Ready Player One
Spielberg shakes off his pop cinema cobwebs with a sugar rush spectacle that combines state-of-the-art CGI with the Jaws and ET director's comforting blend of breakneck action, heartwarming characters and goofy humour
As a book, Ready Player One is a groaner, with a main character who spends every other sentence boring you with minutiae about the 80s games and movies with which he’s obsessed (sci-fi writer John Scalzi rightly called Ernest Cline's bestseller a "nerdgasm"). The premise, however, is promising. Set in the year 2045, it imagines a world in which most of its population live out their lives inside a vast video game called the Oasis. Despite dwelling in overcrowded cities where people literally live on top of one another in cramped trailers stacked vertically like Jenga blocks, people have rich inner lives thanks to this virtual reality web 3.0 in which you can ski on the pyramids or go mountain climbing with Batman.
This digital utopia becomes under threat when its creator and major shareholder, James Halliday, a genius programer lacking in social skills (eccentrically played by Mark Rylance as a kind of Willy Wonka with Asperger's syndrome) dies with no heir to his Oasis throne. A ruthless tech company headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) would like to gain command and monetise the simulation. The wiley Halliday instead has set up an elaborate Arthurian quest within the Oasis’s code, and whoever can solve it first takes sole control of this virtual universe.
Step forward orphaned trailer park kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a typically self-effacing Spielbergian hero with dreams of greatness. In the form of his avatar Parzival – a pretty boy hipster with lilac skin, blonde hair and a tattoo sleeve – Wade has his eye on the prize, which means first winning a madcap wacky race through Manhattan in his vehicle of choice (Back to the Future’s DeLorean), where he’s competing against other pop-culture obsessed avatars (one driving Kaneda's bike from Akira, another in the Adam West-era Batmobile) while being chased by King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (one of Spielberg's few self-referential touches). Other delirious set pieces involve dry humping in haptic suits on a zero-gravity dancefloor to the sounds of the Bee Gees, a visit to an iconic film set and an all out battle involving Mechagodzilla, The Iron Giant and killer doll Chucky.
To say Ready Player One is overstuffed with pop culture references would be an understatement. One of the movie’s niftiest jokes is that Sorrento wants to pack every Oasis users’ viewfinder with just enough ads that the overstimulation doesn’t induce seizures, and one suspects Spielberg might have had similar conversations with his digital effects team who've created the scenes within the virtual reality universe. It takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the Oasis's visual assault, and while this vomit of pop culture references and visual invention is rather messy, Spielberg’s direction remains clear-eyed throughout.
Once the eternally youthful whizz of mainstream pop movie-making, Spielberg’s cinema of late has become more fibrous, with historical dramas like Bridge of Spies, Lincoln and The Post now his bread and butter. Ready Player One shows he’s not forgotten how to induce a sugar rush, however. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of sharing a games console with a single controller, you’ll know there’s nothing more tedious than watching someone else play a video game. But with the world’s finest action director wielding the joystick, watching Parzival and co take on Halliday’s puzzles makes for an eye-popping delight, which Spielberg tops off with the kind of goofy jokes, swooning romance and corny sentimentality that few of his contemporaries would get away with.
So in short, Ready Player One is a blast, but it can’t quite reach the heights of Spielberg’s other pop masterpieces (ET, Close Encounters, Jaws and Jurassic Park). Part of the reason for the shortfall is that he gives us no downtime with his characters. There’s nothing in Ready Player One quite like the scene in Jaws where the three protagonists compare scars while waiting for the Great White to surface, or the calm before the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park.
The breakneck Ready Player One feels closer, then, to the relentless 'set-pieces built on to even bigger set-pieces' structure of the best Indiana Jones movies. Sheridan and the rest of the young cast can’t claim to hold the screen like Harrison Ford, but they prove worthy avatars for Spielberg to reignite his pop movie mojo. It’s also a blessed relief to encounter a blockbuster with no intention of priming us for a sequel. And Spielberg doesn’t need one. He throws so much stuff at the screen in Ready Player One – political ideas, loopy imagery, visual gags – that he makes his competitors’ increasingly unwieldy cinematic universes feel like barren wastelands.
Released by Warner Bros