Ready Player One “appears to be the world’s most expensive play-through video” says CJ McCanney
Readers of a certain vintage may recall days whiled away at local smoke-filled amusement arcades where kids who had run out of money or who were crap at playing games often gathered around the players who could really play. There was a huge vicarious rush in seeing someone battle all the way through a game to reveal the ending. Most kids eventually moved on, itching to play more and play better themselves, although the existence of YouTube play-throughs that amass millions of views suggest that many kids and grown ups alike continue to enjoy the spectacle. At first, uncharitable glance, Ready Player One appears to be the world’s most expensive play-through video, with a reported budget of $175,000,000.
Based on the best-selling 2011 book of the same name by Ernest Cline, the Spielberg-helmed film follows the adventures of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, likely most familiar to viewers as Cyclops in X Men: Apocalypse) as he solves riddles, finds clues and battles for the ultimate prize in Anorak’s Quest, a game built into a massive online virtual reality world called the OASIS. In the OASIS you can play any character you want, and it absorbs the spare time of most people on the planet. By successfully completing Anorak’s Quest, a player will acquire ownership of the OASIS itself.
Wade, as avatar Parcival, and his plucky compadres’ online derring-do is contrasted with glimpses of the real world, a near future Columbus, Ohio, where a giant corporation, Innovative Online Industries (referred to as IOI throughout) mercilessly exploits people’s need to be online and Wade and many others are reduced to living in distinctly Blomkampian surroundings.
Wade and co.’s success in partially completing Anorak’s Quest brings them to the attention of a greedy and bloodthirsty IOI executive, Nolan Sorrento, who has been pumping corporate resources into completing the quest so that IOI can monetise the OASIS. Sorrento is played to the hilt by Ben Mendelsohn, who has been making bank in recent years as the the movie villain’s movie villain. Predictably, IOI uses everything it has to put paid to Wade’s success on the quest.
After a refreshingly swift set up the film jumps into the action, with a veritable smorgasbord of pop cultural references peppering every scene that takes place in the OASIS. Spielberg works his magic breathing life into this vast, diverse online world in various scenes and it’s undeniably fun to spot favourite characters from video games, cartoons, comics and movies of yesteryear. The director also lovingly and extensively pokes fun at several classic films such as The Shining. The film functions as a vast, cinematic version of the Sgt Pepper’s album cover and some scenes, particularly the disco segment, display Spielberg’s continuing ability to wow in a media saturated world. It is interesting that Spielberg so deftly satirises a culture which he had no small part in creating.
Sadly, with all this visual pizzazz, it quickly becomes apparent that the original characters are flat as a pancake. The hero is note perfect, the love interest is perfectly flawed, the hero’s pals are all perfectly loyal, their stale realisation on screen ironically bolsters one of the film’s central underpinnings, that what happens online is important. The bog standard, real world caper arc chugs along in a perfunctory way as the real action happens online.
The more emotionally compelling scenes in Ready Player One concern the recorded fragments of the OASIS’ creator James Halliday’s life, which Wade forensically examines for clues. The lonely heart of Halliday (Mark Rylance) forms the film’s emotional core and it is where the film truly touches on the actual real world implications of creating such an immersive dreamland that it shows its strengths.
The public appears to have a bottomless appetite for experiencing retreads of well worn franchises – especially those anchored in the 1980s – and Ready Player One seems like a logical end point, simultaneously the nadir and apotheosis of this phenomenon. A plethora of recent films and shows such as Wreck It Ralph, Super 8, It and Stranger Things have tapped into this spirit, with mixed results.
It seems clear though, that shows such as Steven Universe, which clearly draws on myriad classic influences while not beholden to any single one, point the way forward better than box ticking nostalgia fests such as Robot Chicken. Sadly, Ready Player One feels like an example of the latter.
It is hard to tell which audience Ready Player One is primarily aimed at, being suffused with movie and music references from the 1970s and 1980s, yet being presented in a frenetic style perhaps more appealing to a younger audience. Furthermore, with the extensive use of previously unimaginable visual technologies, it is a shame that Spielberg et al elected to create a world so blandly reliant upon old characters instead of realising a truly new one.
To paraphrase that old hack Orwell, If you want a picture of the future, imagine a reboot stamping on a human face — forever.
Ready Player One opens in Irish cinemas on Thursday 29th March.