unreflective of his mundane existence. Like the majority of people in almost-dystopian Ohio, Wade spends his time in the OASIS: a multiplayer virtual-reality environment on a global scale. There, he is known as the avatar Parzival, in reference to a knight who went on a long quest search of the Holy Grail.
The OASIS, created by Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Morrow (Simon Pegg), took on epic proportions after its developers initially brought the game to the public. Rylance, who won an Oscar for his role in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), brings a stage actor’s sensibility to a reclusive, tetchy character, who is caught between his loyalty to his friend and an unadulterated desire for gaming in its purest form. On his deathbed, Halliday announced a competition to find a worthy successor to his company. By completing challenges and earning keys in order to find a hidden Easter egg, this person would be the sole proprietor to his gaming conglomerate.
As a result, swathes of Gunters (egg-hunters) began the search, and after some fruitless years Wade is one of the remaining optimists. Among those searching for the Easter egg and the absolute power it promises is Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of the soulless software company Innovative Online Industries (IOI). His aim is to employ others to find the keys for him so that he might gain access to the whole company and exploit its potential. Accompanied by a band of fellow gamers — including Lena Waithe’s Aech/H and Olivia Cooke’s Art3mis/Samantha — Wade sets off to race against Sorrento’s machinations.
A lot of the action pivots on the power-play between Wade and Sorrento. Sorrento is first and foremost a businessman, hungry for power, profit, and ultimately seeking to exploit the general populace in order to make as much money as he can from the OASIS. Wade, on the other hand, is a boy in the target gaming demographic – he sees it for what it is, a form of entertainment and escapism. Much of the real-world narrative focuses on his abrasion with Sorrento, as they find themselves at cross-purposes, with occasional comic results. To this end Wade is also joined by Art3mis, who seeks her own revenge: she encourages him to join the ‘resistance’ against IOI and they work pretty well as a young team. It seems that this film is as much about generational conflict as it is a war on the homogenization of the entertainment industry. However, Spielberg seeks unification, not division, and through his hallmark big-budget thrills, that is what he gives us.
As expected, much of the film celebrates nostalgia through countless pop-culture references — featuring everything from the Delorean to the Iron Giant, a Zemeckis Rubik’s cube which turns back time, to the Millennium Falcon, King Kong and Jurassic Park dinosaurs, in a playful wink to Spielberg’s early days. There are also a host of 80s songs, lifting the mood just when things start to take a dark turn. And for horror fans, The Shining is paid homage, although you may need to do your homework if you’ve not seen the film beforehand in order to appreciate its role here.
We might ask why popular nostalgia has it made such a big comeback. After all, we’ve seen a lot of it: everything from Stranger Things to Super 8 shows us that the 80s are just out of reach. Nostalgia has been defined as ‘a variety of positively- or negatively- toned human emotion that evokes retrieval of past personal memories which connect components of the self over time (life history) with the present’. It may be that, with tumultuous political manoeuvres taking place globally, cinema provides the kind of escapism that people are searching for and an outlet to have fun. Just like the OASIS, it’s a place where we go to forget the outside world and become immersed in an exciting new story. Watching this in IMAX 3D is a strange experience because it operates on two levels: we experience a virtual reality in the same way as our character counterparts.
It’s not to say that this film is perfect. At 140 minutes, it feels an hour too long, and some of the longer fight sequences could have been reduced to fewer frames to propel the storytelling forward. At times, Wade doesn’t seem that sympathetic to the causes around him, and his boyish narcissism weighs against him somewhat. But the enduring appeal lies in the way that it’s able to unite generations, where 10-year-olds can find thrills in car chases and 40-year-olds can appreciate retro Atari consoles. Ready Player One offers an unavoidable sense of nostalgia for the past, but in doing so brings together new audiences in a way that only Spielberg could.