If you’re reading this, it’s likely that the films of director Steven Spielberg have, at least in some form, had an impact on your moviegoing experiences at some point or another. Starting with his early career triumph in the aquatic terror of 1975 thriller Jaws, Spielberg’s filmography has since ventured into a variety of genres, with his early efforts usually adopting an adventurous, exciting tone in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three out of four Indiana Jones outings, 1982’s emotional E.T., 1991’s still-underrated Hook, the unrivaled 1993 dinosaur epic Jurassic Park and even 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Later decades have seen Spielberg tackle far more serious matter, including the World War II masterpieces Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, his somewhat anti-E.T. War of the Worlds remake in 2005 and later standouts such as Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, most of which featured a characteristic John Williams score and a signature touch widely described as “Spielbergian”.
However, over the years his hand has also been lent in a producer role to another roster of classics-what else can be said about the Back to the Future saga, The Goonies or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that hasn’t already been waxed poetic about on any number of Best Of lists? Or, for that matter, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, An American Tail, Batteries Not Included, The Land Before Time or Arachnophobia? I’ll stand by Young Sherlock Holmes or Arachnophobia any day. That massive spider towards the end of the latter still fuels my nightmares.
With this pedigree, it makes sense-at least, on paper-that Spielberg would be a logical choice to direct the film adaptation of Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline set in the foreseeable future about a virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, the deceased creator of the OASIS who hid within its digital confines a vast treasure, and the teenager who just may hold the key to finding it. Loaded with 1980s pop culture references and a sarcastic, heavily-detailed, witty writing style, Ready Player One became a best seller and resonated with many a child of that era-I, for one, appreciated the effort, but even an audiobook read by ‘80s icon Wil Wheaton couldn’t save the story from taking far too long to get into the action. One man’s opinion, I suppose.
Ready Player One doesn’t deviate from the premise of the book, set in a near-future where mankind has seen better days and the OASIS serves as an escape from the dreary existence our society faces on a daily basis. When ‘80s-obsessed James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of the OASIS, announces a quest following his passing to find a treasure buried deep within the simulation, one which will give the recipient vast wealth and control of the entire virtual universe itself, a teenage outcast (Tye Sheridan) finds himself embroiled in a race alongside several allies in an effort to not only find but to keep the prize from falling into the hands of rival company Innovative Online Industries (IOI), led by the ominous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
In helming this adaptation, is it possible that Spielberg has, somehow, found a way to recapture the magic of his early days? Indeed, Ready Player One answers that question with a resounding yes, a movie more enjoyable than one might expect from the onset and loaded to the brim with all the care we’ve come to know & love from the man.
First and foremost, the landscape of the OASIS, where the bulk of the film takes place, looks incredible-every detail is beautifully rendered, creating something far better than any video game cutscene but still imperfect-it is in these imperfections that the OASIS shows off its character, and in sticking with the overarching theme of reality vs. fantasy, presents something that provides its users the escape they crave while still offering no match for the honest feel of the real world. The differences between the OASIS sequences and moments on the outside are just jarring enough to show the difference between the two, but never overwhelming in that regard-in doing this, I immediately felt that same sensation OASIS users must experience when logging on and traveling virtually to someplace new. And yes, the pop culture Easter Eggs are plentiful, not just in the obvious moments spoiled in trailers like seeing The Iron Giant in all his metallic glory or the numerous legendary vehicles present during an early race scene-keep your eyes out for the Bigfoot Monster Truck, Christine, a Tron light cycle as well as King Kong leaping between skyscrapers-but in subtle touches as well, like a stray Nintendo Power lying on an OASIS floor or a picture of Mayor Goldie Wilson from Back to the Future. To be honest, listing every egg is ultimately useless, as there exist far too many to be caught during one viewing.
Speaking of the latter, fans of the seminal sci-fi trilogy like myself will revel in the numerous callbacks to Back to the Future, and not just in the frequent appearances of the DeLorean-score composer Alan Silvestri, taking over from frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams, has produced music that feels like a companion to his work on Future, while at the same time possessing an anthemic nature reminiscent of his theme from The Avengers or even Williams’ own contributions to Indiana Jones. It’s big, powerful, and a perfect choice for Ready Player One, though it should come as no surprise to also hear Van Halen, Joan Jett, Twisted Sister and more as the film speeds along at a decent clip.
The cast all perform just fine-as Nolan Sorrento, the typical menacing corporate scum intent on seizing control of the OASIS for himself, Ben Mendelsohn follows up his performance from Rogue One with another similar baddie that Mendelsohn handles well, even if it does seem fairly cliché at times as far as movie villains are concerned. Mark Rylance’s take on Halliday is…interesting, to say the least, a portrayal I didn’t necessarily expect but somehow works in presenting an awkward character that one could see as having created a beloved worldwide virtual paradise. It’s not quite Steve Jobs or even Willy Wonka, but shades of both are certainly present in his version of Halliday. Simon Pegg makes the most of his role as Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s business partner, and in their roles as the “Gunters”, those self-tasked with finding Halliday’s egg, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe all take on their parts as Wade Watts/Parzival, Art3mis and Aech, respectively, in an acceptable manner that may not be Oscar worthy but serve the story perfectly. In following up her excellent supporting role on Master of None, Lena Waithe’s performance as Aech deserves a bit more praise, providing much of the film’s comic relief, and even though screenwriter Zak Penn (who co-wrote along with Cline himself) does tend to drift into exposition-heavy narration from time to time, he also knows when to reign it in and let the film progress naturally.
It should be interesting to note that, in donning the gear necessary to enter the virtual world of the OASIS, Ready Player One finds Sheridan again adopting a large, bulky piece of eyewear not unlike that worn by Sheridan himself as Scott Summers/Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse. That’s your trivia for today.
Where Ready Player One truly shines is in its pacing-Spielberg never allows the film to feel dull, slow or monotonous. This is an undeniably fun ride to the finish, with enough nostalgic winks to make anyone who longs for the past to feel right at home. The music and visual treats help to elevate that ride to a whole new level, with Spielberg’s recent words about what exactly Ready Player One is almost having been proven wrong as the credits role-less a movie, this is an experience, and a wonderful one at that. Like a kid depositing his last quarter into a battered Donkey Kong cabinet or reaching for his worn copy of E.T., this is a film to be treasured.