Film Review: Ready Player One
In 2018, Steven Spielberg released Ready Player One, based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. Starring Olivia Cooke, Tye Sheridan, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, T.J. Miller, Mark Rylance, and Hannah John-Kamen, the film has grossed $393.6 million at the box office as of Monday, April 9.
It is the year 2045. The world is in a state of disrepair. To get away from the bleakness of life, people escape to a virtual world called the OASIS. There, Wade Watts, a young boy from Columbus, Ohio, uses his virtual avatar Parzival to try and complete “Anorak’s Quest,” a game within the OASIS created by the founder James Halliday. Whoever wins will be given total control and ownership of the virtual world. Many others are also trying, such as Nolan Sorrento, the ruthless CEO of a powerful video game company.
Ready Player One is not without its flaws, but is definitely an entertaining film. From the fluid, slick-looking CGI to a fast-paced story progression, it is exciting from start to finish even as some of the plot elements are laughable at best and problematic at worst. Even so, Spielberg’s steady directorial vision is felt throughout this film, a weighted precision necessary to distill such an ambitious project into proper form.
The concept of the film is already interesting, given what is becoming technological reality in today’s world. Social media and augmented reality games have given people a window to build a virtual presence just as important as real, physical lives in many ways. At the start, Spielberg tries to paint the picture of how essential the OASIS is in people’s sense of value and purpose. He does this through Watts, who narrates the backstory of the virtual world, explains what is at stake if someone’s avatar dies in game, and shows the realm of possibilities in the OASIS. Spielberg further does well portraying how prevalent visiting the OASIS is, with trailer parks and office buildings full of people playing the game.
All this is very important to establish significance and gravity to the story’s plot developments. However, the emotional grip of the film depends entirely on whether the viewer believes there is something actually at stake. When an avatar in the OASIS dies, the real world player simply loses all of their cash points and collectibles. They can then respawn starting at level one with zero cash and property. Therefore, this is the principal “risk” the main characters take when they try and stop Nolan Sorrento from taking over the OASIS. Moreover, what is ultimately on the line is really just a virtual video game people play. Nothing in the real world will really be changed or affected.
Nevertheless, Spielberg does make attempts to depict how essential the OASIS is in people’s daily lives, including a scene where someone tries to commit suicide when their avatar dies in-game. Time after time though, when the main characters “risk” their avatars to save the OASIS, none of it feels as if it matters. After all, they’re just risking a virtual life and virtual cash points, nothing worth any real value. As such, Spielberg has the difficult task of trying to make the OASIS seem serious when viewers may just find it all entirely inconsequential. In this respect, the emotional grip of the film is weakened at points in the story where everything seems at “stake” or if players “sacrifice their lives” in the end battle scene.
Still, the film is a lot of fun with a large amount of references to nerd and gaming culture. The race car scene is utterly gorgeous and action packed, striking the tones of pure movie magic. Certainly, the main characters, both the real life and OASIS versions, add a lot of humor and style to the film. Watts/Parzival and his love interest Samantha/Art3mis share a great on-screen chemistry providing a good romance angle to the story. Mendelsohn also does well as a villain ruthlessly pursuing his goals.
While it is a heavily story-driven film, Spielberg sprinkles a number of scenes, such as the one with Halliday at the end, where the characters add depth and emotion to the overall plot. The end result is a very good balance of action and sentiment and a sweeping sense of grandeur. Yet, some of the film’s practical problems are hard to ignore, including the issue of people playing in the OASIS on the streets not being hit by cars or how a video game company happens to have quasi-military personnel on hand. On the other hand, just like the OASIS, these questions might be completely immaterial.