A few years ago Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sat in an auditorium at USC and decried video games as being incapable of telling stories that evoked emotion like film. An assertion that, taken at face value, is a bit brash. Spielberg would go on to better define the tone of the conversation by saying that he thinks “that the artery blocker is the game controller.” That virtual reality (VR), a fully immersive world that could truly transport players into the universe of the game, was the future. That video games would transform storytelling once they had reached that point.
Ready Player One takes that assessment and flat out-sprints with it.
Taking place in an overcrowded and dystopic Columbus, Ohio circa 2045, Ready Player One exists in a world where VR is the people’s method of escape. The OASIS, a virtual world packed with things to do, is the opiate of the masses here. The plot is simple: there is a hidden Easter Egg that takes three keys to open, the first to find it wins the Egg and becomes the owner of the OASIS. High stakes, evil corporation bad guys, hijinks, and raucous action follow.
Now, to be forward, Spielberg takes liberties with the source material in copious amount. There are sure to be people that will take offense to character and plot deviations, altered contrivances of the world set up by Ernest Cline, and numerous other particulars. Surely some of those complaints are warranted. The fruits of this “reimagining” of the fiction however, broadens the audience of the novel significantly. Widening the book’s original audience focus from gamers and 80’s pop culture trivia buffs to — well — really anyone born after 1970. Ready Player One is a log flume in a river of nostalgia and references that has a much lower bar for entry than its novel predecessor.
Ready Player One moves fast. Crafting memorable characters for film is a challenge. Drawing those characters from a novel and distilling that nuance into a two hour film is a obstreperous task that most often leads to cuts and deviations. This film is no exception. Yet, where most other film adaptations tend to fall short, Spielberg’s Ready Player One feels far less like a watered down version of the source material and more like an homage to it. This movie is different than the novel it is based upon because it had to be; licensing rights alone proved to be a multi-year struggle. Still, I feel the fast pace of the plot doesn’t always work out in its favor.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, X-Men: Apocalypse), the films protagonist, is genuinely well acted. It could be argued that this film doesn’t quite leave enough room for his character to develop a deep emotional connection with the entire cast, which is a bit of a shame. The rest of the clan High Five, Aech (Lena Waithe, Master of None), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki, Kamen Rider W) are colorful characters that deserved more screen time and exposition. Wade’s love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cook, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl), though a bit of a one-sided character at first, is played charmingly. There are a few moments where her character’s arc plays her out a bit more like a damsel in distress than a capable companion, but they are few, and overshadowed by her empowering representation both in the OASIS and in the real world. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) Nolan Sorrento is formidable foe, and when he and Wade Watts share a room, the electricity is palpable.
All this goes to say, Ready Player One is a fantastically fun movie with all of the parts to make it truly great. A few missteps take away from the fun on a scholarly level. Something I completely expected from this adaptation. Nevertheless, for those who haven’t read the book, or don’t care to view movies through that scholarly lens, it is a visually stunning and action packed adventure through childhood nostalgia and video game joy, and a sort of love note to game developers and their ability to transport us to other worlds. A message that seems to bear all the more importance when you remember that Spielberg directed it. | Caleb Sawyer