The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tells us what he thought of Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
Director of the film: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance
Story: In the year 2045, most of humanity spends its time in the OASIS. OASIS is a virtual reality software created by the recently deceased James Halliday (Rylance). Teenager Wade Watts (Sheridan) uncovers a clue to a hidden game that awards the winner with complete ownership of the OASIS. To achieve that, he joins forces with other users to complete the game before a sinister organisation does.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel, littered with pop-culture references to primarily 1980s film, TV and game shows, is perfect material for Steven Spielberg. Its tone and story are similar to Spielberg’s earlier films like the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park – both combining action and fantasy to excellent effect. But with a few exceptions, most of Spielberg’s later films have taken on more serious themes that are good but lack the iconic appeal of his earlier works. What’s more, Cline’s novel, while excellent, does often get bogged down in all the references it acknowledges.
However, it is perhaps for this reason that the novel is tailor-made for a film adaptation and Spielberg is the best choice to bring it to life. And this he does to astonishing effect. The OASIS is a marvel of SFX artistry. It resembles an actual video game that manages to stay clear of bordering the uncanny valley territory. Across this virtual world, akin to both Disneyland and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (Halliday being a clear Disney/Wonka caricature), there are dozens of Easter Eggs for viewers to spot. Some are already evident: The DeLorean from Back to the Future stars in a spectacular Inception-styled opening race. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the Iron Giant also feature prominently. Others like Robocop and Marvin the Martian of Looney Tunes fame are very much blink-and-you-miss-it. All these appearances making this one film that needs multiple viewings to spot them all.
Ready Player One, co-written by Cline and Zak Penn, does change and compress the novel for licensing and timing reasons. However, Spielberg stays faithful to the novel’s main themes. Even if they are rather predictable (i.e. there’s more to life than just playing video games all day). Nonetheless, he also injects it with his own trademark storytelling that has characterised his greatest films. Perhaps most importantly, he makes the wise decision to not have the references detract from the story and characters. Spending just as much time in the real world as he does in the OASIS.
While the characters are distinct good and evil types, one cannot help but root for the heroes and hope that they eventually triumph over the villains. The cast makes the most of young rising actors in the lead roles. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke bringing touching chemistry to Wade and Samantha Cook and their avatar counterparts Parzival and Art3mis. Mark Rylance, by now a Spielberg fixture, brigs eccentric whimsy to Halliday. Even if Ben Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento is rather similar to his Director Krennic of Rogue One, he’s still a devious corrupt CEO with a sadistically ruthless streak.
It does seem fair that Ready Player One can be criticised for having the same flaws that are also found in Spielberg’s early films. But the audience can ultimately forgive this because what Spielberg has done is perhaps his best film since Saving Private Ryan and his most magical since Jurassic Park. Even at 71, this veteran director is still at the top of his game.