Ready Player One delights, while significant questions linger
There is an impulse that fans tend to have — a desire for characters to cross over between properties and across brands. It is part of the expected excitement for titles like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Avengers: Infinity War, the latter a crossover featuring characters from 18 different Marvel films.
Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, took the concept and ran with it, featuring a virtual reality world full of characters and vehicles from intellectual property throughout the late 20th century’s pop culture.
The novel has significant issues, most notably in the form of misogynistic writing and an absurd excess. Steven Spielberg’s latest film, an adaptation of the novel, bypassed some of the book’s concerning failings. The resulting film is flawed, but very good nonetheless.
The story of Ready Player One is a fantasy for those who peruse forums and scour the landscapes of pop culture in search of fan theories, references, Easter eggs and hints.
James Halliday, an inventor and pop culture junkie, along with his partner, Ogden Morrow — the two overtly echo Apple pioneers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — created a virtual reality world that lets people be whatever they want to be, as long as they are the intellectual properties that Warner Bros. had acquired the rights to. In this world, known as the OASIS, Halliday, on the event of his death, created an Easter egg hunt within his game, where the first gamer to follow the clues to three successive keys would win a controlling share of Gregarious Games, the company that controls the OASIS.
The plot is similar to that of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, if the children knew that there was a contest and they could win it by obsessively studying everything about the life of Willy Wonka.
The protagonist is Wade Watts, playing under the avatar Parzival. Tye Sheridan plays Wade with a severe lack of charisma, and the character seems to go through the events passively, even as he is participating in the quest. His motivation is purely selfish; Wade wants the money.
In opposition to him is Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento, a CEO cartoonishly obsessed with owning the OASIS so that he can sell advertising space. Sorrento brags about being able to sell a majority of the visible space on VR users’ visors as ad space and he uses the password BO55MAN69.
Even among the numerous problems, Ready Player One is an engaging, fast-paced film. Spielberg, with the help of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, rarely creates a feeling of being overwhelmed by pop culture. The camera zooms through the OASIS and feels alive.
There is plenty to be seen in the frame and those who do enjoy the sensation of recognizing things they have seen before in other media will enjoy watching the film on a screen large enough or with high enough quality to facilitate such viewing.
The world of the OASIS is truly beautiful and is given the chance to breathe more often than one would expect. In tandem with the visuals, the screenplay, written by Cline and Zak Penn, has the quest for Halliday’s Easter egg moving at a strong pace, and moments link to each other and tend to maintain the momentum.
Frustratingly, the film never seems to address the value of obsessing over Halliday’s life. Wade and other “gunters” — egg hunters — like his friends Aech, Sho and Daito, watch any movie or TV show, play every game and observe every moment of recorded life that in some way connects to Halliday and his own obsessions. Wade meets his love interest, Art3mis, played by Olivia Cooke, and their burgeoning flirtation comes as questions about the things that were Halliday’s favorites.
The film takes place in the year 2045, but they are stuck in the 1980s and the pop culture of that era. The goal is to subsume one’s identity within that of Halliday’s, and the film never asks if that is really worthwhile. When the quest ends, whomever finds the last Easter egg, there will have been millions at the very least who squandered their time trying to memorize some movie or some day in Halliday’s life.
There is a lot to enjoy in the movie, but it will have to be seen while ignoring or not caring about certain elements.
Plenty may argue that Ready Player One is definitively a film made for fans and not for critics, but that does not mean the fans cannot be discerning. They can notice dialogue as cringe-worthy as the statement, “A fanboy knows a hater,” or how the boring, male protagonist inexplicably wins a young woman’s love — the script ignoring Art3mis’ feelings for the most part.
The film’s possessive relationship toward women is creepy, especially regarding the plotline of Halliday’s unrequited love.
Spielberg’s film fixes up a lot of concerns, but leaves plenty unaddressed. There are surprises and delights to be had in the references, but there are also important, unanswered questions. It is up to the fans to decide what they care to consider.