It was director Steven Spielberg himself who made the distinction. When introducing his new science fiction adventure, Ready Player One at the 25th SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, on March 11 he stated that what audiences were about to see was not a film. It was a movie. A hardcore, popcorn, multiplex, white-knuckle ride movie. And he’s right. That’s exactly what it is. Schindler’s List, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, and more recently The Post were all films. But Ready Player One is a movie. And like the Rock ‘N Roller Coaster ride of the Disney theme parks, all anyone needs to do is to buckle down, take a deep breath, hold on, and get ready for blast off.
Based on the hugely popular 2011 debut novel of Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is set in the year 2045. In the way an earlier generation slipped on a pair of headphones from their Sony Walkman to become lost in a world of music, most from this futuristic, dystopian society slip on the goggles and gloves to escape their desolate, slum-like existence and enter the virtual reality world of OASIS. It stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or as the story’s central character, young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) tells us in an introductory voice-over, accompanied by Van Halen’s Jump on the soundtrack, it’s a place where everyone goes to do all the things they can do, and stay for all the things they can be.
Wade was born in 2027, after the bandwidth wars. His parents are dead. He lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt, and like everyone else around him, his escape from reality is to enter the world of OASIS at every opportunity. Naturally, once within this fantasy, high-tech world of sheen, color, and light, Wade is not himself; that’s way too ordinary. He’s Parzival, an avatar, who befriends other avatars representing people he’s never actually met in the real world. Within OASIS, he works as a virtual mechanic, and is a master behind the steering wheel of his Back To The Future DeLorean.
That’s the setup, but the story revolves around the recently deceased inventor of OASIS, an eccentric, practically inarticulate genius nerd called James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Like Willy Wonka looking for the right person to inherit his chocolate factory, before his passing, Halliday invented a game that requires Gunters – a contraction of Easter Egg Hunters – to find three keys hidden somewhere in his VR world. Whoever finds them and can unlock the secrets will inherit all of OASIS, along with a ton of money. Of course, the games and the clues to find them are so outrageously difficult, the task is virtually unwinnable, but someone will eventually win, and Wade, with help from his small group of avatar friends known as the High-Five, intends to be that someone. “Let the hunt for Halliday’s Easter Egg begin,” is the rallying cry, and they’re off.
If you saw the TV trailer and thought, well, that looks chaotic, you’d be right. The film is exhausting and, for some, continually in danger of sensory overload. Images shift shapes in a flash, characters and machines zip all over the place, crashing into each other at dazzling speeds seemingly faster than light, while players within the VR world do whatever they can to stop themselves from being ‘zeroed out,’ a term for losing everything that would wipe their avatar and everything they have from OASIS altogether.
It’s eye-catching to say the least, but among the chaos and the endless cacophony, the real fun is spotting all the pop culture movie references that whiz by, and how the film uses 70s and 80s hits, like Van Halen’s Jump, Blondies’s One Way or Another, and Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It to support or punctuate the action. Even the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive is put to good use when Wade and fellow Gunter, Samantha (Olivia Cooke) take to the dance floor. Though Wade has never actually met the real Samantha and knows her only by her avatar name, Art3mis, he professes his love. “This is not my real body,” she points out, “This is not my face.” “I don’t care,” the stricken teenager responds. They’re Romeo and Juliet gamer style; on-line fantasy lovers who never remove their VR goggles or actually venture out into the world to meet and go on a real date.
Among the countless film pop culture references, including King Kong, the ship from Silent Running, the pods of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Betelgeuse, The Iron Giant, the Alien chest exploder, Buckaroo Banzai, a knife wielding Chucky, and so, so many more, the gamer award for Best Movie Sequence goes to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The High-Five team enter a virtual Overlook Hotel in search for another hidden key while walking around the familiar looking sets of the classic 1980 horror. It’s a genuine, eye-popping sequence, full of cinematic creativity where the Gunters become part of Kubrick’s film, exploring the hotel hallways, encountering those two creepy girls who want Danny to come and play, and finding a pathway to the decaying occupant of Room 237.
The Cline novel acknowledges many of Speilberg’s own films, but once the celebrated director came on board to direct, he removed most of his personal references, though look closely and you’ll glimpse a brief Jurassic Park moment. And technically, as a producer of Back to the Future, the DeLorean is a kind of Speilberg reference.
During the late seventies and eighties, filmmakers like Speilberg and George Lucas were held responsible for developing a new generation of moviegoers with low attention spans. For them, action was required from the get-go. By comparison with Ready Player One, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are taking a slow boat to China. Watching the High-Five and their competitors attempt to gain those elusive three keys that will hand over the Wonka kingdom is nothing short of breathtaking, in a literal sense.
Teenagers, adolescents, and those older who refuse to let go of their controllers until you take it from their cold dead hands, will have no problem. Older generations, those who actually once owned a Sony Walkman but are not so interested in playing video games yet keen to see what Steven Speilberg has done, are going to need oxygen masks.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 140 Minutes Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)