Steven Spielberg is arguably the most celebrated filmmaker of all time. He played an integral role in a small group of hugely important filmmakers who redefined the film industry in the late 1970s and ‘80s, starting a trend towards more concept lead films which emphasised special effects, grandstanding action and non-stop adventure, aimed at a younger audience without ever compromising on quality. George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, John Hughes, Jerry Bruckheimer and John Carpenter all left an indelible mark on these two decades which is still being felt today.
These filmmakers, along with some well selected tunes from that period, make up the backdrop for Spielberg’s new film, Ready Player One, and it serves as a neat summation of his career and influences.
The story is a fairly simple one. In the year 2045 our hero, Wade Watts (aka, Parzival) lives in ‘The Stacks’ in Columbus Ohio. The Stacks are a community of slums named such because they are made up of trailers stacked upon each other and held together with flimsy looking scaffolding. The world is a grim place for most people, especially those who live here.
The only refuge from the drudgery of existence in this overcrowded future comes in the form of the Oasis, a virtual reality simulated environment in which just about anything is possible. To enter, you must put on VR headgear which can be accompanied with, if you can afford them, body suits and other paraphernalia, all designed to make the experience more immersive and realistic. Outside the Oasis life is hard, inside it’s whatever you want it to be.
The Oasis was created by James Donovan Halliday, AKA Anorak, (Mark Rylance) who has died leaving the ownership and control of his creation to the person who can pass three tests – levels that must be completed before progression can be made, with Easter Eggs hidden in the game and in Halliday’s video archives. Most of the players looking for these eggs are ordinary people with big dreams (nicknamed Gunters – Egg Hunters). Alongside these Gunters is the evil corporation IOI who want to take charge of Oasis in order to make money from it. The CEO of IOI and the driving force behind his company’s attempts to control the most powerful and influential product in the world is Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn.
The film follows Parzival (which is shortened throughout to Zee), alongside his virtual friends Art3mis, Aech, Daito and Shoto, as they discover the various Easter eggs and attempt to complete each level whilst ensuring IOI never get their grubby hands on the prize. To do this our band of virtual adventurers must comb through Halliday’s past, looking for clues buried in a video archive of key moments in his life, and heavily reliant on his obsession with cultural references from the decades of his youth. This is the film’s main strength, and the key to its unique identity is that it’s stuffed to bursting with film, television and all manner of pop culture references and catching sight of as many of them as you can is the film’s main draw. Everything from Back to the Future (Zee drives a DeLorean and there is a poster of Mayor Goldie Wilson on a wall), King Kong, Jurassic Park, Batman (both old and new), The Iron Giant, Prince during his Purple Rain period, music by Bruce Springsteen (Stand On It which appeared in the film Ruthless People), and many, many more. Blink and you’ll miss most, others might pass you by without you realising (how many people will remember Jack Slater?). Some of the references are obvious, others are incredibly niche and searching them all out would be a monumental task, it really is that densely packed.
For those who grew up in the eighties then this film is a pure nostalgia overload of a kind never seen before on the big screen. There have been a plethora of films and TV shows recently which look back and celebrate this decade. On Netflix we have had the hugely popular Stranger Things, a TV show which was influenced by the writings of Stephen King and directors like John Carpenter and of course Steven Spielberg. One of the major hits of the last year was the horror film IT, based on a novel by Stephen King and transposed from the 1950s when the novel was set, and dropped down into the eighties, the decade in which the film was written.
Ready Player One may be a film whose heart lies very much in the 1980s but it also has a very much 21st Century sensibility and this is perhaps its biggest weakness. At the very start of the film we are introduced to the Oasis and the first challenge – a race through city streets, dodging wrecking balls, explosions and various massively wild obstacles, whilst being pursued by a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong. The action is wild and frantic, probably a little too frantic, and there is little thought for the laws of physics. This is fine for a computer game but the threat isn’t to life, it’s the loss of coin (whenever a car crashes the player’s entire cache of coin that has been previously collected by completing other, non-crucial, challenges and games is lost) which creates less tension than the threat of actual physical harm could have achieved.
This is addressed later in the film, however, the finale was just one massive CG-fest which undermines any tension the film has tried to build and reduces our feeling of involvement. In this respect it suffers the same problems as a film like Man of Steel which has a finale that loses sight of the characters and buries them under an avalanche of explosions, destruction and noise. Ready Player One does cope better but it is still a tad overlong, and feels especially so in this final act.
The fact that Ready Player One does engage its audience is certainly because of the glee that many viewers will experience from the thrill of finding all the Easter Eggs. These are constant throughout but do dry up towards the end when the world building is complete and the action takes over. There’s one particular scene just past the halfway point that is without doubt the film’s highlight. It’s a scene of such unreserved brilliance in both concept and execution that it had me grinning from ear to ear, not just because it references a classic film but because it does so so perfectly. I simply can’t go into detail because to spoil the surprise would be criminal and neither do I need to give any clues – you won’t guess what it is but when you see it you will know. This moment, along with countless smaller ones throughout, overcome the film’s narrative shortfalls ensuring that it maintains its entertainment value.
The cast performs admirably, especially Ben Mendelsohn as the face of the evil, all powerful and greedy corporation, and Mark Rylance as the hesitant, socially disabled Halliday. The leads, Olivia Cooke and Tye Sheridan, are fine both in physical form and as voice actors for the animated (virtual) scenes and Lena Waite stands out as the massive and ugly, mechanised ogre with a personality that doesn’t quite match it’s appearance.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline and written by Cline and Zak Penn, Ready Player One, is not going to be remembered as one of Spielberg’s finest works and may not be a classic, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment with some brilliant (if sometimes overwhelming) visual eye candy. Whether you end up liking it will very much depend on how old you are, how steeped you are in ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture, which will therefore determine how many of the references you get and the effects of which will in turn be amplified dependent upon how important they are to you. If like me, you loved this bumpy ride down nostalgia lane, then the film’s shortcomings can easily be ignored.
Be in no doubt as to what Spielberg’s latest film is. In many ways it lacks that unmistakable Spielberg magic. When stripped to the bare bones of its fairly routine and simplistic plot it’s hardly groundbreaking and will likely fail to stand up to repeat viewings (aside from the need to identify all the Easter Eggs). What Spielberg has done however, is to take a fairly middle of the road narrative as a canvas upon which to sprinkle copious amounts of a magical, nostalgia inducing, pop culture reverence of a kind and intensity never seen before in a motion picture and for THAT grandstanding scene of pure ballsy ingenuity, the one thing in the film I simply can’t and won’t spoil for you, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10
Ready Player One is released in the U.K. March 28th and the US a day later.