When acclaimed director Steven Spielberg has pure, unadulterated fun in one of his feature films, the result is either a hit or a miss. His 2011 motion-capture animated mess, The Adventures of Tintin, adapted from the comic books, is a prime example of a “miss.” Aside from colorful visuals, there was little to gain. In 2016, he adapted Roald Dahl’s children’s story, The BFG, and for many, that film had more heart to it while still being an undeniably fun visual roller coaster. With Ready Player One, Spielberg has struck gold. He once again applies motion-capture to bring Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel to life, and can simultaneously tinker with his signature themes of nostalgia, fatherhood, and heroism.
Constructed much like a videogame, Ready Player One centers on Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young man living in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio (in 2045) who regularly escapes to an online virtual reality program called the OASIS. Wade is one of millions to do this, as it seems the entire world exists to live in this make-believe world, where their money and livelihoods thrive. Wade is an orphan (signature Spielberg) living with his aunt (Susan Lynch), and finding the hidden Easter Egg of the OASIS seems to be his only reason to live. The OASIS’ creator, James Halliday (wonderfully played by Mark Rylance), hid this Easter Egg deep within the recesses of the game, and no one has ever found it, not even a clue to where it is. Its contents: Halliday’s real-life fortune and the rights to own the OASIS.
Cue our nonstop, fast-paced, and eccentric story. Once Wade comes across the first clue, the chase begins. Not only are other players trying to uncover the clues to the Easter Egg, but a large corporation called Innovative Online Industries (IOI) is hell-bent on finding it, especially before some impoverished kid from Columbus, Ohio.
Wade is not alone in his journey, getting help from other players such as love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and longtime friend Aech (Lena Waithe), neither of whom Wade has actually met in the real world. Together, they seem to have a fighting chance at stopping the power-hungry corporation from owning even more of the material world, which is a “fight the system” narrative that Spielberg also likes to align himself with (see Catch Me If You Can, Lincoln, or The Post). As Wade and company traverse surreal dangers and accomplish digital objectives, Spielberg’s other penchant themes peek through the surface, including Wade’s need for a stable family, and the sympathy he gains for Halliday as he learns about the genius’ tortured past.
Wade (Tye Sheridan, as his CGI alter-ego, Parzival, right) meeting with James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in the OASIS world of Ready Player One
However, what makes Ready Player One an innovative step for Spielberg is that he can escalate things without consequence, and also speak to two audiences without trying too hard. He pays homage to cultural landmarks of the 1980s, such as the Hall & Oates classic “You Make My Dreams,” 8-bit videogame consoles, and Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterwork The Shining. In fact, my favorite sequence of this film involves our heroes walking through a virtual reality version of The Shining, and it will definitely please average moviegoers and crazy cinephiles like myself. The other audience Spielberg reaches out to though are hardcore gamers. Ready Player One does have something to say about our obsession with technology and living in fake worlds, but it doesn’t seek to demonize those who make money or find solace in some of the online escapism that gaming offers. It’s a tricky balance, but the movie walks it incredibly well.
Visually, the movie is a standout. Though its constant barrage of CGI and fast-sweeping cinematography can be a little much (especially for a movie that’s nearly two-and-a-half hours), part of the idea is to draw us into the OASIS as much as its characters. In fact, the opening sequence is much like the introduction to an epic videogame (a la The Legend of Zelda): it’s long, expository, and engaging. As for the use of motion capture animation, there is a moment where you will question: am I really watching a movie from the director of Saving Private Ryan or an anime with grade-A CGI? I ultimately say this to compliment Spielberg, as it displays his willingness to expand into new territory, even if it is a tad weird.
While there are articles upon articles listing all of the intricate references and “Easter Eggs” hidden within this film, Ready Player One is a movie that has an emotional heart while still bridging a gap between cinema and gaming; a gap that has seemed so large for so long. And Steven Spielberg is the dreamer to do that – in a shamelessly fun way.