It is not unreasonable to say that Stephen Spielberg is unparalleled in his craft. His work stands as a monument to everything great about film, building worlds where we can find a momentary escape from the drudgery of everyday existence. It seems fitting that a man that brought strangers from other worlds to our screens, brought giants of fact and fantasy to life, and took us on fantastic voyages should realize a tale that pays homage to all of these.
Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One, is a love letter to geek culture. For many of us, it is a nostalgic ego trip that references many of the icons of our own youth. It first hit bookshelves in 2011 and despite some sketchy prose and a flaky narrative, the novel’s clear devotion to its source material was initially returned with warmth. We've just returned from the Oasis, but was it worth the trip?
Spielberg’s interpretation of Cline’s story begins in 2045, but this is not even close to Blade Runner. Ready Player One follows the protagonist, Wade Watts, as he simply tries to escape his daily malaise in the slums of the future. Known as the Stacks, these crooked shanty towns spiral up around major cities. The inhabitants simply eek out an existence and have taken to living in a virtual reality. With the introduction of a girl, an evil mega-corporation, and a competition to seize control of the virtual world, we end up with an adventure.
This virtual world, known as the Oasis, is a key character in Cline’s story. It falls somewhere between Sword Art Online’s Nerve Gear with a range of power gloves and body armor attached. Everything from race cars, to dance halls, casino worlds, and doom planets exist. It is a world of imagination and Spielberg manages to bring all of this to life extremely well. Form the first moments that Wade, also known as Parzival, dives into the Oasis, we are bombarded with nods to Pop culture. For most of our readers, this will be a gleeful game of spot the fandom, while less invested parties will hopefully just be impressed by the scale of it all.
The game world very quickly makes a distinct impression on the film. The Oasi is clearly designed to be hyper-stylized. It is quite obviously computer generated and I do feel this is deliberate. While companies like Industrial Light and Magic can create a seemingly flawless T-Rex, the clear distinction between real and electronic scenes benefits the film. It allows Spielberg to swing from war fronts, awash with casual video game violence, to dance-offs. It allows fantastical moments to seem completely believable in a game where gravity is optional, time can run backward, and New York plays host to a race that concludes after you get past King Kong.
Pop culture icons and references are literally crammed into the virtual world. From classic video games to grand battles, the film is utterly full of them. References to early video games like Defender are fantastic nods, while the moment that a Gundam finally bursts onto the screen and goes toe to toe with Mecha Godzilla left me reeling with glee. Battleotads, Orcs, Guardians, and Iron Giant’s collide with faceless enemies, while dinosaurs run rampant. Spielberg reminds you what it was like to be 8 years old and watching your heroes fight for the first time. It successfully plays to my own fandoms without being exclusionary at the same time. Honestly, it is just cool. It is the same sense of excitement that carried Cline’s novel through some sketchy prose, and onto worldwide success.
This isn’t all that the film has to offer though. The real world does make an appearance. Behind each challenge lies Wade and the High Five’ race to find a hidden easter egg and keep their online world out of the clutches of the Innovate Online Industries corporation. Ben Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the chairman of this mega-corporation with all the clueless ambition that makes him a casually believable villain. It also puts him at odds with the youthful counterculture that Wade and his friends represent. While Mendelsohn’s character purports to have been present at the birth of the Oasis, a founding part of society’s social structure, his fantastic ineptitude is a knowing nod to every Steve Balmer or Tim Cook that has ever failed to quite embody the vision of their mentors.
While Cline’s original novel faced criticism that its peripheral characters were fairly flat, Spielberg uses these relationships to anchor our own wave of nostalgia in the real world. Art3mis, played by Olivia Cook, is far more than a princess to be rescued. Introduced astride a replica of Shotaro Kaneda ’s iconic motorcycle, from the film Akira, Art3mis looks like she might spend the rest of the film competing with Wade. What is actually revealed is a female lead that delivers a far more nuanced character than Cline wrote. Her initial derision of Wade and a strong midway performance feels far more real than her final shots in the film. This is where Cook is strongest, as a freedom fighter, with her own motivations and problems. Although this is no Katniss Everdeen, Spielberg takes enough liberty with the original portrayal that Art3mis never feels entirely like a victim of circumstance.
Ready Player One ultimately revolves around these personal connections. Spielberg takes a roster of characters that were largely peripheral to the book’s fandom and reminds us that there is always somebody else at the other end of the keyboard. Like many of Spielberg’s great films, Ready Player One takes this tale of friendships and cloaks them in the extraordinary. In this case, the High Five are Parzival, H, Sho, Daito, and Art3mis. From eleven-year-old ninjas to freedom fighters who disguise their face, the film touches on how we see ourselves and our friends. As the High Five take their fight into the real world, it re enforces the importance of those bonds, throwing a band of teenagers miscreants against a massive faceless entity. From this plucky clan of upstarts to the moments of introspection between the creators of the Oasis, this film is typically Spielbergian. It reminds us that our connection to the world is with the people we touch.
The players that make up the High Five, and the rest of the film, can be a little tropeish at times, and some of the film’s attempts to make a point can be a little heavy-handed. Yet in the shadow of Cline’s original work, Spielberg does an excellent job. Ironically, the book is, by far, the films biggest weakness. While Spielberg makes some great changes to the prose, it still sometimes struggles to shirk some of the book’s weaknesses. It does successfully manage to strip back a great deal of the lists and fandom gatekeeping the book was guilty of. Instead, Spielberg gleefully plunges into the past and let me wade around in my own nostalgia while anchoring it all in the importance of friendship.
- a fantastic nostalgia trip
- appropriately retro soundtrack
- Gundam!!!! (Editor's Note: Shepard!!!!)
- cant avoid all the book’s narrative issues
- character motivation seems very lightly explored at times