There are those who think that living in the past and allowing nostalgia to be a chief driving force in your life is a bad thing, and it certainly can be if it keeps you from making any real connections to the world you’re living in now. And I’m not just talking about people who are stuck in the 1980s in terms of their musical, film or other cultural tastes; there’s an entire subset of people who peaked in high school, and it’s kept them from growing, evolving and becoming better-informed human beings.
Certainly, Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One doesn’t exist without a healthy admiration for one’s childhood benchmarks—video games, movies, television shows, even clothing—but what the author did was use these fond remembrances as the tools and building blocks of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type story that ultimately leads its heroes to the conclusion that maybe living a life constantly disconnected from the present isn’t always such a great thing.
Most film enthusiasts go through life with random movie references, trivia, memories, etc., running through our heads in a ramshackle way, cluttering our brains, waiting for the moments when we come into contact with like-minded people who we can share these things with. Cline (who had previously written the screenplay for troubled production Fanboys) uncluttered and organized his mind enough to tell the 2045-set story of Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan in the film), an Ohio kid who spends a great deal of his time existing and generally messing around in a virtual-reality universe called the OASIS (where most of humanity spends its time, if we’re being honest), a world created by a certified genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who plays the internet trillionaire like an older version of Garth from Wayne’s World).
For every piece of mostly ’80s nostalgia thrown on the screen, there are other elements that are equally intriguing. Wade lives in a place called the Stacks, which is best described as a horizontal trailer park, with people living on top of people, trash piling up everywhere but still with a loose sense of community. In this version of the future, the divide between the 1 percent and everyone else seems all the more pronounced. So rather than take drugs, people escape their lives in the virtual world—there are even different ways to experience it. Some people just have goggles and gloves, while other have full-body suits that allow you to feel all manner of pleasure and pain. And while it is possible to win money in the OASIS, if you die online, you lose everything.
It seems almost too perfect that Steven Spielberg is the man at the helm of Ready Player One, since his influence and more than a few direct references to films he directed and/or produced factor into the novel. Working from a screenplay from Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg embraces both the cultural reference points and the full-out blockbuster nature of the story being told. And while a great deal of the movie is done using motion-capture performances in a digitally created world, there is something undeniably youthfully Spielbergian about the whole affair. For those who weren’t fans of the book, there are a great number of changes and improvements to the story in the movie version of this quest that shouldn’t be spoiled but make a significant difference in the flow of things.
When Halliday died, he set into motion a contest in which users of the OASIS must use clues he left behind to find three keys to unlock the ultimate Easter egg and gain sole control of the OASIS. Using the alias Parzival, Wade enlists the help of his online friend Aech (Lena Waithe), as well as three other players— Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Shoto (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki)—to form a team called the High Five to solve the clues and find the keys. Their biggest competitor is the corporate weasel Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to flood the OASIS with ads and other money-making nonsense and has hired an army of gamers to try and solve Halliday’s clues. The film is somewhat hobbled by Mendelsohn’s excessive scenery chewing, when something a bit more subtle might have made him far more menacing.
Wade discovers that there’s something of a rebellion happening against Sorrento; his feelings for and trust in Art3mis are strong enough that he ends up being a key component in the fight, which leads to him solving the first clue and obtaining key number one. Spielberg and team do a terrific job separating the visual language of the OASIS and the real world, which is flat and gray, especially compared to the endless possibilities of the virtual world. Among the many things that one can do in the OASIS is assume any form, drive any vehicle and even enter into settings that closely resemble your favorite movies or video games (since Halliday was such a fan of all things 1980s, he designed many of these realms to resemble touchstones of that era). All of this allows for an impossible game of Spot the Reference.
The real question is, is the world at large as primed and eager to play said game as someone who has been preparing to play since they were in their early teens? Ready Player One is frequently a chaotic—sometimes to the point of overwhelming—experience that rarely lets up. For non-gamers, the pacing and structure of the film might be all the more baffling. But if you cut through the layers of this nostalgia orgy, there’s still enough of a pure adventure movie at its core for everyone to enjoy, even if you might feel a bit lost during some of the larger-scale action set pieces.
I’ve opted not to rattle off a succession of movie references, needle-drop song uses, TV shows, or video game characters that play a part in the movie, only because if you catch and understand those moments, it only adds to the experience of enjoying Ready Player One. Some are quite obvious; others are more subtle and special. Spielberg isn’t afraid to pummel you with his visuals and his own version of Easter eggs, because if there’s one thing he knows best, it’s that repeat viewings to catch things you missed the first time help the box office.
Although they are few and far between, the quieter moments are some of the strongest—whether it’s a strange flashback subplot involving Halliday’s early years with former creative partner Ogden Morrow (a nice turn by Simon Pegg) or just watching Wade and Art3mis gradually falling for each other over the course of the movie. Ready Player One isn’t a condemnation of those of us who spend a great number of hours per day staring at a screen rather than being out in the real world; instead, it suggests something of a more balanced lifestyle, which to some trolls might even seem too pushy. The film is overkill, it’s in your face, and it’s sensory overload; but it’s also a great deal of fun.
Although the film is opening all over Chicago beginning Wednesday night, I can’t imagine a better experience locally than seeing Ready Player One in 70mm at the Music Box Theatre, where screenings begin Thursday night.