The year is 2045. The world is a miserable place run by corporations. Most people live in small trailer homes stacked on top of each other. But humanity has an excellent escape. It is a fully realized virtual reality world called Oasis. Oasis was the brainchild of the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner in 2016 for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies). Upon Halliday’s death five years earlier, a video was played announcing a competition inside the Oasis. Three keys were hidden inside the massive game and the player who found all three keys would unlock an easter egg that would give them complete control of the Oasis. Among those obsessed with the hunt is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, Cyclops in the ongoing X-Men movies) who, as his avatar, Parzival, will try to find the keys before the head of the evil conglomerate IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, glowering intensely), can get his hands on it and change everything everyone loves about the Oasis.
Ready Player One, based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel of the same name, tells this story in a big, fun movie that successfully retains the spirit of the book despite changing some of the story. This is the type of movie Steven Spielberg does as well, if not better, than anybody else and his directorial skills are on full display here.
The book was very much based around nostalgia, with the premise that the easter egg hunters have to study up on Halliday’s favorite things for the contest and Halliday was obsessed with pop culture (specifically, the 1980s). The movie also features tons of references to other movies, books, songs and videogames (though some are different from the book, probably for rights reasons). However, while the book really wallowed in nostalgia and structured the story around it, the movie fits the nostalgia into its story a little bit better. It is certainly there, since that is what Ready Player One is about. But it is first and foremost an action/adventure movie and the way all the references are spliced into the action is actually pretty clever.
The best thing about Ready Player One is the look of its virtual world. While the characters treat Oasis like a replacement for the real world, the filmmakers take advantage of its “anything goes” quality. The animation makes it clear viewers are looking at a videogame. It is so different from the movie’s reality, and so much time is spent in the Oasis, that it becomes more real, and far more interesting, than anything going on outside the game. There are real stakes to what is going on in there so, even though amazing things can be done inside Oasis, it really matters when they do. Characters can fly around with giant robots or cars. There is also a really cool scene in a club, where avatars float in the air. The best sequence in the movie is the quest for the second key (which I will not spoil by revealing here). I will just say it involves a brilliant twist on an existing property. It is a clever spin on the story’s initial concept.
Oasis’ main appeal for its users is that you can be whoever you want to be when you are inside. It is partly a videogame (there are quests to participate in and power-ups that can be purchased) and partly a replacement for real life. When Wade meets people and makes allies, it is almost exclusively inside Oasis. You can tell a lot about someone based on the avatar they choose and the way they carry themselves when no one knows their true identity. And Spielberg and his team take complete advantage of this. While the real world is a fairly restrained look at a somewhat dystopic future, the Oasis has no such restraints. As long as you have the money, you can get whatever costumes, vehicles, weapons and accessories you could possibly think of.
Ready Player One (129 minutes without the end credits) was tricky to adapt. Though the book is an adventure overflowing with pop culture references, too often the story comes to a halt so it can explain, describe and dive even deeper into those references. There are also several scenes where readers look on while the protagonist plays a videogame or watches a movie. Reading a book, we are inside the character’s head as he explains what he is doing and how he feels. But in a movie, watching someone play a game can be very boring (unless the movie takes viewers inside the game, like this one does with Oasis).
But the screenplay by veteran screenwriter Zak Penn (who has done some work on screenplays for the X-Men and Avengers franchises) and Cline, adapting his own work, found a way to make the story more cinematic without losing what made people fall in love with the book in the first place. It changes events, but keeps the spirit of the source material. I do not know how good of a screenwriter Cline is, but he understands his own story perfectly and helped craft it into a very fun movie.
Part of the credit for that certainly goes to Steven Spielberg who has a lot of experience pacing a story like this. There is a lot of setup here, but he gets it out of the way early and plunges headlong into the action. Ready Player One feels a little overlong and all the wink-wink references (both literal and stylistically) become kind of exhausting after a while. The characters are not real strong, but the world Cline created has been brought to the screen so effectively that the film is still a ride well worth taking.
4 out of 5
Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts
Olivia Cooke as Samantha
Mark Rylance as James Halliday
Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento
Lena Waithe as Helen
Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow
T.J. Miller as I-R0k
Win Morisaki as Daito
Philip Zhao as Sho
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline