Director: Steven Spielberg
Spielberg had me at “vertical trailer park,” which is where we meet our hero Wade Watts. At least he’s Wade in the real world, or IRL as it’s known in the virtual world. I think. In the virtual world of Ready Player One he is Parzival. The year is 2045 and we’re in Columbus, Ohio and it’s been a while since a film maker has offered up a future that feels this plausible in the broad strokes. You might think modular homes stacked vertically in black, iron girder framework would be ugly, and you’re right, but there’s an odd warmth to seeing these classic mobile homes offering familiarity even arranged as a community. This feeling which is enhanced as we get voyeuristic views in a variety of windows as we closely follow Wade five or so stories of staircase to the ground. We get a look at people doing strange things in their kitchens and living rooms, decked out in goggles and gloves and clearly, everyone is plugged into a virtual world in some way. It’s jarring to see a woman wearing VR goggles and gloves blindly following a recipe in VR helmet and gloves or to see a man in an armchair waving his gloved arms crazily in the air.
As it turns out, in the year 2045 life in the real world is so stark that everyone now lives the vast bulk of their lives online. Being a gamer myself, this is not news and I’d argue we’re mostly there in a lot of ways, but I’ll roll with the idea. The difference in Spielberg’s future is a visionary genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) come along in the 2020’s and change everything by integrating everything virtual into one global virtual platform called Oasis, where everyone has an avatar and every need is met.
You earn coins in the virtual world that can be used to purchase goods in both real and virtual worlds, but if you die in the virtual world, you lose everything you’ve gained to that point. There’s no blood spilled in this movie, but rather when someone dies in the virtual world they explode into coins. Pegg plays it straight and it’s strange to see him speaking with a North American accent and he does a good if not outstanding job as the “Steve Jobs” in this metaphorical alternate Apple reality. The one where the genius tech nerd has all the power and eventually ousts the business minded partner, something he eventually regrets. It’s as though Wozniak prevails over Jobs in the Steve battle for dominance at Apple, which makes sense given Spielberg considers himself a nerd. This is the subtle pop culture reference.
This being said, this movie conceivably may have every possible character from every 80’s and 90’s game platforms somewhere in the film as well as film and music references. Buckaroo Banzai anyone? No? Parzival’s ride in the virtual world is the Delorean from Back to the Future. The references I caught were fun for me but I’m in this weird target group of indolent video gaming old guys who have watched a lot of movies over the decades. In the end there’s so much demanding your attention on the screen that it doesn’t matter if you get the cultural references or not. With subliminal onslaughts like this, we’ll never be rid of the 80’s. However, even a viewer who has never heard of “The Shining” will appreciate the emotional ride the homage scene provides with imagery from that film, despite the humorous tone. So why do pop culture references end mid-90’s?
The device to justify this deep dive into 20th century pop culture is the cult like worship of Halliday’s character who had died years earlier. Before Halliday dies, he plants three keys with exceptionally difficult clues in the game. These clues lead to an Easter egg of incredible value, ownership of the Oasis itself. The clues are so difficult that the first key has yet to been won and a daily race is held and those who seek the prize enter. The winner will gain the first key. More on the race in a moment.
Parzival has four friends in his virtual social circle who band together in an attempt to win the clues. They’ve never met in the real world so their virtual character are the reality for each other and they like it that way. In the real, real world that exists outside the realm of Ready Player One these virtual friends would be from hither and yon. Scattered across North America with at least one on another continent entirely. In this world, it just so happens they all live in Columbus.
That being said, it worked for me. When the reveal of the real people behind the avatar comes, I felt a sincere warmth at meeting these people we’d been accompanying in The Oasis in their non-animated form. The quirkiness of the characters made for some fun moments. The villain in all of this is the stock evil corporation, in this iteration called Innovative Online Industries (I.O.I.) headed up by CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendolhson) who has the resources to commit to finding the Easter egg and taking over the Oasis. For economic reasons, you understand.
This is, as Spielberg has said, a “movie” and not a “film” so it’s supposed to be a light ride. The performances are all solid despite the fact the characters as written have no depth. The eccentric, hippy dippy nerdiness of Rylance’s Halliday felt a little forced at times, but outside the nerd moments he hits the proper tone and brings the underlying quality of assured calm he brought as Rudolf Abel to Bridge of Spies. Ben Mendelsohn is certainly believable as the villain Sorrento and has the best line of the movie, but it almost plays as though his Krennic from Rogue One had a change of heart and went into business school rather than the military. The performances of the cast for the most part while perhaps not outstanding, certainly did not fall flat and kept me emotionally invested and Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller brought a nice slice of humor to the flick.
This may sound peculiar, but I found the real life scenes more compelling than those which played out in the virtual world. Once th characters donned VR goggles it became an insane ride. Fun, but insane. There’s a problem when my organs can’t keep up with the action on the screen. There’s only so much overstimulation one can take.
Watching an animated action movie today feels like sending your senses to college, just for the hazing, with all the events of rush week compressed into two hours. You’re having fun at the time, or so you tell yourself. At one point in the movie the corporate villain, Sorrento makes an enthusiastic pitch with this line:
“Research has shown that we can fill 80% of the screen with advertisements prior to inducing seizures.”
I think they came close to discovering the limits of human neurological tolerance with this flick. Which brings me to the race I mentioned earlier. It was a beautiful, fun, spectacular, seizure inducing ride to the best of my memory. I’m not sure what I can recall but I’ll try. I have flashes of a race involving hundreds of CGI vehicles, video game characters, a humungous T-rex, King Kong, speed racer, Dwight David Eisenhower riding a light cycle from Tron… I might be mistaken about the Eisenhower part but that bike was there… somewhere. I don’t know, it’s like trying to decipher a strobe light. The sequences are beautiful and compelling. There’s a set piece battle at the end of the film which includes The Iron Giant and Mecha-Godzilla which proved to be fascinating and worth the price of admission alone.
I’d highly recommend seeing this movie in 3D if you want to have a glimpse of the future. I don’t think it will be the world of this movie, but it might be close.
IMDB Parent’s Guide lists 4 F-bombs but I only heard one. There’s a lot going on.