Remember the good old days? Hollywood sure does, and they seem to be making return trips to the nostalgia well every chance they get, which is why in the wrong hands Ready Player One – a story that thrives on pop culture icons and legends of yesteryear – could have every reason to fail. It may have been a safe bet then, to place it in the hands of that cap-wearing creator of our childhood, Steven Spielberg – or was it? For a director whose recent track record hasn’t matched the peak of his golden era that Ernest Cline’s book the film is based on clings to so dearly, a story of this scale may have proved that the veteran director is out of touch. It only takes one dip into the OASIS to learn that thankfully isn’t the case.
Set in the year 2045, the future is looking bleak for humanity as over population and technological advances have forced us to get away into the artificial arena that is the OASIS; a virtual landscape where you can live your wildest dreams depending on your gaming skills and coin level. Amidst this world of daily challenges and extra lives outside our own, is Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), an orphaned loner who finds a home within this safe haven and is determined to get the coveted Easter Egg, a McGuffin that’s one in a trillion which will grant the treasure seeker control of the OASIS and the fortune left by it’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) since his passing. Watts isn’t the only one with his eye on the prize though, and soon he gains the attention of competitive suit Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of an opposing computer company that has big bad plans for the OASIS.
Even with a story cemented in referring to other well-known tales and the characters that inhabit them, Spielberg manages to make Ready Player One new, fresh and most importantly, believable. It might not feel as fleshed out as some other potential futures the filmmaker has sent us to in the past, like Minority Report or even Artificial Intelligence, but what detail might be lacking in the real world is recovered when we’re sent into the world beyond our own. When Parzival (Watts’ avatar alias) wanders through this polygon-enfused paradise, it really is a sight to behold. Cast in an occaisonal neon hue, not a second is wasted to cram it with characters and images from days gone by that’ll have you catching yourself pointing at the screen in glee.
This might be one of Spielberg’s most rewatchable films, simply to see which famous face or reference is appearing in every frame that breaks up the stunning set pieces conjured for this extravagant easter egg hunt. From a race to the finish line where King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park are an engaging obstruction, to one gob-smacking horror location that has no place in a family film but fits perfectly here, you’re a liar if there isn’t a moment that doesn’t have you grinning like a moron at some of the stuff on display. Considering the tale is coming from such a visionary, it’s no surprise that the film is so stunning, what’s frustrating is just how wafer-thin some of the cast that are running around in it actually are.
It may have proved a challenge to bring depth to the characters and their aliases in a film that’s so set in virtual reality, but this is Spielberg we’re talking about. This man made us weep over an alien built like a potato – he can’t get us behind an orphan lacking in emotional connection? He’s not all to blame though, as Ty Sheridan for the films lead isn’t the best choice, either. Bland and basic in his delivery of Wade Watts, he masters being the normal face in the crowd outside the OASIS but can’t muster the charm or presence when it comes to leading the charge – and it’s practically non-existent when he’s got the second skin of Parzival covering his mug. Overall, he’s outgunned by everyone else on-screen; whether it’s Ben Mendelsohn being devious dickweed Nolan Sorrento, or his rebellious love and gaming legend Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the interest levels rise every time other players enter the game, rather than the one we’re supposed to get behind.
With that said, there’s still many treasures within Ready Player One that we’ve learned to expect from Spielberg. Spectacle and sentimentality that hit the right note is something he’s an undeniable master in, reaching levels that other directors still have yet to perfect. Amidst all the references and hair-raising moments to take from it, it’s clear that Spielberg is still game for making an enjoyable fantasy hit.