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Ready Player One (2018) directed by Steven Spielberg

Virtual insanity

This adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel is set in a dystopian America of 2045 where people escape reality into a virtual world of gaming and other entertainments called OASIS - which was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). When Halliday dies, he reveals that there is an Easter Egg hidden somewhere within OASIS which can be accessed by collecting three keys which are available via completion of three different games. The player that finds the Easter Egg will be able to take over ownership of the virtual world.

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teen from Columbus, Ohio whose avatar in this computer-generated world is known as Parzival. He decides to participate in the first of the games - a car race - alongside his online buddy Aech, the large ogre-like avatar of a real-life person whom he has never met. As the race commences, Wade/Parzival notices a Tron-style bike weaving its way through the pack. The beautiful female avatar riding it is Art3mis. Towards the end of the race, Parzival manages to beat all of the competitors but is stopped before the finish line when King Kong smashes the track and stands by waiting to pound anyone who gets close. When Art3mis comes up close behind, he manages to catch her in the nick of time before she falls into Kong’s clutches.

The defeated Parzival decides to visit OASIS’s library to browse recordings of Halliday and Morrow’s conversations and gain insights into the secret tricks required for winning. As he starts to do just that, he becomes a hero and starts to attract more serious attention from Art3mis. Unfortunately, he also attracts the less welcome attention of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a company who loan players the hardware needed to participate in OASIS. The organisation is run by the ruthless Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who views the prospect of a player being gaining ownership of this virtual world as a threat to his hegemony. As Wade/Parzival starts to get to know the identities of his online friends, the group soon find themselves being pursued by IOI’s forces.

Watch a trailer:

Spielberg goes back to having fun

It goes without saying that this spectacular homage to the twin joys of nostalgia and online gaming encapsulates the more straightforwardly entertaining side of Spielberg. It is unashamedly awash with countless references to popular music, video games, movies and comic books. Expect to see homages to Minecraft, Monty Python, Back to the Future, Batman, The Iron Giant, Gundam, Duran Duran and countless others here.

Throwing all of this into one contiguous universe could have proven messily self-indulgent but, surprisingly, it all works extremely well. It’s a commentary on how fandom of pop iconography, be it new or old, helps to shape and define our modern identities. It’s both a celebration of the sheer joy to be found in all of this stuff, as well as being a cautionary tale about how - when put in the wrong hands - it can mask the threat of corporations taking over our everyday lives. It’s a sweet look at the inherent ups and downs of geekdom. Above all, however, it’s just a massive explosion of pure popcorn entertainment.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of CGI here. However, the whole vast, cluttered and creative world comes vividly to life through that distinctive Spielbergian sense of wonder. It positively revels in the exciting possibilities of encountering a vast King Kong, being trapped in the house from The Shining (arguably the most inventive and entertaining episode here), or contriving a showdown between Mechagodzilla and The Iron Giant. There are even a few moments of effective Inception-style suspense as events occurring in the real world have knock-on effects in the virtual world.

Heart behind the spectacle

The film also has a lot of heart courtesy of Mark Rylance as Halliday, the nerdish and awkward man behind the whole thing. Admittedly, he is something of a thinly-veiled proxy Spielberg. However, the notion that finding the Easter Egg involves getting to know every detail about OASIS’s creator helps to imbue an underlying sense of humanity behind all of the spectacle.

The flip side of this is that it the main protagonist (Tye Sheridan as Wade/Parzival) feels like something of a cipher character by comparison. While Sheridan’s fine in the role, he’s ultimately little different from any other young-upstart-turned-hero-of-the-day role that we’ve seen in umpteen other films since Luke Skywalker destroyed the first Death Star. Ben Mendelsohn is OK as the main antagonist but again, he’s playing a rather standard role: a generic corporate douchebag. Simon Pegg is perhaps the most disappointing piece of casting here; his character remains pretty anonymous throughout and makes no use whatsoever of the actor’s signature comic talents. Luckily, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe as Wade/Parzival’s virtual world buddies have been given somewhat more colourful and interesting roles to work with, ably offsetting the blandness evident in some of their onscreen counterparts.

Still, Ready Player One is such a generously entertaining popcorn-munching rollercoaster ride that the shortcomings aren’t all that noticeable. Get ready to play!

Runtime: 140 mins

Dir: Steven Spielberg

Script: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Ernest Cline

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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