Spielberg Brings His A-Game To The Future And The Past In Ready Player One
A mere 27 years from now, the United States has taken a sharp turn for the dystopian. Like many of his peers, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) has decided to take refuge in the OASIS, a virtual reality game world created by the late, great James Halliday (an appealingly spaced-out Mark Rylance). Before his recent death, Halliday elected to leave control of the OASIS to the winner of his final gaming competition. Competing as his avatar Parzival, Wade quickly asserts his dominance, and his odds of victory are virtually assured when he joins forces with a similarly game savvy foursome: Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), Shoto (Philip Zhao), and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
Unlike the rest of the crew, Art3mis finds herself in a blossoming romance with Wade—in the OASIS and beyond—but their prospects for a rosy future are undermined by the unscrupulous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his nefarious organization, IOI. Determined to take oppressive, authoritarian control over the OASIS, Sorrento draws on a vast array of dirty tricks, in order to snatch victory from his far more deserving rivals. While the High Five (as they are known) have the knowledge and imagination to thrive in Halliday’s world, Sorrento has the resources to undermine their efforts—with potentially disastrous results.
19 years after The Matrix, virtual reality remains a fertile (and surprisingly under-tapped) subject for narrative filmmaking, but rather than show us real human beings immersed in the OASIS, Ready Player One gives us a wildly eclectic, pop culture-referencing selection of avatars. As a result, much of the film plays like a motion capture animated film in the tradition of the mo-cap films by Robert Zemeckis—who is referenced repeatedly—and Spielberg’s own The Adventures of Tintin. However, Ready Player One elevates this problematic aesthetic with two refreshing differences: frequent detours back to live action and an animated world that is downright surreal.
While some fans have preemptively faulted screenwriter Zak Penn (who co-wrote the script with novelist Ernest Cline) and Spielberg for being overly nostalgic in their reference-heavy approach, it should be noted that the characters are more lost in nostalgia than the filmmakers, an understandable reaction to the dystopian reality of 2045. In fact, Penn and Spielberg seem somewhat ambivalent about these references. After all, we’re not really seeing these iconic figures onscreen, we’re seeing characters wear them as virtual costumes, stripped of context, meaning, and authority.
Depicting a world that functions according to the rules of cosplay, Ready Player One can only offer a superficial treatment of the famous characters it references—which may explain why Spielberg chose to minimize references to his own movies—causing them to serve a primarily decorative function. This proves to be a viable strategy, as these allusions are motivated within the world of the movie and act as a reliable source of comic relief. The most extreme example of the latter is an inspired set piece in the middle of the film that thrusts our characters into the actual footage of a legendary film—to jaw-dropping effect.
Fortunately, Ready Player One has a lot more to offer than pop culture references. Featuring youthful characters in a science fiction milieu, the film gives Spielberg a chance to tap into a career-spanning sweet spot. While he relies a little too heavily on conventional dramatics, there’s no question that the director brings his A-game, hitting all the essential, crowd-pleasing notes on a sprawling canvas. In the end, Ready Player One has it both ways, delivering an experience both comfortingly familiar and shockingly new. That may not sound like an altogether desirable compromise, but it’s a fitting destination for a film constantly torn between a predictable past and an uncertain future.
Ready Player One is in theatres now. Check out the trailer below.