“This is not a film that we’ve made, this is — I promise you — a movie” announced a nervous Steven Spielberg on the SXSW stage last week. Seeing as the two words denote exactly the same thing, this caused a flurry of sardonic amusement over the internet. However, after seeing Ready Player One a week later, the statement appears oddly prescient.
Spielberg’s adaptation of Cline’s novel is a sort of world-devouring meta-product, wherein a retro director adapts a novel aiming to channel his own 80s spirit, and turns it into a future-set feature length high-dive into the shimmering blue past. It’s a film that hedges its big-budget bets on the premise that nostalgia sells; but it’s also one that features a villain hellbent on exploiting pop-culture imagery for monetary gain. Like the mythical ouroboros, Ready Player One twists and turns around its own premise, evading the logical grasp of those foolhardy enough to try and untangle its existence.
All this mobius-strip mindfuckery has resulted in something genuinely transporting: a portal to Goonies-era Spielberg with all the trimmings. Ready Player One may have its flaws, but it’s a vintage-quality piece from the 71-year old director whose films have tailed-off in quality over recent years.
Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts – a geeky, self-absorbed teenager living in a post-apocalyptic caravan park in Ohio. In 2045, it seems, humanity has given up on trying to remedy the problems of a broken world and has instead turned to the OASIS: a virtual reality simulator. Its creator, James Halliday, was an 80’s obsessive – and so his product is an amalgamation of iconography from video game, music, and movie history into a virtual smorgasbord of pop-culture. It’s a place where the real world and entertainment are transposed into a hadron collider and smashed together until they gel.
Upon his death, Halliday created a cryptic challenge: find three keys, and unlock the door that leads to complete control of the OASIS – not to mention a trillion dollars in company shares. Watts, or rather his online avatar ‘ParZival’, is part of a group of ‘Gunters’ – disparate gamers who spend their hours trying to win this quest. However, the insidious IOI Company (headed by a fantastic Ben Mendelsohn) spies the commercial opportunity control of society presents and spends vast manpower (not to mention a small army) on trying to achieve the same goal. When ParZival discovers the logical trickery that leads to the first key, he and his band of friends (plucky activist ‘Art3mis’, Orc-like ‘Aech’, and samurai sword-master ‘Daito’) suddenly become central to a face-off that will determine the fate of the world.
Over half of Ready Player One takes place in this game world, which is just as well because Spielberg has created one hell of a virtual playground in which to situate his characters. Make no mistake, we’re very much in uncanny valley territory, but the setpieces conjured up by ILM are absolutely breathtaking. The opening car chase – a vicious, breakneck speed through a constantly evolving Manhattan – is one of the most thrilling things you’ll see this year. Replacing retro jukebox hits with pure pedal-to-the-metal engine noise, the scene sees a variety of iconic motors (a DeLorean, the bike from Akira, the batmobile et al) duel with looping roads, wrecking balls, a T-Rex, and even King Kong to get to the finish line: it’s jaw-dropping stuff. In other areas, different styles of game and animation are employed to create a diverse, imaginative video-game world that’s always changing from scene to scene.
As far as references go, you’re either going to love it or hate it. There’s a pretty incessant barrage of ‘hey, that’s x from y’. When they’re visual, they mostly work: there’s no explanatory showboating or unnecessary exposition. But when they leak into the script (alongside gamer-terms like ‘noob’ and ‘fanboy’), the cringe factor kicks in. The sky-high litmus test for pop culture repurposing comes in at around the 1/3 point, when the main characters literally walk inside The Shining for 6/7 minutes. I don’t mean some reimagining of The Shining, I mean The Shining itself: original shots textured with analogue grain and populated by original actors. If you think it’s pretty cool that a 21st Century film has taken a horror masterpiece and contextualised it into a completely different paradigm that celebrates the original whilst still facilitating a plot device, then you’ll love it. If you think it’s shocking that a major Hollywood production has literally plagiarised arguably the best director of all time, then you’ll hate it.
Overall, it’s a colourful, self-aware, frenetic piece of eye-candy that manages to engender the sort of childlike wonder that Spielberg is synonymous with. So far, so good, but Ready Player One has a fundamental problem: it is indeed a movie, not a film. Sure, Spielberg delivers relentless visuals and action – but that’s it: I struggle to think of the last time I was so acutely aware I was watching a movie, divorced from the experience of actually living it. There’s no emotional heft (a romance between ParZival and Art3mis is toe-curlingly cliché), and also no tension: because you can’t actually die in the OASIS, there’s never any real danger or sacrifice for our characters. The one moment of actual loss in the screenplay is brushed over as if it never happened. Spielberg’s free-roaming camera may be impressively fluid, but it gives a video-game aesthetic to many scenes, making it feel a little like we’re passively watching someone else have all the fun at the controls.
At the premiere of Ready Player One, Spielberg commented that he wasn’t sure whether the SXSW screen was large enough for his project. If you’re the kind of person that thinks screen size can dictate the quality of a movie, then this might seem to be a pop-culture masterpiece. For those of us, however, that don’t think turning up the volume equals an increase in sound quality, its an interesting piece of work with some serious issues. If Ready Player One looks like the fantastic, acid-tripping, cosmic rollercoaster of your dreams, the catch is that you can only ride it through the Oculus Rift.