There are few directors other than Steven Spielberg that could direct a film like Ready Player One. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, it’s a story that rides the current slipstream of nostalgia for 1980s pop culture as well as picking up on the recent shift towards a world in which geek is chic and knowledge is paramount.
Set in a dystopian future, people have turned from the troubles of the real world in favour of OASIS – a virtual reality utopia where anything is possible. You can rock climb with Batman one minute and build your own Iron Giant the next. This film, and the virtual reality it’s set in, is a visual and aural bombardment in which a glittering array of avatars race DeLoreans against Akira’s motorcycle and listen to Duran Duran in zero-gravity clubs.
The creator of this digital wonderland is James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a Steve Wozniak/Willy Wonka dreamer with Sideshow Bob hair who resembles real-life computer pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. Like Berners-Lee, Halliday gave the world something beautiful and tried to protect it as creepy corporations found ways to exploit users, destroying its original intention. Unlike Berners-Lee, Halliday found a way.
Following Halliday’s death, he revealed that hidden within the virtual world is an Easter egg that would grant dominion over OASIS. Enter our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who is determined to find the prize. For all the visual splendour of Ready Player One, the glamour initially fails to enchant. The bombardment of cultural winks and nods, especially for the first half of the film, are a perpetual jabbing in the ribs, asking you time and time again if you get the reference.
It would be natural to think that Spielberg, who brought us the strange and beautiful A.I. Artificial Intelligence (arguably the most interesting ideas in the film probably belonged to Kubrick, who began the project), would add to the themes of the novel, but he plays it all too straight. He has stripped much from Cline’s story, sanitising some of the more adult elements – save for the haptic sex suits – and pared down many of the more original aspects of the source material, which is more an impressive pastiche of ideas than of original concepts in the first place.
Spielberg is the master of the blockbuster – a supreme entertainer interested in jaw-dropping visuals and good old-fashioned storytelling. And that’s what we get – a simple, entertaining adventure quest that reminds us it’s our real connections to one another that counts. Oddly, the world of OASIS is almost soulless. This may be intentional – suggestive of its unreality – but it’s still unsettling for the viewer (much like Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin). Meanwhile the big battle sequences lack that gasp-inducing quality Spielberg achieved with Jurassic Park back in 1993.
Despite these failings, things pick up around halfway through. We are given a visual delight that few directors could pull off, partly thanks to Spielberg’s relationship with the Kubrick estate. Without wishing to spoil the fun, from this moment the action warms up and draws you into the film. In the current climate of Netflix’s Stranger Things and similar shows that garner legions of fans who worship at the altar of nostalgia, Ready Player One can lay claim to sit at the apex of this cultural trend.
Spielberg asks audiences to fondly remember their childhood, and to fall back in love with characters, songs and stories long forgotten. At the same time, there is a didactic notion that reality is always better than a synthetic replication. You can’t comfortably have both. As South Park reminded us with “Member Berries” the past looks great in hindsight, but sometimes looking to a brighter future might serve us better.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh