Steven Spielberg has the creativity and the clout to carry off Ready Player One. Cine-literate to an eye-popping degree, it’s an action-packed, characterful movie propelled by the Wunderkind’s visual clarity.
In 2045, teenager Wade Watts – like most of the planet - lives his life as an avatar in the OASIS, a virtual reality created by the recently-deceased billionaire James Halliday. An 80s nut, Halliday recorded a video-codicil: hidden in the OASIS is an Easter egg and the first to find it not only inherits his millions but the OASIS itself. Through his teen-cool avatar Parzival and his geeky-knowledge of Halliday’s life, trailer-park kid Wade vows to crack the code. But corporate bad hat Sorrento is investing big money to get there first and will kill anyone, either virtually and in reality, to win.
Ready Player One is fun on many levels. Thrillingly shot, it’s funny, feisty and faithful to Ernest Cline’s 2011 bestseller. As a rollercoaster it’s more refreshing than the today’s surfeit of blurry effects-driven movies. Stuffed - like the book - with 80s and 90s pop culture, it invites you to namecheck the movies and the synth-rock tunes. Or you can savour it as a cautionary tale on the pervasiveness of social media.
A hyper-inventive mass car race - for the first of Halliday’s key-clues - is a crazily fun ride. Obstacles crash in from other movies: wrecking balls from Fast and Furious 8, King Kong swinging down from the Empire State Building. True to Spielberg’s visual dexterity, it’s then re-seen Tron-like from under the virtual road, deep within the game.
Other films crowd in, including a few of Spielberg's own. Parzival’s game-car is the DeLorean from Back to the Future. A rear-view T-Rex from Jurassic Park gets a thumbs-up from James Cameron’s Terminator 2. Less originally, there’s an invocation of Inception’s back-of-a-van sequence – but for sleepers submerged in a dreamworld, we now have Wade’s warriors hooked-up to the OASIS, racketing about through the streets of a dystopian future – or Birmingham, as it turns out.
The biggest coup, though, is Spielberg’s re-use of entire scenes from a Stanley Kubrick classic. Inserting his gamer-characters into it, it’s an eerie, audacious and funny sequence. Spielberg’s friendship with the Kubrick family, and having visited the same Kubrick set in 1980, certainly pays off here. Ready Player One is never predictable, in narrative or vision.
Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse, Mud) is suitably underpowered as Wade, the orphan with limited life experience. But the film comes alive with stand-out turns from two Brits. Olivia Cooke is Art3mis, Wade’s supercool, no-nonsense rival in the hunt. And in an endearingly fun turn as Halliday, Spielberg’s post-Hanks alter ego Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, The BFG) oozes 1980s whizz-kid geek. Is it intentional, though, that his amusingly-named avatar, Anorak, looks like Gandalf’s twin?
In lesser hands, only one dimension of the movie might work. But Spielberg makes it fire on all cylinders. Love the book? Have no fear. Never played a video-game? Doesn’t matter. Prefer characters to effects? No worries. Want an edginess to your film-making? Ah… Spielberg’s movies always sing in the storytelling and his cine-skills are peerless. But Sugarland Express apart his films are almost always reassuring. And Ready Player One’s no different. For example, Art3mis doesn’t want Wade to meet her in real-life because she thinks herself ugly. But it’s only movie-ugly; in that respect it’s a boy-meets-girl film that doesn’t buck the trend.
It celebrates our love of big-screen movies – while warning us not to be glued to our phone-screens. Unlike most special effects movies, it’s about escaping from escapism while having a blast in the process. 'Reality is real' - an obvious but timely point. And Ready Player One makes it perfectly.