AUSTIN, Texas — I am not all that familiar with Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. Fans have apparently taken issue with the character of Art3mis, a sort of Manic Pixel Dream Girl who, like Princess Peach and countless other video game females before her, is rendered as a prize to be won; portions of its prose, including musings on masturbation, are laughably juvenile; and the book posits pop-culture capital as the ultimate currency. Here, Kevin Smith is Brad Pitt.
Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre, on the other hand, is something I am familiar with, and I far prefer his fantastical early creations to the drab, dour history lessons of late. Spielberg once remarked, “When I was younger, all I cared about was what people thought of me and my films. Now I care less about catering, hand-serving, hand-feeding the audience. I’ve gotten to the point now in my life where I’m serving myself.” (So, catering to a 71-year-old man.)
There’s fan service, which Spielberg is great at, and then there’s Eric Bana having The Worst Orgasm Ever™ in Munich. And I’m happy to report that the film adaptation of Ready Player One falls squarely in the former category. It is without question the most entertaining film—or rather, “MOVIE,” as he introduced it—Spielberg has made since Catch Me If You Can.
And what better place to premiere this “MOVIE” than in Austin, the home of its writer and its star, and at SXSW, a most peculiar marriage of storytelling and technology?
The year is 2045, and the city of Columbus, Ohio, like most of America, is in a state of dystopian ruin. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives among the “stacks,” a futuristic slum of stacked-up trailers. By night, he is neglected by his caretaker-aunt and slapped around by her idiot boyfriend, but by day, he retreats into the VR world of OASIS, a place where he is respected. He is one of many gamers attempting to complete “Anorak’s Quest”—a puzzle-game created by the late architect of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who’s hidden three keys that, when acquired, will unlock the gateway to its Easter Egg. The winner gets Halliday’s $500 billion and control of OASIS. Wade is uniquely equipped to play, having researched Halliday’s life more thoroughly than anyone else on the planet.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Spielberg sci-fi flick without some rogue government/corporate entity threatening to ruin all the fun, and here it’s Innovative Online Industries (IOI), an evil multinational ISP run by proud philistine Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wishes to tame OASIS and milk it for every last drop.
Though the scene-setting leaves much to be desired—the pitiable state of the world, and thus the stakes, are mostly implied—we’re soon parachuted into VR-land, where Wade, who goes by the white-and-blue avatar Parzival (named after the Arthurian hero in search of the Holy Grail), is competing in a car race for one of the coveted keys. In Back to the Future’s DeLorean, he puts pedal to the metal, weaving through an urban cityscape to Joan Jett whilst avoiding his high-powered competition, as well as King Kong, the T. Rex from Jurassic Park, and a host of other booby traps. It’s a thrillingly high-octane sequence that puts to rest any reservations you have about this Final Fantasy-esque avatar world.
It’s during this race that Parzival crosses paths with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a celebrated player and the only one who’s gotten as close as he has to completing a competition and earning a key. The two, along with three other players—including the hysterical Aech, played by Master of None’s Lena Waithe—form the High Five, a group of resistance-gamers out to win the keys and conquer OASIS before Sorrento and his army of paid players can.
With the minor exception of a clumsy nightclub dance-off, the VR set pieces are massively entertaining, including one set inside an iconic ’80s horror film that had the theater cackling with glee. And the film as a whole never feels suffocated by its rapid-fire film, TV, music, and gaming references—courtesy of co-writers Cline and Zak Penn—most of which land. The real-world scenes are not as effective, owing in part to Sheridan more closely resembling a hunky jock than a geeky gamer, but don’t bog things down too much.
Any book issues with Art3mis, too, have been dealt with. She is Parzival’s equal in every way, and a key plot point has been altered to even the ass-kicking playing field. Spielberg also appears to have attempted to address the lingering presence of T.J. Miller, who voices the gamer-troll (and Sorrento henchman) i-R0K. His is the only major VR character that we don’t meet IRL, which may have something to do with the disturbing sexual-assault allegations against him.
Speaking to USA Today, Spielberg said that he was attracted to the ’80s-loving world of Ready Player One because the decade “had a refreshing lack of cynicism, and in our story, that’s what people are trying to return to… in their real lives, they’re living in a debris field of the first half of the 21st century.”
He’s right: These days, many are indeed seeking an escape. And it’s great to have Spielberg as our guide once more.