Ready Player One (2018)
(for sequence of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language)
Released: March 29, 2018
Runtime: 140 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, T.J. Miller, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Some movies are best made for the theatrical experience. Ready Player One is one of them.
When I first saw this Virtual Reality sci-fi future, I wanted to turn around and go right back on the ride again. Suffice it to say, I saw it at least two more times theatrically, in premium venues. Loved it each time, even gleaning more from each experience.
But with the jump from the big screen to the small, something gets lost in Ready Player One.
What was once a quasi-VR extravaganza in IMAX and Dolby Atmos has become akin to watching someone else play a video game. The immersion is gone and, with it, so is some of the magic.
Some, but not all.
Regardless of what size screen or sound system you watch it with, Ready Player One is Spielberg’s best pure pop entertainment in a generation (yes, it’s been over 25 years since Jurassic Park). The director was long overdue to recapture his blockbuster magic, but he did. With Ready Player One, the former wunderkind shows his modern upstart rivals exactly how it’s done.
Many from the new Hollywood breed are like RPO‘s corporate-shill villain Sorrento. They create popcorn fun for the masses but only according to info they’ve aggregated, usually from whatever their equivalent of crack Oologists would be. They’re not true masters of their cinematic Oasis.
But then came Spielberg — pop culture’s Gunter OG — roaring back into the melee of tentpoles with all the right keys.
If that analogy didn’t make sense to you, well, don’t worry, it just means that you haven’t read the book the movie is based on. That’s okay. The film — a briskly paced 140 minutes that fly by — is almost entirely different. Spielberg takes the same premise, characters, and key building blocks, but then crafts a whole new plot around them.
And it’s better.
(But don’t watch with pre-teen kids. One mid-film sequence in particular will scare / haunt / disturb them. It’s absolutely brilliant, mind you, but it flirts with the R rating as it pays tribute to a horror classic. Other content may prove too much as well.)
Expanding on Ernest Cline’s best-selling Willy Wonka-esque virtual reality scavenger hunt in all the right ways, Spielberg tells a different and better story, regardless of medium.
Like its source, the movie still geeks out on all things pop culture from the late 20th Century. It is a visual explosion of references that would take countless viewings to catch, but how characters idolize those icons is more tempered, dialed back, at times even wary. It’s still a geek fest, but where the book reads as nerdy this feels more sincere and nostalgic.
Indeed, Cline’s book was a total nerdgasm, at times obnoxiously so, elevating anti-social gamer-obsessed movie-quoting players to hero status, all in a fantasy where the ones who’ve shut themselves off from the world would ultimately be the ones to save it.
That essentially holds true here, but gone is the ego-posturing of a player’s pop culture recall prowess. It’s replaced by a more egalitarian spirit, a shared ecumenical admiration of fandom. It’s not so much encyclopedic knowledge of media that makes someone admired but, rather, the purity of loving it.
And who would’ve guessed that, of all the 80s pop culture to double down on, Spielberg would expand upon and deepen the John Hughes-style teenage romance? Plus, while Cline’s book highlighted things like War Games and Ladyhawke in key scenes, Spielberg geeks out on movie auteurs instead.
Ready Player One is the story of teenager Wade Watts; he lives in the dystopian future of 2045. The world is a depressing trash heap, but in the OASIS (a virtual reality of endless destinations and possibilities) there exists a magical escape, especially for people like Wade who come from poverty.
And it’s more than a fun diversion. The OASIS is the most powerful and lucrative thing on the planet.
James Halliday, the inventor of this VR paradise, has been dead for five years. Nevertheless, he is a very large presence in this story, played by recent Spielberg fave Mark Rylance (Oscar-winner for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) who brings a tenderness to Halliday’s fragile eccentricities.
Upon his passing, a global scavenger hunt was launched inside the OASIS, one which require a passage through three crucial gates. The grand prize? The winner would become the sole proprietary owner of the OASIS. Not only would that change a person’s life, it would change the world.
So what gives a player an edge? Being obsessed with Halliday’s favorite pop culture obsessions. That’s what Wade Watts is betting on to help him decode clues along the way.
So, naturally, the multi-national corporation IOI has built an army of gamers (dubbed Sixers) to win the competition for them. Fighting them are Gunters, independent gamers with who are determined to play with integrity. They want to maintain the OASIS for its original intent of being a free gift to the world.
Wade is a gunter. One of the best. Possibly the best. In each race, he drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future (which Spielberg produced). It’s fitting, then, that BTTF composer Alan Silvestri replaced Spielberg’s longtime collaborator John Williams (who was busy with The Post). Like with his score for Back to the Future, Silvestri mixes adventurous bombast with more poignant cues.
Wade’s OASIS avatar is named Parzival, and his closest VR allies are Aech, Daito, Sho, and Art3mis. Art3mis is a girl, and Wade / Parzival is crushing hard.
And none of them have met in real life.
These “High 5” MVPs dominate the leaderboard, sharing and trading pole position with Sixer soldiers led by Nolan Sorrento, the head of the IOI. He is the embodiment of every evil corporate cliché.
Front-loaded with exposition, Ready Player One dispenses of its biggest obstacle – information and world building – right out of the gate. It’s dense and, on the small screen, feels more burdensome to get through. Nevertheless, Spielberg has Wade (and us) in the middle of the film’s first big set piece soon enough.
It’s spectacular, to be sure, as are others that follow, but Spielberg’s magic gets lost in all of that digital wizardry. When it’s just the VR Oasis world, it could’ve been made by almost anyone.
It’s only in the real world where Spielberg’s signature film language can be seen. His use of camera and how he edits is more classic, traditional, and artful; by contrast, in the VR world, the camera zips and zooms and swirls around in ways that feel nothing like Spielberg’s eye.
Nevertheless, Ready Player One is a VFX showcase, even artful in its own way. This is, after all, virtual reality and not actual reality. The visual style should move much more freely; it should defy physics, space, and time. In fact, that kind of fluid visual overkill actually helps to ground the real world outside of it. There, Spielberg’s camera is more limited yet it’s also more cinematic.
But regardless of location, Spielberg gives it all soul.
With a strong ensemble led by Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts (Sheridan is best known as Cyclops from the X-Men films), Spielberg not only elicits strong performances through all of that technology, he actually stirs emotional sentiment like only he can.
Restricting the race’s plot mechanics to their bare essentials, Spielberg makes more room for nurturing relationships than the plot-heavy book did. I legitimately cared for these people here in a way I never did in the novel. In the midst of all of this fakery, character and spectacle are brilliantly merged (ex: the hypnotic “Stayin’ Alive” dance sequence). Spielberg also slows things down to allow these characters to connect in the real world.
Sheridan’s the anchor but Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) is the passionate, beating heart. I’ve never been big on motion-capture acting (not even the lauded Caesar from the recent Apes trilogy) but, as Art3mis, Cooke delivers the strongest, most realized, most emotionally resonate mo-cap performances since Andy Serkis’s Gollum. I’m late to the party, but she has convinced me of mo-cap’s potential.
Every sci-fi adventure needs a worthy bad guy, and Rogue One‘s Ben Mendelsohn creates a worthy one. Sinister without being mustache-twirling, there is a cold calculation to Sorrento’s menace. He’s not “trying” to be intimidating, he simply is. He manipulates and threatens from a position of confidence and power. This is a genre film with serious villain.
Through it all, Spielberg mounts an old school summer movie throwback with 21st Century bells and whistles. He finds ingenious ways to communicate a blitz of information and action with narrative and visual clarity.
Then, at the finale peak, for the true pièce de résistance, this iconic filmmaking genius imbues Ready Player One with something I wasn’t expecting or even considered possible:
Cline’s book reached for it, but his characters were too simple and clear-cut. Spielberg is more generous here, more hopeful, and consequently more honest and true. He’s guided by the belief that the things bigger than ourselves will create legitimate awe when they’re finally revealed to us. When we see the miraculous for what it truly is, it makes an impact, it changes us, no matter how selfish our motives or how limited our vision may have been.
I’d be posing if I didn’t confess that the climax got to me. I was choked up. And despite how less-affecting the spectacle is on the small screen, the emotions and stakes still land a beautiful punch.
For Spielberg, Ready Player One is his plea to all of us to live with transparency. That’s getting harder and harder as each year passes, as technology replaces reality, and we hide behind curated social media avatars of ourselves. (The necessary social distancing of our new pandemic age isn’t helping, either.)
Even as Spielberg embraces the thrills and potential of virtual reality, he doesn’t want us hiding behind those virtual masks. He knows that true human connection can only happen in the real world.
Whether you experience the same kind of romanticism or not in Ready Player One is ultimately beside the point. As Spielberg said at the film’s SXSW Film Festival debut, this is a movie, not a film. See it on as big a screen as you can, and sit down with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.
Even when streamed at home, Ready Player One remains an example of why we still go to the movies and not merely stream them. It’s an homage to why we always have, and why we’ll be so grateful when we can finally go again.
- After filming was complete for Ready Player One, the post-production process for visual effects was so lengthy and intensive that Spielberg was able to make and release a whole other movie (The Post) while he was waiting for RPO‘s effects to be completed.
- Spielberg has said that his most logistically difficult films to make were Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. He then added that Ready Player One was third. (He has said that Schindler’s List was his most difficult emotional experience in filmmaking.)
- Many of the changes made for the movie from the book were in the variety of pop culture references (most coming from the 1970s and 80s). Cost was a big factor in that, due to proprietary rights. Spielberg, who wanted to avoid referencing films he directed, pulled from the library of movies that he had produced over the years (like Back to the Future). He also drew from the Warner Bros. archive (ex: The Iron Giant), including the film’s mid-point centerpiece. Warners produced and distributed RPO.
- The pop culture Easter Eggs in Ready Player One are simply too many to list, but it’s worth doing a Google search to discover what some of them are.
- By definition, there are lengthy Oners all throughout Ready Player One, but they’re distinctly VR (and not cinematic) in the biggest action sequences. Shots filmed more in the true spirit of Spielberg Oners happen outside of the Oasis, like one of the early shots that follows Wade’s serpentine climb down The Stacks.