Review: Press Start on the Return to Spielbergian Wonder with ‘Ready Player One’

Steven Spielberg’s latest destination to a world of pure imagination offers thrills, wonder, and amazement. 

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Steven Spielberg’s latest destination to a world of pure imagination offers thrills, wonder, and amazement. 

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

It’s no secret that the virtual reality industry is on its way to having a permanent stamp in our society in the near future; from video games and automotive manufacturing to space simulations and military training, the possibilities are unpredictable but exciting to imagine for the technology. For that reason, it makes sense that movies about the invention would get the greenlight from Hollywood in this day and age, and sure enough, one of the first movies on the proverbial docket is the film adaptation of the Ernest Cline bestselling book Ready Player One. While the novel has its die-hard fans, the book has been criticized for having weak storytelling, excessive references to trends and fads from the 1980s, colloquial writing and a smug mentality about its knowledge of all things nerd culture. In the hands of another filmmaker, Ready Player One could have been an insufferable and cringeworthy nightmare as a movie, but prolific director Steven Spielberg adapts the source material into an entertaining spectacle that’s worth checking out on the silver screen through the use of gorgeous visual effects, breathtaking action sequences, and its earnestness in bringing The OASIS and its cast of characters to life.

Ready Player One takes place in the year 2045, where the world has been ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. However, the citizens of this post-apocalyptic dystopia find solace and a place to escape in The OASIS, an MMORPG-esque virtual reality universe created by innovator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon his death, Halliday leaves his massive, wealthy fortune to the first competitor who can find and obtain a collection of digital Easter eggs he has spread out across the OASIS, and initiates a contest that attracts the attention of the world’s population, including mild-mannered teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who uses the avatar of his character Parzival to enter himself, the adventurous Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and the rest of his friends (all together known as the ‘High Five Clan’) in a quest to find all the prizes before the diabolical corporation Innovative Online Industries, headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and the narcissistic avatar i-R0k (T.J. Miller), can attain it to privatize the OASIS and render it accessible only to the wealthy few.

Steven Spielberg has crafted his fair share of unforgettable adventures, and he certainly makes Ready Player One better than it had every right to be thanks to his assured direction, which takes form in how immersive the world of the OASIS is throughout the film. It successfully recreates the look and feel of an MMORPG (and even simulation games, to a degree) through how the camera follows Parzival in big, wide shots as he steps into the OASIS’s vast, virtual library, the vibrant, neon lights of the Distracted Globe dance club, and even a digital replica of an iconic location from a horror genre classic. It’s also worth noting that the film takes the referential dialogue from the story and makes it palatable; when characters reference a top 40 hit from the 1980s or pull up a 70s light-up floor to dance on a la Saturday Night Fever, it feels organic to the world of the OASIS for the reason being that gamers of that age would make those decisions and engage in that level of conversation. Meanwhile, the characters from intellectual properties that are said to stick out like a sore thumb to the point of overkill in the novel are relegated to background references for the most part, only growing prominent as moments of comic relief both visually and through lines of dialogue (Halliday wonders in a flashback, “Why can’t we go backwards instead of forwards?. . .Bill and Ted did it”).

The spectacle also carries over into the action sequences, which are as breathtaking and exciting as they’ve always been through every blockbuster in Spielberg’s filmography. The opening car race for the first Easter egg is especially involving on a kinetic level thanks to incredible CGI effects and long take cinematography that adds as many thrills here as there were in The Adventures of Tintin seven years prior. That being said, as fun and absorbing as the High Five Clan’s adventures are in the OASIS, the plot does advance through moments of convenience, and there’s not a lot of emotional depth to be found in the cast of characters. Ready Player One also takes a tonal shift toward the end of the second act where it spends more time in the real world than it should, and that’s where the concept of the story starts to turn for the hokey. But even then, this particular direction allows for enjoyment to be had on an absurd level, especially when several characters from a variety of properties show up all at once in the film’s epic climax.

There are even a few signs of substance that percolate throughout the film. What Wade and his friends learn about Halliday as a man provides poignant, if tragic, subtext for the life of a creative genius that remains a child at heart, while the conflict pitting citizens against big business can be seen as a reflection of the ongoing political battle over net neutrality, and the film also suggests a bright future in store for the possibilities of virtual reality technology. There could have been something to say on the darker side of gamer culture, but Ready Player One focuses relentlessly on being light-hearted, non-stop fun, and it succeeds in every facet. It’s gorgeous to look at through the impressive special effects and vibrant visual style, engaging to listen to for its nostalgic score and soundtrack, and creates an enthralling world that’s thrilling for audiences of all ages to explore, discover background cameos from classic characters, and marvel at the imagination and spectacle on display. It does everything a blockbuster should do, and that’s why it’s worth pressing start on this return to Spielbergian wonder and entertainment in Ready Player One.

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