Sometimes, movies and stories speak to us on a level that is hard to comprehend or even put into words. Cinematic experiences can dazzle and inspire or, on the contrary, confound and confuse us. But if done well, the trip is worth taking again and again. To some it’s art, to others it’s escapism, but a break from reality is one thing – the desire to live in that reality is quite another. So enter Steven Spielberg whose resume reads largely of some of the finest and impacting films in cinema history. Some of his films are so cherished and captivating that fans would do anything be ‘in’ right along with their hero(es).
That’s why it’s fitting that he, a man who unbelievably walks forward and backwards at the same time, take the helm for the adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel, Ready Player One. The story follows five key characters who want, nay prefer to step into a construct rather than step out and improve the bleak and impoverished populous around them. As such, Ready Player One hinges on many societal issues, paramount among them is the one in the last sentence, and a story like this couldn’t have hit theaters at a more ironic time.
We don’t live in world where Last Action Hero could happen, and even The Matrix was a bit of a stretch. But this adaptation is on our doorstep at a time when immersive console and phone games/apps (even social media) have proved to be a gateway to VR. Moreover, the story is so prescient it’s almost prophetic, and characters like Tye Sheridan’s Wade (aka Parzival) are, in a way, like an avatar for the cinema going public. The story, in book and now movie houses, shows us plenty of people who invest nearly all their time, money, and other resources to thrive in a virtual world – one that has the allure of endless possibilities – when the real world, conversely, lacks freedom and opportunity.
Shamelessly aimed at and immersed in geek culture, the source material is the embodiment of someone writing what they know; as such, Cline is a fanboy who has made good by just being a fan. And, for close to a decade, ’80s pop-culture has thoroughly saturated current culture. It will be quite some time for all the references to be identified in this colorful adventure (and much of that depends on the background and life experiences of the viewer), but Ready Player One is a lot like Stranger Things in that when you focus on character and story, everything else is simply set dressing. That’s not to dismiss any of the jaw-dropping visuals. They are, if nothing else as smile-inducing as they are hypnotic.
Spielberg casts a very unassuming set of actors and, for the most part, aside from current usual suspects like Mark Rylance, you might not be familiar with anyone on screen. And that’s a good thing. Why? Well, when don’t have familiarity with the likes of Olivia Cook or Lena Waithe, their arc and plot trajectory is tougher to decipher than when you have, say, Daniel Craig in a James Bond film.
Spielberg is essentially directing a glorified video game posing as a narrative which explains (not forgives) some non-existent character motivations. It’s a story about escapism played out in a theater where we go to do the same thing. In and of itself, that is very meta. Much of the interaction between these characters is done in a digital realm so while character development is overshadowed by visuals and plot advancing set pieces, there’s still something to keep us invested in the characters, even if we spend more time with their avatars than the actors. Still, even steeped in floaty digital overlays, they have a weight because the performances were motion-captured and solid.
Other highlights of the film include the likes of Simon Pegg, Ben Mendelsohn, and the above-mentioned Rylance, but while this is not exactly ‘Goonies in a video game’, the kids take center stage, fend for themselves, and seek independence sans adult influence. That’s a common Spielberg component, but here it can be too can be easily overlooked in a frenetic and gorgeous barrage of overwhelming visuals.
As a fan of film scores, it’s exciting that Alan Silvestri scored the film when, normally, it would have been John Williams. It‘s a nice touch as Silvestri deserves just as much credit for the classic ‘80s/’90s movies that inspired Cline’s book (as does the music Williams wrote for Spielberg’s films). In a quest film about Easter eggs, Silvestri drops some of his own in this nostalgia parade, and it’s tough not to when your protagonist drives a DeLorean, but his efforts are sadly muted by needle drop. There’s still some big moments between the songs, and, similar to Cline’s novel, he does get to play with an assortment of recognizable themes from other films (Godzilla and 1941) but they don’t have the weight that fans needed in a film like this.
Ready Player One is kind of like a sucker punch to your gut in the best way possible. That is to say that you just don’t expect to be so taken, visually, emotionally, and in a nostalgic sense by seeing your youth showcased on screen like this. The film throws everything in a blender, and while you can become desensitized, it is still very tasteful. Even if Spielberg purposely kept many references to his films out of this one, his mark is still all over the feature. You’ll spot iconic references in nearly every frame (eagle-eyed viewers will see things like Gizmo’s box), and Kubrick fans will LOVE one entire sequence, and as being a geek is now decidedly cool, the film is like a modern anthem as much as enjoyable throwback fan service. So, grab your Power Glove, your hypercolor shirt, or any cherished nostalgic memento, and go see Ready Player One!