FILM REVIEW: Ready Player One

In 2045,  the world is on the brink of chaos and collapse. But the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger.

There’s a sequence halfway through Ready Player One that is both mindbogglingly dazzling and a reminder that Steven Spielberg, despite making much more serious movies of late, can easily take back his crown as the king of blockbusters. To discuss it in full detail would be to rob you of the joy of experiencing it for yourself, and joy is a key word; Ready Player One has joy written all over it.

Based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is both a love letter to pop culture and a warning of how easily we can lose ourselves in it. One of the great aspects of Cline’s novel was how it paid homage to the movies, video games and pop culture of the 1980s in a story filled with rollicking adventures and characters you genuinely care about. The worry for many of the book’s fans, including myself, was that the characters in the movie adaptation would get lost amongst all of the pop culture references, from the subtle nods to the in your face appearances of myriad film and video game avatars that litter the screen as if a bomb went off at a convention.  My personal fear was that this could become another Pixels and wither away in mediocrity.

Thankfully the script fell into the hands of Steven Spielberg who handled the proceedings well, knowing when to pull away from the visual eye candy and return the focus to the characters.

Quite simply, the film is a visual delight.

The sequences set in the virtual realm of the OASIS, such as the opening car chase with many famous movie and TV vehicles, are among some of the most exciting Spielberg has ever committed to film.

A lesser director may have chosen to keep most of the action confined to the OASIS but Spielberg wisely chooses to intersperse the limitless possibilities and glittering scenes of the virtual world with those firmly grounded in the reality of the densely populated streets of Columbus Ohio circa 2045, reminding us that the OASIS, despite the seductive allure of the escape it provides, is not in fact real. Spielberg’s careful handling of the juxtaposition of the freedom provided by the OASIS and the restricted reality the characters live in imbues the film with a unique kind of cinematic language, one that speaks equally well to die hard fans of the book and those brand new to Cline’s world.

In a somewhat timely fashion amid social media controversy, the film thoroughly explores how our relationship with technology changes our perception of how we interact with other humans in the real world.  The film’s heroes are on the fringes of society in reality but Gods in the OASIS, a representation of how we too live our modern lives with a divided self between our online and IRL personas.

So for fans of the book, how does the film hold up as a faithful adaptation? The screenplay was co-written by Ernest Cline and Zak Penn, so there is a certain comfort in knowing the author of the novel had a hand in the changes, and there are quite a lot of them.  Fans will straight away spot that the three challenges for the keys are almost completely different to those in the book, but they make sense for the film. I would even go so far as to argue that some of these narrative changes may actually even be improvements over the novel. But this certainly does not render the book invalid and part of the joy of the film is rediscovering the story again through a different medium.

Despite its many strengths, Ready Player One is far from perfect. There is an awful lot of exposition at the beginning of the film, ironically a similar criticism leveled at the novel, but once it settles down the film gets on with what is a compelling and fast paced story. It was also disappointing to see that some of the characters, so fully fleshed out in the novel, are not as thoroughly realised in the film, and one new character could only be described as two dimensional at best.

The novel was very much a love letter to the 1980s and whilst the film had some awesome 80s representation, it focuses on a much broader range of pop culture iconography including many modern video game references. Although this may be disappointing for purists, I personally had no problem with this and even thrilled to see characters which had recently graced my own PC and TV screens taking part in this adventure I had long waited to see in the cinema.

What Ready Player One excels in is pure escapism. Although the film cautions against abandoning the real world in favour of a digital one, it never makes you bad for loving the things you love and acknowledges the sheer joy we can feel when immersed within our fandoms.

We live in an increasing age of cynicism where it seems more in vogue to revel in self-hatred for liking things with a passion. Ready Player One dares you to not be ashamed of who you are; wear your nerdy heart on your sleeve, hold it aloft in the air proudly and take on the haters and sixers of this world. Are you ready?

Rating:  4/5

Reviewer: Matt Davis @MattDavoid

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