21st Mar2018

‘Ready Player One’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller | Written by Zak Penn, Ernest Cline | Directed by Steven Spielberg

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An affectionate ode to ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture wrapped in a bold vision of a future where reality and unreality are no longer binary concepts, or an insufferable procession of cultural name-drops revelling unquestioningly in the echo-chamber of nostalgia? However you view Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel Ready Player One, it’s undoubtedly an impressive piece of world-building. And if you’re going to choose a filmmaker to realise that vision, you could do worse than Steven Spielberg. (I mean, he already tarted up a pretty limited novel by the name of Jaws…)

Cline’s text doesn’t admit to much of ‘80s produce being tacky and/or downright terrible, but that’s the point: the kids of 2044 are atavistically absorbing the inner joy of an old, dead guy. That guy is James Halliday (Mark Rylance), AKA Anorak, creator of the OASIS. The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation is a virtual universe containing every imaginable oddity, most of them based on Anorak’s favourite childhood TV shows, movies and games. It’s a place where poor kids like Wade Owen Watts (Tye Sheridan) can go and feel powerful, respected and wealthy. It’s also a place where Spielberg can fashion a sandbox of boundless joy.

A posthumous message from Anorak reveals that an Easter egg is hidden somewhere in the OASIS. The rewards are infinite riches and control over the whole simulation. Wade, who has studied the great man’s life, is determined to find the three keys which lead to the egg. But he’s up against millions of other egg-hunters, or “gunters”. More importantly he’s also faced with Innovative Online Industries, a mega-corp which intends to find the egg for itself. IOI CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has an army of zombie-like recruits, and their tactics are brutal, thinking nothing of killing gunters in the real world to get ahead.

Wade, AKA Parzival, is one of the “High 5”, a group of super-gunters with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Anorak’s mindscape. The others are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), with whom Wade/Parzival is in love; Shoto & Daito (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki), Japanese geniuses who come as a package; and Aech (Lena Waithe), Wade’s best friend. Each has the potential to beat IOI to the Holy Grail – but can they put aside their personal ambitions and work together for the good of the game?

This cinematic ground has been visited before. The Last Starfighter (1984) saw a kid recruited for a galactic army following his induction through an arcade machine (forming the basis for Cline’s second novel, Armada), and that film was itself clearly inspired by the microchip adventure Tron (1982). Later, Lawnmower Man (1992) explored the idea that virtual reality could have real-world consequences. And in 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros… things happened. But rarely have we seen a videogame universe we’d actually want to visit; which we feel might be worth defending.

The novel’s story is linear, seen from the sole perspective of Wade. In the movie, co-written by Cline with Zak Penn, it’s more of a youth resistance vs. corporate evil gig, told from multiple viewpoints. The actual A-to-B storytelling of the movie is, shall we say, “old-fashioned”. The hugely recalibrated plot is now propelled by coincidence and deus ex machina more than its protagonist’s intricate technical preparation. If the Parzival of the book was an exacting heist-planner, the Parzival of the film is a more typical teen hero, thrust along a rollercoaster.

Moreover, this adaptation is clearly aimed at a younger, more modern audience than the novel. That means fewer allusions to ‘70s anime and more Halo soldier suits. Many references are obvious (Wade’s car of choice is a DeLorean), while others are obscure (yes that is the glaive from Krull). Such visual nods work wonderfully on screen, even if we do run into the issue of copyright – Disney and Nintendo properties are conspicuous by their absence.

Bound by some pretty tenuous connective tissue, it’s a movie (and boy, does it move) of fantastic individual set-pieces. The race for the first key is a delirious dance of CG destruction; part Mad Max, part Speed Racer. There’s a wonderfully bizarre horror homage to one of Spielberg’s favourite filmmakers (which smartly inverts the WarGames scene from book: instead of someone knowing the script by heart, the character has never seen the movie so doesn’t know the dangers). Another great scene sees Wade and Sorrento locked in a nerd-off, showing their respective knowledge of John Hughes’ filmography, and Sorrento is having information piped into his ear by a genuine fanboy. It says something about how big corporations have hijacked nerd culture, which is surely self-reflexive on the part of these mega-blockbuster filmmakers.

That’s as close as we get to any discernible depth. Ready Player One is a shallow excuse to parade a bunch of cult heroes – but what fun we had when Wreck-it Ralph did it a few years back. What separates Ready Player One (and Ralph, for that matter) from the likes of, say, Pixels is an unwavering affection for the source materials. The OASIS is a world where our flimsy nostalgic affections are given real weight and value.

So it’s a pity that the same care and attention isn’t shown to the real world sections. Sheridan is bland in the main role, struggling to give an inner life to a social pariah. Cooke is better, instilling Samantha (Art3mis’s real name) with a relatable blend of courage and vulnerability. But it’s the supporting cast where the characters – or, caricatures – come alive. Mendolsohn swallows the scenery whole with a set of strap-on nashers; T.J. Miller puts in an amusingly incongruous turn as i-R0k, a flustered coward in a giant’s body; and Parzival’s half-sketched sidekicks all get funny lines in lieu of human detail.

For all its deviations, the adaptation heads inexorably toward Cline’s simple “real life is awesome too!” message. And while Spielberg’s non-OASIS scenes fail to convince us of this core message – his 2044 looks about as inviting as Robocop’s Detroit – it’s still a refreshingly upbeat takeaway. The world doesn’t need another dour sci-fi about the nature of reality and artifice right now.

Ready Player One is a joyous toybox of a movie, capturing some of the uncynical magic of its director’s early work, only seen through the eye-popping prism of A.I.’s wild second act. It’s fluff, but spectacular fluff, with a rampant imagination, groundbreaking visual effects and a dreamlike visual style. And besides, is it even possible to dislike a movie where a character uses an enraged Chucky doll as a weapon? I don’t think so.

Ready Player One is out in cinemas from 28th March 2018.

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