READY PLAYER ONE. Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Letitia Wright, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 140 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes, violence and coarse language).
Throughout ‘Ready Player One’, director Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters after the regrettable ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, there is an overwhelming sense of a master flexing his considerable filmmaking muscles. Given its 1980s pop culture-laden source material, the 2014 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, the film sounds almost custom-made for Spielberg – who better to tackle the 80s than one of the pivotal figures responsible for defining the decade? The movie is highly entertaining and fizzes with wild imagination, and though its fast pace and constant referencing can border on exhausting, Spielberg appears to have his blockbuster mojo back.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, slotting nicely into the everyman American hero mould) is a teen who lives in a slum in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045. Like most people, Wade spends his days in a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS, where his avatar, Parzival, can do and be all the things that he can’t. As Wade talks the audience through the endless planets that make up the OASIS, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński make it clear that this is not traditional Spielberg, at least not visually.
During OASIS-based action, Spielberg’s cast worked in a performance capture space, their movements mapped onto their avatars and their avatars transferred into sprawling digital environments. One gets the same sense of freedom that Spielberg so clearly relished when using this ‘mo-cap’ technology on ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, wherein his untethered camera was able to make impressive, impossible moves and digitally string together virtuoso long shots. Whether it be zooming through an enormous barrel wave on the holiday planet or shooting through space to follow a ricocheting ball in some futuristic sport, there are no limits to what the viewer can be shown. This action is all facilitated by state of the art visual effects, rendered with incredible attention to detail and colour, though it does all look a little like a computer game (a presumably intentional aesthetic).
The OASIS isn’t just about escapism though – there’s also a devilishly difficult treasure hunt to complete. When the 80s-obsessed inventor of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), died, it was announced that the player who solved his three Easter Eggs hidden within the OASIS would inherent his trillion-dollar fortune and the controlling share of his company, Gregarious Games, thus dictating the future of the OASIS. Spurred on by the allure of this prize, millions of ‘Gunters’ (short for ‘Egg Hunters’) dedicate their lives to cracking his code, slavishly poring over events in his life recreated in the Halliday Archive and devouring and memorising his favourite music, films and games from the 80s.
For a decade, though, no one has been able to get past the first challenge, a high-octane car race that pits drivers against an impossible array of foes, including a T-Rex and King Kong. That is until Parzival spots a clue that has eluded all other Gunters, and shoots to the top of the leader board. Soon enough, he is joined by his best friend, Aetch (Lena Waithe), famed Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). With word of the solution to the first challenge spreading, these friends, now collectively known as the High Five, must band together to complete the three challenges before the Gunters on their heels can catch up.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg family film without a memorable villain, and who better to antagonise our heroes than Ben Mendelsohn, the Australian export who has made Hollywood’s memorable bad guys his bread and butter. Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, a well-resourced corporation that pumps billions towards wresting control of the OASIS. With thousands of well-resourced ‘Sixers’, anonymous avatars controlled by IOI employees, in the simulation and a crew of well-read pop-culture and Halliday scholars in his ear, the smarmy Sorrento will stop at nothing to get his hands on Halliday’s trillion-dollar empire. Whether that means teaming up with OASIS bounty hunter/weapons dealer, i-R0k (T.J. Miller, his voice hilariously discordant with his avatar’s huge bodybuilder’s frame), or escalating their virtual fight into the real world, there are no depths that IOI won’t plumb to gain the upper hand.
Following Halliday’s absurd race, there are two more challenges to face before anyone can get their hands on the keys to his kingdom. While these are better left unspoiled, it suffices to say that they have their own unique appeal. The second puzzle involves the characters getting stuck in a famous 80s feature film with uproarious and breathlessly enjoyable results, while the final trial’s intimate knowledge test plays out against an epic battle for the future of the OASIS.
Despite the qualities detailed above, it isn’t quite on ‘Jaws’ levels of blockbuster excellence. Dying in the game, known as ‘zeroing out’, sees the user lose their inventory of hard-won collectables, although they can start again immediately from scratch. Though Sorrento briefly demonstrates his willingness to take his frustrations out on flesh and blood Gunters, the stakes can’t help but feel a little low at times. Secondly, through the OASIS’s mixing pot of pop-cultural influences, there is a creeping sense of ‘too much of a good thing’. Spotting Easter eggs becomes an almost manic, straining obsession – from Parzival’s prized DeLorean (from the Spielberg-produced ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy) to momentary glimpses of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a battle scene, viewers will either be too overwhelmed to keep caring or too overstimulated to keep up.
A final note: fans of Ernest Cline’s novel should know that there have been significant revisions made to the book by the screenplay, co-written by Cline and Zak Penn. Most of the characters are faithfully brought across, though some relationships and some of the book’s dense lore have been flattened out (at 140 minutes long already, the film couldn’t have been any more faithful without becoming a miniseries). The big changes come with the particulars of the challenges, which have been significantly altered, which will keep book readers guessing. While the novel often required characters to complete old arcade games in their entirety, or to play the lead role in Halliday’s favourite movies in a cool gimmick called ‘Flicksync’, the Easter Eggs crafted for the film are more viewer friendly.
‘Ready Player One’ is a blast of old school filmmaking and nostalgia mixed with cutting edge technology and a cool young cast. Spielberg shows why he became and remains a blockbuster star in his own right, and viewers should enjoy this thrilling entertainment in multiplexes together.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 29.