In the year 2045, the population are obsessed with OASIS, a virtual reality world where players can be whoever they want and do absolutely anything that they want to do, anything their imagination will allow, but when the game’s creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) passes away, revealing that he’s hidden three keys inside OASIS that will grant the finder ownership over the expansive online world, everyone desperately tries to find them, including dedicated gamer Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) who eventually teams up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) to find the grand prize. But also after the prize is businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants control over OASIS for his own nefarious purposes.
Where else can this review start other than the pop culture references? Because Ready Player One delivers on its promise to be jam packed with references to well known films and games and then some, filling the screen with characters and “props” from the likes of Back to the Future, Star Wars, The Iron Giant, Monty Python and many others that I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers – because the joy is in watching the film and discovering it all for yourself. Personally, a great many of the references must have flown right over my head but nevertheless, the generous stream of pop culture references make Ready Player One a geek heaven, though sometimes it’s all a bit too “in your face”, overdoing it all a little bit.
The film is a solidly exciting popcorn flick and it sure is nice to see Steven Spielberg take a break from all the serious stuff like The Post and just kick back and have some fun with an adventurous film like this, even though he has said that this was the third hardest film that he’s ever made. The visuals may not be perfect given the sheer amount of material included but it’s all bright, colourful and infinitely imaginative and the various set pieces are joyous to experience – highlights include the early street race that makes up the first challenge, the final battlefield assault, and a truly incredible journey into everyone’s favourite horror film for the second challenge. Sweet.
The film is also complimented by a great score from Alan Silvestri whose music subtly channels Spielberg’s early work as well as referencing famous films like Back to the Future (seriously, there are many references to his ol’ buddy Robert Zemeckis) and in addition, the film has a fun jukebox soundtrack with songs from Van Halen (who get things going with a Back to the Future style opening set to “Jump”), Blondie, The Bee Gees (heard during an amazingly fun dance scene in Oasis) and Hall and Oates.
But all of this would be nothing without a good story to back it up and thankfully, Ready Player One is very well written as the premise is highly original and imaginative and the riddles and clues that lead to the grand prize are very clever and expertly thought up. It also helps that the film has really good characters who we genuinely care about and who obviously really care about each other, forming an absolutely formidable group of good friends; this is a journey with real emotional stakes rather than some heartless generic blockbuster with disposable characters and the heart that’s shown by the characters as they fight for their livelihoods and for each other is a wonderful thing to see indeed.
Ready Player One is a film that’s actually about something as on the surface, it’s a massive celebration of geek culture and videogames, how gaming used to be about exploration, stumbling around in the dark until you find a hidden secret or two, and how it’s all about the taking part and the sense of community that gaming should be about. And deeper than that, it’s about the joy and power of friendship and how wonderful it can be to step outside once in a while and spend time with real friends, to fall in love and to experience reality (a lesson that I’ve no hope of taking to heart!). All of this is acheived brilliantly with undeniable warmth, something that Spielberg knows a thing or two about, and what’s great is that, while there’s a rallying call to arms that runs the risk of being cheesy, the sentimentality is never overbearing and the film manages to be sincere and good natured without veering into mawkishness.
There are many recognisable names in the cast and all seem to be having fun with the adventurous material. In the lead role, Tye Sheridan throws himself into the action very well and as his avatar self Parzival, he makes for a great protagonist but in the real world, as Wade, he doesn’t do so well because he’s a bit too wooden and emotionless, not faring as well as his avatar. But opposite him, the beautiful Olivia Cooke is brilliant and so so likeable as fellow gamer Samantha/Art3mis; in OASIS, she’s a supercool, ultra-determined badass while in the real world, she gets to show a softer side, displaying some vulnerability whilst still proving herself a force to be reckoned with. And in the antagonist role, Ben Mendelsohn excels since he manages to be perfectly slimy, arrogant and dastardly but he manages to avoid being the obvious cookie cutter villain that you’d expect to see in a blockbuster film; there’s depth to his character and he’s a villain with clear motivations – a businessman through and through who has no love for the joy of gaming or movies and wants to run OASIS like a business. Plus, his avatar’s pretty dope.
Elsewhere, there are excellent performances from Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe (whose character revelation was brilliant to behold), T.J. Miller, Hannah John-Kamen, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki and new Spielberg favourite Mark Rylance, who has a whole ton of fun as both OASIS creator James Halliday and his wizard avatar!
In terms of shortcomings, I’d say that Ready Player One is a bit too long and that it’s a little too slow in the first half. Also, whilst I appreciated all the awesome things that were on display during the hectic, pop culture filled scenes, I have to say that I didn’t find the film overly exhilarating and didn’t really experience as much nerdy excitement as I should have; maybe this was because there were references that I didn’t understand, maybe it’s because I saw it in 2D, maybe I’m just an emotionless grump or maybe, for all his expertise, Steven Spielberg wasn’t quite the right man to tackle this project and that maybe it should have been a director with more pizzazz, a true geek, to take the reigns on this particular extravaganza.
And disappointingly, there’s no post-credits scene. For a film about Easter eggs and hidden clues, they sure missed a trick there!