Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s triumphant return to the kinds of films that made him famous, before his post Schindler’s List output featured less in the way of outright megahits. Certainly, I can’t recall such a satisfying, sugar-rush Spielberg blockbuster this side of the original Jurassic Park.
Adapted from a novel by Ernest Cline (with Cline on co-scripting duties along with Zak Penn), Ready Player One is set some years in the future, where much of the human race escapes the drudgery of reality by entering a virtual world known as the Oasis, as avatars. When Halliday (Mark Rylance), the Willy Wonka-esque founder of the Oasis dies, his will stipulates that whoever wins three special challenges within the Oasis, will win complete control of said virtual world. Subsequently it’s up to impoverished young protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan), his crush Samantha (Olivia Cooke), and their plucky friends to stop the Oasis from falling into the cruel corporate hands of Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
I had feared Ready Player One would prove little more than a geek-out, spot-the-reference meta narrative, with little in the way of originality or substance. However, I am pleased to report all such fears are unwarranted. As a director, Spielberg is the ideal person to place in control of this material, and whilst he does have fun referencing umpteen bits of TV, film and music pop culture – mostly from the 1980s – he doesn’t forget to make sure that the original narrative is front and centre.
For example, the love story between Wade and Samantha is quite sweet, but their relationship – and indeed the friendships between Wade and his other contacts – reflect our present reality of Tinder, Facebook and so on. Wade and Samantha meet as their respective avatars “Parzival” and “Art3mis” in the Oasis long before they meet in real life, wary of giving away personal data like names or how they really look. Of course, given the nature of the battle for control of the Oasis, it is understandable they are unsure who they can trust, but the parallel with our present is still clear.
Other contemporary themes – including how technology that could be used for the good of all, is so often monetised through advertising and other corporate interests – lurk on the periphery of the action. But Spielberg is firing on his most thrilling action cylinders here, and we’re never more than a minute or two away from another spectacular, hugely imaginative chase, fight, zero gravity dance, or surreal leap – whether a breathtakingly impossible vehicle race featuring DeLoreans, Light Cycles, T-Rexes, King Kong, Batmobiles and more, a retina-scorching battle featuring everything from the Iron Giant to Mechagodzilla, or a surreal left turn into a certain famous horror movie.
The young cast are all good, and resemble the motley crew so often seen in the classic Amblin movies of yesteryear. Mendelsohn is a somewhat one-note corporate villain, but the rest of the supporting cast – including the enigmatic Rylance and a neat bit part for Simon Pegg – add value to what turns into a multi-layered and delicious confection. The visual effects are obviously stunning, but the juxtaposition of the Oasis with the real world, especially towards the end of the film, makes sure the stakes are clearly seen and felt, ensuring this does not feel like some weightless video game, but something with real world consequences.
Spielberg’s usual crew, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn (also working with Sarah Broshar), are all present and correct, with only composer John Williams busy elsewhere, leaving Alan Silvestri to step in and do an excellent job at aping Williams’s style. Incidentally, the soundtrack also features some cleverly chosen pop songs, including New Order’s Blue Monday, Blondie’s One Way or Another, Van Halen’s Jump, Tears for Fears’s Everybody wants to rule the world, and many others.
Spielberg wisely chose to massively dial back the novel’s references to his own back catalogue, so that far from being a commentary on his own past career, Spielberg’s renowned warmth, optimism and (arguably misplaced) faith in our better angels ultimately shines through. In the end, Spielberg doesn’t want to condemn technology, merely the misuse of it. Ready Player One certainly isn’t preachy, but it’s central message, about not forgetting to live in the real world, could hardly be more timely.
One final thought: make sure you see Ready Player One on the biggest cinema screen, with the best sound system. It will lose a lot on television.
UPDATE: I’ve had requests asking about the suitability of this film for family audiences. Obviously you know your children best. We took our nine year old and thirteen year old, and they both thoroughly enjoyed it. However, if you are worried about potentially troublesome content, I’d say there is some mild swearing (s-words, etc) and one f-word. There is also a sequence where the protagonists enter (SPOILER ALERT) Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining, and scary elements within that film – the torrents of blood in the corridors, axe attacks and the decomposing woman in Room 237 – are deployed. However, they are toned down and used in such a way as to be appropriate to the 12A (PG-13 in the States) rating. Furthermore, there is much humour throughout the sequence (including showing how scared the baddies are) which means the film remains no scarier than something like The Goonies or an Indiana Jones film.