Before Ready Player One was first published in 2011, the film rights to Ernest Cline’s geek-themed fantasy epic had already been purchased by Warner Bros. – a bold move, but one that bore fruit as the novel rode a wave of positive reviews right onto the New York Times bestseller list. Despite its built-in audience, the mind-boggling number of pop culture references littered throughout Ready Player One‘s narrative (many of them crucial to the plot) seemed to pose a logistical conundrum: how could a film adaptation successfully bring together so many different properties from so many different creators and owners without ballooning into a prohibitively expensive endeavor?
Never underestimate the clout of legendary director Steven Spielberg, whose own works are featured heavily in Cline’s novel. The film adaptation of Ready Player One languished for years until Spielberg boarded the project in early 2015, and by the following summer the necessary licensing had been secured and production was able to begin. Three years later, and with a well-received world premiere screening at the SXSW Film Festival under its belt, Ready Player One is poised to unleash a torrential wave of nostalgia across cinema screens this weekend, but whether or not the film lives up to its pedigree is a subject worth debating.
First, some basics: the year is 2045, and as the world rapidly devolves into a dystopian state, humanity finds its escape in the OASIS, a colossal virtual world constructed by enigmatic game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), where nothing is impossible. Seemingly every human being on the planet is plugged into the OASIS, with entire existences playing out through VR headsets and haptic feedback rigs, and in-game currency becoming so valuable that it can be used to purchase real-world goods. Sure, life may be pretty terrible in “The Stacks,” a crumbling Ohio trailer park where homes are stacked atop each other to form towering skyscrapers, but it’s easy to forget when you’re logged on and careening down the highway in the DeLorean from Back to the Future.
Like most denizens of the OASIS, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) – better known by his online handle, Parzival – is obsessed with deciphering the location of a golden Easter Egg, whose existence was revealed after Halliday’s death. The stakes couldn’t be higher: whichever player solves the puzzle and finds the egg will not only inherit Halliday’s stock (valued at half a trillion dollars), but will assume full control of the OASIS itself. Racing against Wade and the other “gunters” (an abbreviation of “egg hunter” that sounds ridiculous every time it’s spoken aloud) is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of massive technology conglomerate IOI, who sees the OASIS as the world’s most lucrative financial resource. Wade and his cohorts want to improve the OASIS and make it more accessible for everyone, while Sorrento wants to sell advertising space on every player’s display.
While his motivations are admittedly silly, Sorrento’s tactics are anything but, and his loyal disciples – clad in identical uniforms and given numbers instead of names – are more than willing to kidnap, torture and enslave fellow players to gain the upper hand. As Wade’s in-game actions begin to have real-life consequences, he teams up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a fellow “gunter” who leads a rebellion against the ever-encroaching threat of IOI while seeking to resolve a personal vendetta against Sorrento and his crew, and trying to stay one step ahead of the competition as the pieces of Halliday’s puzzle fall into place.
As the marketing has made abundantly clear, Ready Player One is laden with an endless parade of recognizable characters, object and locations from popular culture, and the film establishes this immediately during its opening action sequence: a Fast and Furious-esque street race featuring the Bigfoot monster truck, the aforementioned DeLorean and the futuristic motorbike from Akira, among other well-known vehicles. And that doesn’t even account for some of the obstacles that players encounter during the race, including the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (one of Spielberg’s few self-referential nods) and an angry, pavement-pounding King Kong. Moments like these are undeniably charming, and viewers will surely delight in their ability to spot some of the more obscure references, all the while marveling at the unprecedented mash-up of so many properties.
But as engaging as the film can be when focused on events inside the OASIS, scenes that take place in the “real world” often leave much to be desired. Sheridan is a fine actor, and his Parzival is appropriately charismatic (even when hampered by the screenplay’s expository dialogue), but his scenes as Wade are mostly comprised of him tearing off his VR headset and breathing heavily, or brief juxtapositions between the action happening inside the OASIS, and Wade’s corresponding movements while strapped into his gaming rig. Even key moments, such as Wade discovering the surprising true identity of his oldest in-game friend, fail to land with any impact, and the abysmal romance subplot lacks anything resembling authenticity.
I had hoped Ready Player One might do a better job than its source material with Art3mis, but while she’s introduced as a fearsome, independent gaming warrior during the early moments, the film never treats her as Wade’s equal. She’s there to help support Wade on his quest and to give him an advantage, but the film repeatedly drives home the point that Wade is more talented and more clever, intimating that she would never have been able to solve Halliday’s puzzle without him. Also troubling is the moment when Parzival professes his love, having only spoken to her on two previous occasions – her initial reaction rings true, angrily pointing out that Parzival knows nothing about her other than what she’s chosen to reveal within the confines of the digital construct they’re both inhabiting, but it doesn’t take long for her real-world counterpart to begin swooning over Wade after their first meeting.
One notable exception to the mostly lackluster non-OASIS content is Rylance, whose turn as the awkward and introverted Halliday is one of Ready Player One‘s biggest highlights. With a mop of frizzy blonde hair, a fading Space Invaders T-shirt and a voice that barely rises above a whisper, there’s a tragic element to Halliday that we’re immediately drawn to. His inability to connect with other human beings in the real world and the cost he ultimately paid for control of his empire is heartbreaking, and provides some of the only material in the film that carries any emotional weight.
Ready Player One seems to struggle with many of its themes, lecturing audiences about the perils of staying plugged in and missing out on reality while the film itself is far more enjoyable while its characters are logged into the OASIS. There’s also a cautionary lesson about the menacing corporate entity that threatens to stymie creativity for the sake of the almighty dollar – and yet, this film could never exist without the help of a giant corporation willing to pony up a considerable sum of money for the production, in hopes of turning a profit.
Flawed though it may be, Ready Player One still has quite a bit to offer, especially for those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of pop culture. It’s a film whose wild action scenes, featuring such moments as the Iron Giant engaging in a bout of fisticuffs with Mechagodzilla, are thrilling in their absurdity. Its densely populated digital world practically begs for repeat viewings, which will afford audiences the opportunity to catalog every character, every vehicle, and every reference – while hopefully being so engaged as not to notice its bland characters and superficial storytelling.
For the most part, Spielberg succeeds in replicating the crazy pop culture mash-up that turned the novel into a hit. Unfortunately, the digital world created here is far more compelling than the "reality" the characters inhabit - or the characters themselves, for that matter.