'Ready Player One' is a Cinematic Easter Egg Hunt for Gen-Xers.
Imagine a world so spent, broken, and rundown that most people choose to spend their time playing games instead of trying to deal with real life. We seem to be inching closer to that reality as most people immerse themselves on social media and smart phones, but Ernest Cline took the idea to another level with Ready Player One, his bestselling 2011 novel where he depicted a virtual reality MMORPG called the Oasis taking over the lives of almost the entire population of the world.
Set in 2045, the movie's hero is an orphaned young man named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) aka Parzival, who is on a quest to find Halliday’s Easter egg, a prize left behind by the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), upon his passing that would grant the winner his entire trillion-dollar fortune and complete control of the world’s greatest video game. Parzival lives in a veritable junkyard of trailer homes piled perilously one atop the other, which serves both to terrify and drive home the idea that the human race has run out of places to go and things to build.
The novel has been criticized as pandering to its readers with nostalgia and pop culture, and that it's white nerd wish-fulfilment fantasy. While the book was an enjoyable romp filled with '80s references and nods to geek culture, the main character’s somewhat puerile cybercrush on the female lead, Art3mis (aka Samantha), felt awkward and creepy at best, entitled and stalker-ish at worst.
The film alleviates those problems somewhat by setting a little more of the action outside the Oasis. Wade and Samantha (played by Olivia Cooke) are allowed to bond more in the real world and share a traumatic experience being hunted down by the evil conglomerate Innovative Online Industries or IOI, which seeks to find Halliday’s Easter egg and take control of the Oasis for their own corporate ends. Led by their unscrupulous CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), IOI employs an army of nameless, numbered avatars called the Sixers to compete against other “egg hunters” or “Gunters” like Parzival, Art3mis, and the other three members of the High Five, Aech, Daito, and Shoto, who were the first five players to find the three keys that lead to the egg.
It’s a lot to take in, especially if one has neither read the book nor is immersed in gamer culture. Thankfully, the geek references in the script are kept to a minimum and while some phrases (like "clan up," for example) can confuse the average viewer, there’s enough spectacle to keep everyone engaged.
Cline references a lot of Steven Spielberg films in the book, and getting Spielberg to direct was some form of art imitating life imitating art. With the exception of the use of the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, Spielberg reportedly consciously refrained from referencing his own work in the film adaptation, instead choosing to highlight the work of other directors from the era so shamelessly celebrated and referenced by Cline (who, incidentally, co-writes the film with Zak Penn).
That’s the good and bad thing about Ready Player One. It’s so loaded with pop culture references—not only from the 80’s and 90’s but also from contemporary icons (like Tracer from Overwatch or Harley Quinn from Arkham Knights)—that you can enjoy the film's riotous, frenetic action as it rushes over you, or you can treat every scene as a geek version of Where’s Waldo. In this way, Ready Player One can’t be fully appreciated with just one viewing. It’s meta: Viewers can look for Easter eggs at the same time as Parzival and his friends do. At the finale, you can watch people watching other people play a game within a game.
Arguably the greatest director of all time (or at least our time), Spielberg has recently failed to wow with his forays into animation and adventure with the snore-inducing BFG and forgettable The Adventures of Tintin, but he recaptures some of the magic here. The sequences inside the Oasis are simply spectacular, exploding with a visual splendour that’s just fun to watch. Credit goes to award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has helmed the camera and lights to all of Spielberg’s films in the past two decades.
Spielberg successfully weaves a story that’s enjoyable as pure spectacle, without needing to know all of the references thrown into the mix. Nobody crafts an adventure for children like Spielberg, and Ready Player One seems like a world tailor-made for him to play with. The adaptation fixes some of the problems of the books specifically by not pandering to nostalgia, instead the references are merely additional layers that make the film more enjoyable. Spielberg focused the game objectives more on Halliday’s life and friendship with estranged partner Ogden “Og” Morrow (Simon Pegg), a not-so-subtle homage to Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve “Woz” Wozniak, rather than obscure pop culture references. In this way, Spielberg delivers the message that Cline tried but failed to deliver in the book: that real life matters more than a virtual one, and that our friendships online are better if we’re also friends in the real world.
There were some missed opportunities to flesh out the roles of what is otherwise a rather inclusive group of heroes that includes Aech, a black lesbian woman, and Daito and Shoto, who are both Asian kids. On a personal note, however, I find delightful that Warner Bros makes up for its disservice to 1999’s Iron Giant, which has since become a cult classic, by putting it front and center (it was only mentioned briefly in the book).
Ready Player One is a love letter to all the things Cline—and his fellow Gen Xers—enjoyed as a kid, packaged in an eye-popping, roller coaster ride of a movie that is certain to be enjoyed the entire family.