Ready Player One is out in theaters on March 29th and, in short, it delivers what it promises. It’s a sweet ride that takes you deep into a world packed of geeky and nerdy references, and in the meantime has a story to tell. Not a very fresh story, but a story still.
Now, I know I am late to the party: the 2011 book by Ernest Cline has been forever on my reading list (I just started it recently, and so far I am loving it), and that means that what was “futuristic” 7 years ago, feels just about “coming soon” today.
But this also means that my opinion on the film is not clouded by the inevitable comparisons with the source material. I know that there are some very big differences, and that the two media should be considered as very different products, but that’s that. I won’t be raging about failed expectations.
Get ready. There are some minor spoilers ahead, and anyway nothing new if you have read the book.
But if you really want your experience to be “clean”, go watch it (on the biggest possible screen) and then come back. Mild spoilers start after the picture. You have been warned.
The story kicks off from a admittedly not very original premise: we are in 2045, in another Blade Runner-style dystopian future where things have gone pretty bad, environment and society have collapsed, and life generally sucks.
With one difference: reality can be bleak, but virtual reality shines brighter than ever. Everybody escapes the gloomy and sad conditions of their lives by joining a massively multiplayer online game, called OASIS, where everybody can be whoever they want, and do whatever they want. Think Minecraft, in VR, and for everybody. It doesn’t even feel that far, does it?
The young Wade Wyatt, who goes under the name of Parzival in the game (played by Tye Sheridan, the young Cyclops in “X-Men: Apocalypse) is our protagonist. He lives a particularly uninspiring life, but when James Halliday (the mysterious and ultra-geek creator of OASIS, half Gandalf and half Bill Gates) dies without heirs, he decides to face the biggest challenge of all: together with his ragtag collection of online friends – and one romantic interest – he will try to solve Halliday’s ultimate riddles, find the three secret keys hidden somewhere in the game, and become its new sole owner and master.
As I said, not an incredibly original plot idea, right? It’s like Willy Wonka meet Maze Runner meet World of Warcraft… except, somehow, it works. Because it’s young adult fiction, but without the sometimes shallow traits that can infest the genre creating ultra predictable plots (like, come on!).
And because it’s fantasy, but here the boat has a real virtuoso storyteller at the helm. I have no problem to say that I am a real sucker when it comes to Steven Spielberg, a man who had such a tremendous impact on cinema and storytelling in general (especially in the 80s and 90s), I can honestly say he helped to shape my life. He taught me how to dream, and how to look at the world – the real world – as if it was a fantastic place full of wonders and mysteries, and always with the eyes of a child.
With all its 80s and pop culture references, “Ready Player One” had “Spielberg” written all over it even before he decided to actually direct the movie. And then it happened.
(In doing it, he apparently had one major problem: he didn’t want to disseminate the film with too many quotes from his own work. Now, that’s one problem I would love to have, I have to admit.)
Now, I will not say that this is a mind-blowing masterpiece of writing, or science fiction. It doesn’t innovate terribly, it doesn’t create something entirely new out of nothing, it doesn’t challenge. But it’s a joy ride on a visual and emotional roller coaster, a leisure stroll down memory lane, a party where you get to meet a lot of old time friends and you get to choose the music, the references and the dress code.
In tone and style, this is more “The adventures of Tin Tin” than “Minority Report”.
The end result is an entirely enjoyable 2 hours 20 minutes ride, which strikes all the right buttons. The film score is in the hands of the legendary Alan Silvestri, and he also knows how to conjure a special magic of his own: when audio references (notably the repeated music cue to “Back to the Future”, the immortal soundtrack he composed in 1985) meet the visual ones, the effect is goosebumps.
Ah yes, about References: there. are. a. lot.
In the story, OASIS’ creator and master Halliday is obsessed by the 80s: videogames, cinema, music, fashion. He grew up in that decade and he was so fond of it that, he warned, in order to find his easter eggs and win the competition, his players need to become experts in everything 80s.
From the book:
“The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture.”
The consequence is interesting and somewhat hilarious. In 2045 there are cohorts of experts who challenge each other on trivia and knowledge of the pop culture based on Duran Duran, King Kong and Atari videogames. In a curious way, the device works.
To be honest, not only the 80s: the movie features a constant bombardment of suggestions and references (so many that it’s impossible to make a full list in one view – but there are brave people out there who are trying). Maybe too many: they can be distracting.
Or is it intended?
As I said, if one pays attention to the main plot and characters, there isn’t really much there to think about. So the continuous flow of cameos and easter eggs – very appropriated, since the film is released on Easter weekend in the US and Europe – can even become the main reason you will like the movie. Is that good? Is that bad? But if it’s bad, why does it feel so good?
Let’s kick in some examples.
The three main sequences that correspond to the three main riddles serve so much on the visual plate, that can be breath-taking. I mean it in a positive sense: I was holding my breath during entire sequences.
In the first, a crazy drive through a virtually reconstructed Manhattan, Parzival drives a DeLorean (modified with lights from KITT from “Knight Rider”) against – among others – a Batmobile, Akira’s motorcycle, the A-Team van and the Interceptor from “Mad Max”. Other drivers include Lara Croft and Ryu from Street Fighter. On the road, with other challenges, they will have to face Jurassic Park’s T-Rex (identical, ça va sans dire) and King Kong. Yep, it’s that kind of crazy.
In the second memorable scene, the group of protagonists will explore the setting of The Shining (the film, not the book), so meticulously re-created that it feels like a simulation, not a homage. So yes: a movie creates a videogame that creates a movie as part of a mini-game… I am lost in the layers of meta meaning. Like this WIRED piece says very well, it’s much more than a reference. It’s a reflection on the permanent relevance of pop culture in our life. It’s just good, very good. Open mouth level of goodness.
And then the third, the final battle: a final assault against the bad guys fortress (on planet Doom) so thick with characters and cameos, that my eyes were wandering on the big screen trying to capture as many as possible. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fighting back to back with Street Fighter characters, the Iron Giant and Gundam against a huge Mecha-Godzilla, a full squad of Halo soldiers, to the sound of the Twisted Sisters’ We are not gonna take it. Seriously, it’s almost too much, but boy did it feel good!
Any bad news? Yes, there are. As said, the characters’ development is sketchy at best. The main roles are delivered with convincing performances (and to see Ben Mendelsohn – director Krennic from Rogue One – mentioning a Millennium Falcon is a treat in itself), but the supporting cast doesn’t really have much to do besides, well… supporting.
Even the love story between Parzifal and Art3mis results hurried (like, a lot) and plasticky. Love is a little more complicated than that, doesn’t matter if it happens in the real or virtual world.
The implications of virtual friendships and even romance crossing over to the real world could have been explored in a deeper way. Sure, many people will be familiar with the topic and we are not anymore in 1998, but still.
And then there is the familiar Spielberg signature-style: good feelings, happy ending, the bad guys get arrested by the cops, (almost) nobody gets really hurt, love triumphs and there is a clear-cut moral lesson at the end.
But, is it really bad? OK, times have changed, but can I really say that the man who invented “Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park” cannot tell a story?
He can, he tells his own stories, they are called “Spielberg movies” for a reason. And if they are a bit cliché well, he invented them, he owns them. And I am not here to say I have had enough of them.
Ah, speaking of story: the differences with the book are HUGE, so if you loved the printed version, beware – or you can be very disappointed.
One of the main changes is the decisive make-over of Art3mis, the female protagonist (and yes, love interest). In the film version, she is the leader of a resistance group, a stronger and more empowered version of the literary character who, in turn, resulted a bit too shallow and a “trophy princess”, which attracted criticism. So this is a good thing rather than not. Other changes are maybe more marginal and include a lesser space given to “Dungeons and Dragons” in the story *shame!* and some other changes in the dynamics between the characters, but all together I can say that the plot holds water.
Serious question: what about somebody who is not
as geeky as me so much into videogames and pop culture? Can they still enjoy the movie? I honestly think YES. My test subject was Bara, my lovely wife, who loved it and if anything, was less distracted by the mini game of “wooo! have you seen THAT?” and let herself be more immersed in the story.
This blog in a way or another covers all things connected to the Hero’s Journey, and make no mistake, this is no exception. Ernest Cline (who wrote the book and co-signed the film script) openly acknowledges Joseph Campbell’s work, declares himself the luckiest geek alive and a huge Star Wars fan, grew up in a farm and says that “Ohio was his Tatooine”.
In conclusion: “Ready Player One” is an enjoyable feel good story and a memorable homage to an entire culture and genre. It’s a geek fest and at the same time a generation’s manifesto, a bitter-sweet ride into nostalgia that can be rewarding and lots of fun.
With some interesting after thoughts. At the end, Halliday quotes Groucho Marx: “I am not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal”. Fantasy has an amazing potential, and this will be even more true in the coming years, but the role of virtual worlds is to make the real one more interesting, not to make people escape from it.
Spielberg and Cline speak through Halliday, I think, and this is also the mission of every dedicated storyteller and game designer. To provide a memorable experience – disseminated with challenges, easter eggs and signature traits – but and at the end of it all, leave the scene being able to say: “Thank you for playing my game”.
Or “OK, that’s it. turn off your computer and do something constructive”. Here are some memorable examples.