At the recent Empire Awards Meryl Streep proudly called Steven Spielberg a ‘pessimist’s nightmare’, saying that ‘there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in [his] world view’. The truth of these words is epitomised in the legendary director’s newest film Ready Player One - a feel good, escapist adventure.
Based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel, Ready Player One is set in a grim dystopian future. The year is 2045 and the setting is Columbus, Ohio. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenage orphan who lives in ‘the stacks’, a trailer park where the trailers are piled storeys high - although the real setting of this film is ‘The Oasis’, an immersive virtual world where participants can live out any and every fantasy. As Wade says himself, ‘people come to The Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.’
Ready Player One is, first and foremost, a celebration of popular culture. Whilst it could be accused of being gimmicky and over-saturating the plot with references, the true joy of the film is found in the playful exploration of the films, music and games which defined our collective childhood. This is Steven Spielberg at his endearing best: directing a film through the eyes of a big kid.
The Oasis we see as viewers is resplendent with these pop-culture references. As its creator Halliday grew up in the 1980s, it makes sense that he would fill his online world with that which he knows and loves. Part of its beauty is that there are as many ‘in your face’ references as there are subtle nudges. An early scene sees Wade’s avatar race a host of others in a reimagined New York City featuring The DeLorean, Mad Max’s interceptor, King Kong, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and the A-team van - but there are so many ‘blink and you miss it’ nods everywhere you look. The camera work here moves at breakneck speed, showing us the action from almost every angle. This goes hand in hand with the technical wizardry of the motion capture and visual effects that fill the film with vibrancy.
The Oasis, the online world in which all this occurs, was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance as a gamer nerd. Worth the price of the ticket for that alone). James Halliday has died and has left the ownership of the Oasis (and the immense fortune that goes with it) open to anyone who can win a contest that he’s created inside it. This is where we find our story.
Wade dreams of winning this contest and begins to embark on what is essentially a giant treasure hunt. But as with all treasure hunts, there are other people who will stop at nothing to get to the prize first. The most notable of these is corporate big-shot Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who plans to suck the soul out of The Oasis by monetising it and filling it with ads - a concept that is all too familiar in the real world in 2018. Mendelsohn’s performance itself is a nod to the 1980s archetypal villain. A bully you love to hate, in the style of Mama Fratelli or Biff Tannen.
Although the pace of the film does sag in parts, and the ending is drawn out, it’s worth sticking with as there is meaning amidst the culture-fest. Just as we’re invited to dive into someone else’s Easter egg hunt, we’re equally invited to pursue our own. To chase after our own adventure in life, no matter how hard it can sometimes be. Spielberg’s lack of cynicism is as evident in this film as it’s ever been.
Ready Player One is a joyous audio-visual feast. It’s a true cinematic spectacle, worthy of the biggest screen you can possibly see it on. And whilst Spielberg doesn’t fully recapture the magic of his early films, he certainly comes close.
Check out some more images from Ready Player One below. It lands in cinemas on March 28.