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Ready Player One (2018)
~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)
It is the year 2045. Income inequality is rampant. Impoverished masses live in the shadows of vast corporate empires, their dreary lives made bearable only by the escape provided by an expansive online network known as the OASIS. The, uh, sci-fi elements to this scenario are that apparently the bandwidth puzzle has been solved, so everyone can access this OASIS with a minimum of fuss. The OASIS itself is a fully immersive wonderland offering photorealistic display, full sensory feedback and zero latency. Also, it appears to be a free fire zone as far as intellectual property is concerned as users are free to outfit themselves with, and even appear as, anything they can imagine, including various icons of pop culture. Though it’s possible that they’re all just now the property of Gregarious Games, the company that runs the OASIS. Gregarious was founded by James Halliday who (much like the obvious target audience of the movie) grew up in the 80s and, at least in some sense, built the OASIS as a means of reliving and sharing all the hobbies and interests of his childhood. When Halliday dies in 2040, a message is sent to every denizen of the OASIS stating that coded into the fabric of the simulation is a contest: find three keys to open three doors and claim “The Egg”, with the winner inheriting Halliday’s substantial estate including full control over the OASIS.
Five years on and the best anyone has managed is to find the contest to win the first key, a road race/obstacle course through the streets of a virtual New York City, though nobody has yet been able to win it. One of the contestants is Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan. In the real world, Wade is a poor nerd living in a vertical trailer park known as The Stacks in Columbus, Ohio with his Aunt and her abusive boyfriend. But online, Wade is known as Parzival, a “gunter”, or egg hunter. Some gunters run in Clans, others like Parzival and his pal/co-conspirator Aech (Lena Waithe) elect to try to win solo, but regardless of their personal affiliation, the common enemy of gunters is the “sixers”, employees of Innovative Online Industries. IOI is the second largest company in the word and the sixers (so named for their six digit identification numbers, their only distinguishing feature) are their ground level forces in their coordinated effort to win the contest and become the first. Outside of the contest proper, there are no shortage of skirmishes between and among gunters and sixers. The OASIS isn’t The Matrix, dying doesn’t carry over into the real world, but money does, and you lose all of it along with your digital property and experience if you die in the OASIS, so it’s still nothing to scoff at.
When Parzival finds a clue that allows him to finally win the first key, the resulting reward brings instant fame (and no small measure of wealth) but not all the attention is positive. On one hand, he meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a (literal, thanks to the wonders of digital presentation) manic pixie dream girl for whom he falls hard and fast, as well as Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) two other affable and adept gunters who prove to be valuable allies. On the other, he encounters Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI’s egg hunting division, who offers Watts a cushy job at the cost of Watts’s principles (as is wont for cinematic corporate suits) and isn’t above playing dirty both online and in the real world when Wade predictably refuses.
Ready Player One is directed by Steven Spielberg who certainly knows a thing or two about making high concept science fiction digestible for a broad audience (see Jurassic Park and A.I. and, to a lesser extent, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) but this simplification does come at a cost. Sheridan’s Wade Watts character is developed reasonably well and some of his foibles are surprisingly relatable to people who have spent any significant time online, but he’s on such a perfectly even keel that sometimes it strains believability. He’s kind of the ultimate cypher, above average at everything – wits, brains, online combat – while still being palatably self-effacing. Aech and Art3mis fare less well. Parzival considers Aech his best friend even though they’ve never met in real life, and Art3mis becomes the object of his affection more or less on sight. Both are keeping secrets of their own, but when the gang finally gets together in meatspace they’re barely given the dignity of a handwave as the story steamrolls forward. Sho and Daito are lucky to have a single defining feature (Sho is young, Daito is Japanese) but otherwise they’re fairly interchangeable, doing whatever the plot requires of them.
Among the cast, the two standout performances come from Ben Mendelsohn as Sorrento and Mark Rylance as Halliday. Mendelsohn’s Sorrento is, in many ways, your typical amoral corporate throat cutter who goes through the typical evil businessman character beats (I’d like to think this is maybe a sort of meta-reference to the stock characters of 80s movies, but somehow, I doubt it). But even saddled with a boring and overplayed archetype Mendelsohn still manages to infuse Sorrento with just the right amount of contempt at having his future tied to a stupid game based on the mind of a stunted manchild balanced with an almost perverse joy at how his vast company resources make him nearly unbeatable at it. He doesn’t get personally involved often, preferring to leave that to his sixer subordinates and to I-R0k, an insufferably snide freelance gunter he hires as an online hitman, but when does, he can’t help but crack a smile as he gives the young punks what for.
Rylance is nearly the polar opposite of Halliday. Though he is dead before the main story commences, he still maintains a significant presence, both in the form of Anorak, his godlike online avatar who administrates the contest, but also as a digital version of himself who haunts the OASIS in archival footage and other reconstructions of his life. His Halliday is a man who never quite got the hang of human interaction; who found it so difficult to relate to other people that he built an entire virtual world in the hopes that it could do it for him. Thus, does the OASIS stand simultaneously as his greatest achievement and also as a monument to his greatest failures and regrets. His halting way of speaking, and especially the almost apologetic way he says “Thank you for playing my game” perfectly captures, at least to some degree, the feeling of anyone who has ever flung a creation into the aether hoping that it might find a receptive audience (incidentally, thank you for reading my review).
Considering the big studio muscle that’s behind the film, at least half of which is set inside a boundless virtual world, it’s no surprise that Ready Player One is a showcase for some cutting-edge visuals. Somewhat predictably, given his everyman status, Parzival’s avatar is rather modest, almost looking like he wandered out of an episode of Reboot, but many of the other characters incorporate flourishes that range from slightly exaggerated to truly absurd. But the effects also feature plenty of photorealism alongside the fanciful, which is important given the sheer amount of licensed content present. This was, frankly, one of the main draws of the movie for me. A significant percentage of the original story was dedicated to descriptions and recollections of a wide breadth of 80s cultural iconography and I was curious as to how much would actually appear in the film. The answer is: quite a bit. More than I honestly expected, in fact. I suspect that one of the reasons that Spielberg got the job was that his is a name that opens doors, which might’ve prompted otherwise reticent content holders to loosen their grips on some of the more desirable IPs, though it’s also possible I’m underestimating the power of the almighty dollar. However it was ultimately achieved, nearly every frame of Ready Player One is saturated with recognizable background details (to say nothing of the stuff put front and center) to the extent that it would take dozens of watches to fully absorb them all. It doesn’t quite reach the level of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is my gold standard for license aggregation, but it’s unlikely anything ever will, and there are a few properties that are conspicuous by their complete absence, notably Star Wars. Still, the volume of visual references present was such that I was pleasantly surprised more than once.
The music choices complement the visuals well, being something of a greatest hits package of 80s genres and bands, as would be expected. The music itself doesn’t have as much an impact of on the story as it could have, which was a bit of a letdown, but there are plenty of times where the soundtrack gets some time to breathe and the choices are consistently appropriate if maybe a little on the safe side.
Now, I don’t want to be that guy, but I do feel like I should briefly mention some of the differences from the book since I made it a point to read it before seeing the movie. The thing is, I was honestly hoping that the movie would improve on some of the shortcomings of the original story. This may be a sacrilegious opinion to some, but as literature, I honestly felt that the book was pretty weak. Stripped of the non-stop cavalcade of nostalgic references (described in painstaking detail and clearly aimed directly at my demographic) the actual story told is pretty barebones. In particular, the scenes that take place outside of the OASIS are very basic, with fairly complex plans and actions getting almost perfunctory description. The movie’s biggest improvements over the book is that it gives the OASIS and the real world almost equal attention so we not only get to see and connect with the digital avatars, but also the real people behind them and how something that happens in one world has consequences that carry over into the other. In the book, Wade basically triumphs by being the best nerd he can be, which may be satisfying to a certain subset of the audience, but probably wouldn’t be particularly thrilling to watch. In the movie, he’s much more dynamic and the fact that he does significant things in the real world goes a long way towards connecting to the average filmgoer.
On the flip side, the movie does streamline a lot and while the book seemed to make it its mission to showcase every facet of nerd culture including music and tabletop gaming, the movie mainly focuses on movies and videogames. This is understandable, given the nature of the medium, but it was disappointing that the many references to Dungeons and Dragons and the band Rush were consigned to a few background elements and nothing more. In general, I grudgingly accepted most of the omissions since there is a lot of ground to cover and, even so condensed, the movie is still over two hours. The straight up changes are more of a mixed bag, probably falling on the side of a net improvement, though it’s worth noting that there’s only so much that could be done to overcome some of the weaknesses inherent in the source material.
Overall, Ready Player One is an absolute thrill ride that I’d compare favorably to 2009’s Avatar. The human elements are competently executed if a bit rote and forgettable, but it’s impossible to not be enraptured by the splendor and omnidirectional stimulation of the OASIS. There’s far more style than substance here, but there is enough substance that you’ll never find yourself going numb from brute sensory overload. My greatest hope is that the movie succeeds well enough that it keeps the door open for more of these kinds of cross-media collaborations which, between this and movies like Wreck It Ralph and the Marvel cinematic universe are already more of a reality than I’d ever have dared to dream ten years ago. But on its own, Ready Player One is still a delight in that classic 80s style where you pretty much know how everything is going to turn out, but you enjoy watching anyway cause it’s just so much fun.
Final Score B+
Your mileage may vary depending on your age and how favorably you regard the 1980s, but Ready Player One is, first and foremost a movie about spectacle; about the joy of being taken to wild new worlds and having crazy adventures there. Don’t think too hard about the greater personal or existential implications of some of the plot setups, heaven knows the writers didn’t, but strap in for the ride and just try to keep your jaw from dropping.
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