Ready Player One is a film directed by industry legend, Steven Spielberg, based on the best selling sci-fi novel, of the same name, written by Zack Penn. The bulk of the film is set in a virtual world within the real world’s dystopian future. And while the virtual reality premise of the film offers plethora of opportunities for cameos, the film is much more than its surface nostalgia and series of pop culture references. Overall, this an action film, but with Spielberg’s renowned sense for dramatic timing, some emotional relatability with the protagonist and the visual liberties a sci-fi flick permits, Ready Player One gives us the experience of numerous beautifully coordinated battles and epic chase scenes in the bleak and bland real world, as well as in the vibrant and extraordinary virtual world that remind us why we love those popular references in the first place.
Taking place in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, the story follows our narrator, Wade Watts (portrayed by Tye Sheridan), a wide-eyed youth who prefers to spend his days in the OASIS, a virtual reality universe created by the recently deceased genius, James Halliday (portrayed by Mark Rylance), who left behind a challenge to all OASIS users – find three keys that lead to an in-game Easter egg and official ownership of the OASIS. We follow Wade’s benevolent hunt for the keys. And because it appears that in this time, everyone, young and old and rich and poor alike, is an OASIS player and thoroughly obsessed with this virtual realm, the hunt for the keys is also the prime focus of our antagonist, IOI, a competing tech corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (remarkably portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn) with the sole intent of transforming the OASIS from an inclusive, virtual escape into a cash cow riddled with pop-up ads, hidden fees and all the worst things Internet marketing has to offer.
Where Ready Player One excels is extrapolating the story of this Easter egg hunt from the page and showcasing it to us with dazzling action sequences, as few directors helm a chase scene quite like Spielberg. And fewer still have mastered scene blocking like him, either. He shifts massive hordes of characters, vehicles and weaponry in and out of frame, seemingly melding multiple shots into one. The first race sequence early on in the film is executed with Spielberg’s classic style – breathless and lightning fast, utilizing sound effects without even a hint of music. The technical mastery displayed lingers long after the film ends.
It’s unfortunate though that the characters don’t have the same staying power as the awe-inspiring visuals. Critics will note Wade’s turbulent home life is explored in only a few brief scenes. He lives with his aunt and abusive boyfriend, and in a handful of moments it’s made clear that he lives in an unsettled, dysfunctional household. But the characterization beyond these moments is weak at best and nonexistent at worst, making it initially difficult to connect with the story on an emotional level. That is, until Wade meets an intriguing girl going by the pseudonym Art3mis (portrayed by Olivia Cooke) in the OASIS for whom he develops deep, personal feelings for her within moments, which is a bit unnerving.
In defense of this though, Ready Player One is also an exploration of reclusive youth culture. Today the Internet has given people the freedom to express some of their deepest emotions under the guise of a pseudonym or avatar. Wade’s avatar is Parzival and he only feels most comfortable when inhabiting that digital body. His friends within the OASIS, who join him and support his quest for the Easter egg, also use their avatars to reach out and be more outgoing versions of themselves. In a more traditional world, a budding relationship like the one between Parzival, Wade’s outgoing and self-determined self, and Art3mis would be considered rushed. But in Ready Player One, it reads more as a cry for help from Wade, rotting in his own personal hell in the real world, wanting to escape into infatuation in the OASIS. And in this way, Sheridan and Cooke deliver excellent performances that allow us to relate to exactly that sentiment, which likely drove many of us to the noted games, iconic characters and shows cameoed in the film in the first place.
As far as Wade and our corporate villains go, success in the hunt for the Easter egg is a simple goal that could have been easily elaborated on with more intriguing narration, giving more detail about the resistance fighting for freedom within the OASIS than the narration we’re given, which largely showcased Wade’s contempt for the bleak real world of 2045 without really explaining how or why the world had become the way it did. This lapse in the story leaves the audience with many questions, but not the kind of questions that linger because they are mysterious. Without reading the novel, we really don’t know or understand the bland world that we find Wade in or why everyone has become obsessed with the OASIS. While the novel’s writer co-wrote the film’s screenplay, and despite two hours and twenty minutes of film, Spielberg evidently left much of the novel on the chopping block for his adaptation.
Thankfully, the colorful and expansive world in Ready Player One is littered with memorable characters from movies and video games such as the Star Wars clones and ships, Freddy Krueger and Chucky avatars, and swarms of Halo soldiers. For the fans, nothing quite beats watching a showdown that teams up a Gundam with the Iron Giant pitted against Mechagodzilla. While some critics may view these scenes as cheesy or mere distraction from the subpar character development, the warm, fuzzy feeling that only nostalgia can deliver is frequent and satisfying enough to dismiss the negative points.
All in all, Ready Player One may be more a visually satisfying epic with its iconic characters, vivid graphics and masterfully orchestrated action than it is a heart-warming, soul-touching story of an underdog that somehow prospers. And that’s perfectly fine. Ready Player One reminds us of our culture’s relationship with the Internet. We do not live our lives with one foot in the real world and one foot online to further develop our humanity; we do it to escape and experience awe-inspiring, novel and even familiar things that the physical world just can’t quite deliver.