I have a couple of confessions to make: 1) I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One when it came out seven years ago, and I quite enjoyed it. No, he isn’t Tolstoy (or even Cory Doctorow, for that matter), but he isn’t Stephenie Maier either. He taps into 1980s nostalgia (some may suggest sledgehammers) and hits a lot of right notes for readers of a certain age. So, yes, I liked the source material a fair bit; and 2) I went into the theater to watch Ready Player One ready to dislike it. I found the trailer to be a little bit too much, to be honest, a series of flash-bang moments of characters and media properties being thrown at the screen in quick succession, everything from the DeLorean from Back to the Future to Freddy Krueger to the Iron Giant. It felt like it was going to be to nostalgic media properties what Michael Bay is to explosions.
Turns out I didn’t need to worry.
[SPOILER ALERT: Scroll through below to read my review of Ready Player One. Due to the nature of the film and source material, there will be some discussion of other media properties referred to within the movie, but major plot points will not be discussed.]
What Spielberg and scriptwriters Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, The Avengers) and Ernest Cline have done is take a novel that is full of lists of 80s geek culture, and converted it into a fun adventure movie that manages to integrate its constituent parts without feeling like they’re trying to cram everything and the kitchen sink in at the same time. And yet, they manage to cram everything and the kitchen sink in. Even sections of the book that have been changed are often given a subtle nod (a demonic face from the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Module S1: Tomb of Horrors appears as a piece of graffiti on a truck, and we see a poster for the game Joust on a boy’s wall, for example – two properties that play a larger role in the book).
Set in 2045, the story revolves around the Oasis, a shared virtual world created twenty years earlier by programming genius James Halliday [Mark Rylance] and his business partner Ogden Morrow [Simon Pegg]. The world is in trouble – broken economies, climate change, rampant corporatism – and the only escape for most is Halliday’s creation. Five years before the movie begins, Halliday dies, and he leaves his entire fortune and control of the Oasis to whomever can solve a three-part puzzle, an Easter Egg he’s left inside the game. We enter at this point, as Wade “Parzival” Watts [Tye Sheridan] vies with other “gunters” (a rather unwieldy term that’s short for “egg hunters”) to solve the first part of the puzzle via a high speed obstacle race. He’s joined by his best friend Aesch [Lena Waithe] and rival/obsession/potential romantic interest Art3mis [Olivia Cooke].
They and the other gunters are in a race against a group of paid gamers and wage-slaves working for IOI – Innovative Online Industries – a tech company run by former Halliday intern Nolan Sorrento [Rogue One‘s Ben Mendelsohn]. As the movie unfolds, and Sorrento’s unscrupulous and deadly business practices become apparent, Parzival, Aesch, and Art3mis realize that the stakes are much higher than just winning a game and solving a puzzle. Losing to Sorrento and his people will mean the end of freedom for the Oasis and its players.
The movie’s stock-in-trade is a reliance on memory and geek culture, as it was Halliday’s childhood in the 1980s that drives his three-part puzzle and Easter Egg hunt. There are several changes from the book here, something that was necessary given that parts of the book wouldn’t translate well to the big screen. For my money, the best change is to the second puzzle, based around movie trivia and knowledge, and which focuses on one of my favorite films from the 80s. Without giving away which movie it is (it doesn’t show up in any of the trailers, so is a wonderful surprise), I will say this – Spielberg and his design team gets everything right, from the background music, to the exact set, to the characters and their interactions with Parzival and his friends. I was grinning all the way through, and may have even let out a slight cheer when the puzzle focus was revealed.
Plenty more media properties are seen throughout the movie, particularly in CG-heavy chase and fight scenes in the first and third acts, many of which show up in the trailer (the aforementioned DeLorean et al). There are also nods to classic movies from other decades (King Kong), more recent video games (Halo, Overwatch), and a ton of classic rock tunes integrated into Alan Silvestri’s excellent score. Even the weapons the characters use will be recognizable to players of different game franchises. Spielberg’s really done his homework.
Overall, Ready Player One was a very pleasant surprise. I went in with low expectations, but was thoroughly entertained. It’s a movie that almost demands multiple viewings due to the sheer deluge of external references, but it’s one that I won’t mind watching again and again. Spielberg’s best SF movie since 2002’s Minority Report.
Steve’s Rating: (8 / 10)
Spielberg delivers a fun popcorn movie that will appeal to children of the 80s, video gamers, and lovers of action/adventures alike, with solid performances and CG integrating nearly seamlessly throughout. Well worth your time.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (screenplay by); Ernest Cline (based on the novel by)
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, T.J. Miller
Release Date: March 29, 2018
Runtime: 2 hrs. 20 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13