“Ready Player One”: nostalgia has never felt this good

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.

ready-player-one-jurassic-park
Yes, that’s a T-Rex chasing a DeLorean. It happens a lot, in OASIS.

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.

Greetings from a certain room in The Overlook Hotel.

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.

The final battle will be a feast for your eyes (and maybe ears, but that depends).

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.

The Mortal Kombat dragons protect a very literal Easter Egg in the treasure room.

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.

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5 thoughts on ““Ready Player One”: nostalgia has never felt this good

  1. Wow. What a monster of a blogpost you did. That had to take lot of work. I must admit, I wasn’t planning to see that movie, but you changed my mind.

    *Petr Jasinski* *Naučím vás skvěle prezentovat a komunikovat.*

    *———————————————————————-* KurzyKomunikace.cz +420 777 545 765 @petrjas

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    2018-03-31 21:22 GMT+02:00 To say nothing of the cat :

    > carminerodi posted: “Ready Player One is out in theaters on March 29th and > 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. Now, I know I am late to the party: t” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ok, i saw it.
    And it was like less than an hour ago, i’m probably still making my mind about it.

    first things first anyway:
    1) no, i didn’t read the book so i’m only writing about the movie.
    2) i have a medium level culture of ’80s. i grew up in the ’90s and i tried to rediscover at least what’s most important about pop culture in the decade before.

    let’s go on.

    i’m going straight to the point: i didn’t like it so much. i don’t feel satisfied.
    and here’s why:

    quotes.
    i love quotes, i really do. well… good ones at least.
    This OASIS videogame was created by a maniac, a true pop freak. Halliday is painted that way, clearly !
    why then everything seems so meaningless ? it all looks like a huge orgy of memories, but there’s nothing to think about, nothing to remember, no cues from good
    old plots.
    What i mean is that there’s no real need for a ” familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions”.
    it feels like “hey did you see the poster from jurassic park ? fine that’s enough, no need for the entire movie”.
    here’s my question: is it the same in the book ?

    about the story now…

    Carmine you wrote that the plot isn’t “ultra predictable”.
    really ??? ok, Wade’s best friend beeing a girl was great, but that’s all folks.
    i guess i could have told the whole story right after the first 15 minutes or so. you’re right, that’s because of those clichès Spielberg invented and owns,
    but after all these years i wouldn’t rate the plot as anything more than sufficient.

    And when it comes to characters things get worse.

    Wade is a non convincing mix of Peter Parker and Clark Kent, only he doesn’t even evolve.
    Speaking of the hero’s journey ( i’m no expert, i only know basic stuff ) , he doesn’t refuse the call, he doesn’t face his own personal problems,
    he doesn’t grow at all. When Art3mis tells him: “you don’t love me, you don’t know me, you only like what i’am in this videogame” ( no exact quote )
    and kick him in his stomach, i thought “wow, this looks like a great point from which to start a reflection,
    here’s where the process begins”. but then it just doesn’t happen.
    Even those who stick closer to the protagonist don’t go as deep as i would have expected.
    His friends, Art3mis, his aunt and her lover ( the last one could be an exception: he’s really bad,
    he embodies addiction and violence and he gets what he deserves. but i’m taking this point back later ).
    I admit, the main Villain doesn’t look that bad. he’s clichè for sure, but he’s still solid and convincing.
    Sadly the same doesn’t go for F’nale and i-R0k: they are quite meaningless, have no great roles and… well, just nothing more to say i believe.

    the love story:

    NO.

    final point: the message.

    here’s what disappointed me the most. where’s the clear-cut moral lesson ?
    is it: “get two free days a week for some good old non-cyborg sex and then back into the game while the real world keeps collapsing” ?
    this movie has good inputs, but no reflections, no developments, let me explain:
    Wade’s aunt’s lover tells us what happens to those who are no heroes. He’s addicted to a non-real life that brings him to waste all he has, all his money.
    in the beginning we get to see people trying to commit suicide when they die in the videogame. we see parents ignoring their children yelling for help when the
    kitchen goes on fire, because of the OASIS.
    In such a distopic situation the only solution is the red button, the button that ends it all. it is there and Wade almost pushes it,
    but then he doesn’t and everything keeps going the same as before, only a bit less.

    now…

    i’m a videogame lover. i’m no ultra expert, but still i know my way arround the point pretty well and i see no moral lesson here.
    Let me make this clear again: in the movie THE WORLD IS COLLAPSING.
    The human beeing is lost, we can easily think of wars raging all arround the globe, poverty and starvation spreading like a plague… and ? and the solution is to run away from everything real, straight into a
    dimension that doesn’t really exist.
    NO !
    Videogames can tell us “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” ( cit. the blog owner ).
    But they can’t BE the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hello Davide :) thank you for the very detailed comment!

      Nice to have stirred some conversation here.
      I am sorry you didn’t like the movie, and at the same time, it’s OK.: on rotten tomatoes at the moment it has a 75% rating by the critics and 80% by the audience, and I think it pretty much sums it up. Good, but not ground breaking. Sometimes it happens that I don’t like a movie that the majority of people and critics love (one example, Star Wars ep VIII) – and it’s also OK.
      A creative work cannot have unanimous opinions, it’s what makes art so interesting!

      A little bit more to clarify the points that you raise: I think “RPO” is first and foremost a beautiful piece of audio-visual entertainment. It’s important to say this first. Is more “E.T.” and “Goonies”, than “Amistad” or “Schindler’s List”.
      I think it’s fine to be critical about the function of Art in society, but sometimes the only purpose of a film can also be just entertainment, or evasion. As far as I am concerned, it’s OK.

      I am only at the beginning of the book and I cannot comment it in depth, but so far what I know is that the world really IS collapsing, and in the mid of climate change, wars and energy crisis the idea that OASIS is there and represents a… well, an oasis of safety and fun is very realistic and credible. What can a single boy do to save the world? Frankly, if Wade managed to change everything after becoming the owner of OASIS, that would feel like an exaggeration to me. And I don’t know, maybe it can happen, but it’s material for another story (a RPO 2 maybe?).

      About some other points:
      – sadly, plot and characters ARE very predictable, you are right. I write it in multiple parts of my article. The love story in particular is just very superficial. Too bad. I cannot compare with the source material since I am not that deep in the book.
      What I think is not “entirely predictable” is the way RPO handles the genre of “Young Adult” (a young person is somehow special and destined to change the world and, well, at the end (s)he makes it”. What I like is that Wade really works hard to become the best. It’s not “being the chosen one” but it’s “becoming the best in the field”. Even if the field is “80s and 90s trivia”. I like that. After all, it’s the essence of being “nerd” or otaku: to be obsessed and learn everything about a specific topic, no matter how other people consider it irrelevant.

      – about the superficiality of quotes and references, in general I agree, it’s a huge mish-mash of references, but that’s the general idea of quotes. With maybe two big exceptions that, for me, change the way I see this film: 1) the entire “Shining” sequence that is, I think, without precedent and is much more than a homage, is an example of how a piece of pop culture can become the backdrop for an entirely different story, it’s really “meta-art” and it’s more than fan service, watching that sequence was really a rewarding and personal experience for me; and 2) “Back to the Future”, which in a sense accompanies all the stages of the story – the DeLorean, the music, and the “Zemeckis cube” – maybe because IT IS the story! It’s the super power that Wade and his generation would like to have (go back in time and enjoy an idealized version of the past), but it’s also what so many otakus and 80s enthusiasts sometimes try to do: to crystallize a historical age and live its memory forever.
      So – for me – the obsessive and forced references to “Back to the Future” somehow represent also a form of social critique against the fan base for which the movie is intended!

      – about the value of the Hero’s Journey, I will have to watch it again (and again) to make a more detailed analysis, but I think it’s pretty much there, and not so superficial as it may seem at first look. On the “refusal of the call” you mention I identified it in the evil aunt and uncle interference with Wade’s plan. The refusal is not always expressed in the form of self-doubt, sometimes it comes as an external obstacle (this is pretty much like in Harry Potter).

      And the ending – I think the real value of the ending is not so much in “the villains are arrested and OASIS is saved!” but in the meeting between Halliday an Wade at the end. I would like to watch it again and again to get more layers of meaning from it.
      I think for the protagonist the learning is: a game can be great, but it exists only to improve reality, not instead of it. Just like you wrote. Wade and friends explore Halliday’s memories for the whole time, and the essence of their learning is “do not repeat the mistakes he made”.
      In short, Halliday was a multi millionaire and a genius, but he was also a failed man. It becomes very clear in the ending sequence: not the powerful wizard Anorak, but a kid locked up in his bedroom, who is afraid to go outside (= grow).
      Wade and Art3mis realize that very clearly, and their growth is represented exactly by what they need to learn to gain the three keys: 1) sometimes you need to go against the general direction; 2) avoid repeating past mistakes and be brave to obtain your life’s goals; 3) sometimes the best result is not “winning the game”, but to live the moment looking for the hidden gems.

      The “thank you for playing my game” at the end, for me, really encloses the entire film’s message and theme. A game, at the end, is just a game – and life is what happens when we turn the computer off and go out of the door.

      Thank you for your inputs!

      Like

  3. Hey carmine thank you for the reply.

    Well, let me clarify: i’m not mad at the movie in general. For sure it is a master piece when it comes to visual satisfaction, musical themes and choices, special effects and so on…
    Still it lacks some ( a lot of ) depth in my opinion.
    We’ve already discussed the star wars VIII point: that really makes sense to me, it has clear stories, clear roles, growing and evolving characters… And it is as visually impressive as RPO is.

    As you said, it’s probably ok this way.

    But i guess i didn’t explain the quote point well: the shining scene is impressive, but it doesn’t truly relate to the original movie imo. It’s a great scenario in which to tell another story, and that’s exactly the point.
    RPO only gives you back images, no stories at all.
    That goes for almost every quote in the movie: great scenarios and characters from the past, but they look empty.
    This is ok when some random players embody Ninja Turtles, Halo squads, Lara Croft, Ryu… But when we meet Npcs ans scenarios created by Haliday, well then i would’ve expected much more right because of Haliday “pathological” obsession with pop culture.
    This only happens in the last tryal: “play for playing sake” ( imo as allways ).

    Fine, that’s it :)

    Liked by 1 person

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