IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 140 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 2045, Earth is full of slum-like cities due to overpopulation, pollution, corruption, and climate change, so people spend most of their time in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where they can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. Its creator James Halliday has promised his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. 18 year old orphan Wade Watts conquers the first challenge, but Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a video game conglomerate and manufacturer of most the virtual reality equipment used to access the OASIS, also seeks ownership of the virtual reality world…..
Okay, we had The Adventures Of Tin Tin in 2011, and The BFG in 2016, but it’s really seemed for some time now that Steven Spielberg, despite being one of the main creators of the modern ‘blockbuster’, is more interesting in making serious, dialogue-driven dramas based on true historical events. The disappointing box office performances of the above two films seemed to reveal that his name was no longer the big box office draw that it used to be either. But now we have Ready Player One, which on the face of it seems to be an attempt by Spielberg to try to run with the kids and also an attempt by him to try to retain some of his youthful energy – while also adapting a book which is chock full of references to mainly 80’s [though not entirely] pop culture which he played a big part in. I’m familiar with Ernest Cline’s 2011 book, but I wonder if this is one of those films in which your liking or disliking of it may at least partly depend on whether you’ve read it or not. It seems that quite a bit has been changed for the screen, something which has understandably irritated many fans of the book despite one of the two screenwriters being Cline himself. Apparently there are some dramatic changes to the plot, a great majority of the ‘real world’ stuff is missing, and they’ve added much action, but I wasn’t aware of any of this when I watched the film and managed to have a pretty good time despite having little interest in computer games. For some reason I expected something like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film I loathed with a passion, but that’s certainly not what I got.
So to get it out of the way first – about those pop culture references. Yes, the film is literally teaming with them while 80’s pop hits are often heard on the soundtrack. You could indeed tell the majority of the story without them, they aren’t usually necessary at all, but the majority of them don’t tend to be obtrusive either. A major action beat takes place in the DeLorean from Back To The Future, but if you don’t recognise it then it doesn’t matter, it’s just a really cool looking car for our heroes to drive around in. At times Spielberg and co. just seem to be showing off how many characters they can get the rights to, from familiar ones like Robocop to ones only fan of a certain kind of film may spot like the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. But the number of times I managed to smile at this stuff was far more than I expected – for goodness sake there’s even a great Chucky moment and a major plot diversion diversion into a perfectly recreated Overlook Hotel which even uses the photograph in which Jack Torrence appears at the end to good and clever effect while the IOI minions, whose miming to unseen perils creates some chuckles throughout, react in terror. Only some dodgy CGI near the end mars a sequence that should have fans of Stanely Kubrick’s film grinning from ear to ear, something I also did when no less than Mechagodzilla took on, yes, the Gundam RX-78-2. And there’s plenty of other fun stuff that I won’t mention. On the other hand some of the dialogue does often suffer from having references being put in, making it just feel cheesy, unnatural and just a test to see how clever you are/what a good memory you have.
So amongst all this is there much of a story, do you even care about there being a story? Well yes, there is a story that’s quite reasonable, so that the film doesn’t just seem like a series of cool references or a replication of the format of a computer game for most of the time. And it’s a story that says things about the tech-addicted way we are even more so today than when the book was written. The opening shot is of a pan around Wade’s home town where we see person after person with virtual reality goggles on engaging in various activities, totally oblivious to the world around them. If that isn’t like the way so many now are constantly glued to their phones [for goodness sake I’ve seen couples in pubs hardly speaking to each other because they’re each in their own little cyber world] then I don’t know what is. Wade has a miserable life with his aunt and her string of dodgy boyfriends so spends most of his time gaming in the virtual world that is the OASIS, where he goes by his avatar Percival and is usually accompanied by the burly four-armed Aech. He befriends Artemis after saving her from being “zeroed out” which can wipe an avatar from the OASIS itself, and falls in love with her, but of course he’s only falling in love with a virtual person, not a real one. Aided by Artemis, Aech and two brothers called Daito and Shoto, Wade sets out to win the game that OASIS’s creator James Halliday has created where you have to find three ‘Easter Eggs’, and decides to research Halliday’s personal life which he thinks may throw up some clues. But the CEO of IOI has amassed an army of debt-indentured players, known as Sixers (due to their six-digit identification), to seek the prize.
While not quite constant action, it is nearly all forward motion, which keeps things exciting but doesn’t leave much room for character. You’d expect most people in the film to be simplistic archetypes, but it would have been nice if the hero and the heroine had just a little bit of depth, despite Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, the latter so good in last year’s The Limehouse Golem, visibly trying to do what they can with the flimsy parts they’ve been given. Artemis is especially poorly served by the script and her romance with Wade rather lacking in conviction and not having enough time spent on it to convince – though there is a cute bit when they dance as they float around through the air. The real emotional heart of the film, limited as it is, lies in some back story that’s eventually revealed involving Halliday, a rather sad figure that gives us an opportunity to appreciate another brilliant performance from the superb Mark Rylance who has got to be one of the best actors around at the moment. And, while yet again we have a film which thinks it’s okay and indeed funny for women to strike men, it is brave enough in this day and age to have a section where the heroine is kidnapped and actually has to be rescued [I know, I can’t believe I’m typing this].
Some of the CG settings are rather generic and lacking in imagination, while the best action sequence is probably a great car race near the beginning, much of the later stuff being almost exclusively CG, something which personally tends to increasingly bore me these days though I know that many younger readers who didn’t have the privilege of growing up in the last era of practical effects will have a different opinion. It’s probably just my age, though considering the film’s retro emphasis it would have been not just nice but appropriate to have had some non-CG effects. t’s nice though that the ‘real world’ parts were shot on celluloid – you can just tell, it has a great texture to it that digital, for all its clarity, just can’t match. And the story does deal with issues that are perennially important these days like how real the connections we form online actually are, the ever-decreasing distance between fantasy and reality, the threat by big information-gathering companies who seem out to takeover the entire internet and by definition our lives, and the identity issues that arise when we can hide behind avatars, though the film certainly doesn’t preach except for its final scene, which offers a suggestion involving the internet which I personally think would be a very good idea though it will never ever happen.
Alan Silvestri provides a fine score with some passages [probably deliberately] sounding very much like the work of Spielberg’s usual composer John Williams. There’s a lovely bit where a variation on a tiny motif from his Back To The Future score, the proper version of which we heard earlier, is played during a very appropriate event, while there are plenty of other musical ‘easter eggs’ to pick up on. So is Ready Player One truly a return for the Spielberg who once constantly seemed to his finger on the pulse of what the public wanted to see like few others? Well, the man has certainly had a good stab at it and seems quite energised by the project, it certainly showing in his direction which is full of wonderful lengthy tracking shots, though I doubt that the result will be remembered as fondly in years to come as the likes of Jurassic Park and E. T. The Extra Terrestrial, and it seems on its way to becoming a major hit which has to be a good thing in a climate where superheroes seem to perpetually dominate. It does have its issues – I haven’t yet mentioned that the final act drags on for a bit too long, though that’s been the case with much of Spielberg’s work for some time now so I almost didn’t bother mentioning it. It’s as if he just can’t bear to cut portions even if him doing so would benefit the film. But for something that even its lovers must admit does rely too heavily on nostalgia, Ready Player One is a fun ride most of the time and does have some important things to say – though whether we’ll take heed is another matter.