The future: a vertical trailer park that makes Columbus, Ohio look like a jagged sea of oversized shoe boxes. This is the world of Ready Player One, circa 2045 – itself the backdrop for Oasis, a virtual space where seemingly everyone on the planet connects to in order to avoid the gloom of reality.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, this is Charlie And The Chocolate Factory for a generation of online gamers: the protagonist is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a Charlie Bucket-like hero of humble birth who joins the race for a set of hidden keys that will give him control of the whole factory – or, in this case, untold riches and a ruling hand over Oasis itself.
Ready Player One was a best-seller, though the online reactions since its publication in 2011 have soured somewhat depending on where you look. Whatever you thought of the source material, it’s difficult to fault the director who’s stepped in to adapt the thing: Steven Spielberg makes Ready Player One an intriguing prospect, not just because of his obvious abilities as a storyteller, but also because his fingerprints are all over Cline’s novel, which is steeped (perhaps too steeped, you might argue) in 80s pop culture.
Somewhat modestly, Spielberg has resisted the temptation to use Ready Player One as an opportunity to replay his greatest hits; references to the likes of E.T. or Indiana Jones are nowhere to be seen (if they’re in the movie at all, like an amusing sight gag about Last Action Hero’s doomed fight with Jurassic Park, then they’re brief), and the closest you’ll come to the director’s own back catalogue is a prominent appearance from the DeLorean from Back To The Future – a movie Spielberg executive produced.
Otherwise, the filmmaker plays down his own contribution to the 80s, with the plot casting its net a little wider than the book in its evocation of classic games and films. His late friend Stanley Kubrick gets an extended shout-out, as does Brad Bird’s animated gem, The Iron Giant; you’ll hear Van Halen and Rush on the soundtrack, but not a note from Jaws or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
If you’re wondering why we’ve already spent so long waffling on about references, that’s because they’re the lifeblood of Ready Player One. The Oasis was created by a chap named Halliday, a reclusive game designer who appeared to value the culture of his childhood over everything else. Shortly before his death, Halliday hid the three keys to his kingdom in his virtual world, leaving its players to pore over a decade of trashy culture – everything from cereals to half-forgotten TV shows to Atari 2600 games – in the hope of finding the clues to their whereabouts.
Among all the Gunters – the story’s nickname for its Easter egg hunters – Watts is the most nerdily clued-up. Not far behind is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whom Wade happens to have a huge crush on. But towering everyone else is the cold-blooded Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the billionaire Goliath to Wade’s David – he’s spending billions on a corporate-backed attempt to gain the three keys and take control over Oasis.
Where Sorrento has money at his disposal, Watts has encyclopaedic knowledge – thus making him a kind of geek culture superhero in a scenario where knowing all the secrets of old videogames is everything. To their credit, though, Cline and co-writer Zak Penn tone down a lot of the geekier-than-thou stuff from the novel, and the movie instead becomes more about Watts’ cooperation with his friends, who include a tech expert, Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis, who’s given far more to do here (which is just as well, since Cooke is great value). It’s easy to detect Spielberg’s hand in the story changes, too; it’s almost spooky how much Watts – bespectacled, shy-looking, frumpily dressed in a lumberjack shirt – looks like Spielberg in his younger years.
As Watts rushes around Oasis, engaging in high-speed races, zero-gravity disco dances and daring escapes from Sorrento’s clutches, there’s the overriding sense of Spielberg returning to his youth through Wade – the geeky 20-something filmmaker who loved classic arcade games and, in the late 70s and early 80s, had the world at his feet. Spielberg and his collaborators also make Halliday – a somewhat flat figure in the book – a more sympathetic character here, and Mark Rylance’s performance, which seems somewhat off-kilter at first, takes on a gently poignant air later in the film. His take on Halliday is frail, lonely, seemingly filled with regret. Underpinning all of Ready Player One’s bombast, there’s the wistful feeling of an old man trying to beam back a nugget of advice to his younger self.
Filled though it is with the latest in CGI wizardry – from races through crumbling cities to huge multiplayer battles – Ready Player One somehow feels a little quaint. Maybe it’s because, for all the action and futuristic technology, it’s as much a simple, good-natured film for kids as The Goonies was. Like Cline’s novel, the movie never quite gets to grips with the ramifications of its future world; the notion of a generation lost to an addictive VR simulation’s an intriguing one, but it’s largely skirted over in the surge of action sequences.
Time has also done much to erode what made the book feel at least somewhat unique in 2011; Ready Player One: the movie tries to update its credentials with glimpses of characters from recent things like Minecraft and Overwatch, but the story will already feel familiar to those who queued up to see Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie – both films that deal in the same reference-heavy stock as Ready Player One.
In the moment, Ready Player One is an entertaining film, and it’s even a little touching how Spielberg’s taken a time to make this his own. You can sense the glee with which he’s evoked the dark spirit of a classic horror in a family film; the same director who snuck scenes of gore into PG-rated films like Jaws and The Temple Of Doom can still be found here. All the same, Ready Player One feels largely ephemeral; the by-product of a cultural love affair that has already reached its peak. Spielberg elevates the material, certainly, but then, that’s because he helped write the American blockbuster rulebook in the first place.
Ready Player One is out in UK cinemas on the 29th March.