The current wave of 80s pop culture nostalgia only seems to be getting bigger, and nothing would appear to typify this more than legendary director Steven Spielberg’s latest film ‘Ready Player One’. Based on the best-selling book by Ernest Cline, it takes the idea of nostalgia to a whole new extreme, basically mixing everything into one big sci-fi boiling pot. Spielberg had been developing the film for years, long before this obsession with the 80s happened, but it’s hard to tell whether this film’s timing is perfect or completely off. Is this the ultimate celebration we actually need, or one step way too far?
In 2045, people hardly interact in the real world, choosing to escape the depressing sight of their collapsing society in the digital wonderland of the OASIS, a virtual reality universe of endless possibilities. When the creator of the OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance, ‘Bridge of Spies’, ‘Dunkirk’) dies, he launches a quest to find an easter egg in the OASIS that will give the winner his entire empire. Teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, ‘X-Men Apocalpyse’, ‘Mud’) is one of the many on the hunt using his avatar Parzival, competing alongside the mysterious and beguiling Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’). However, a competing major corporation headed by the ruthless Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, ‘Animal Kingdom’, ‘Rogue One’) will stop at nothing to win the quest, even if it means wiping Wade and his friends out.
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‘Ready Player One’ is a sprawling tale, full of complicated details and endless twists and turns. Unfortunately, the screenplay from Ernest Cline and Zac Penn never seems to find the best way to contain it. There are too many characters, the dialogue is often clunky and laboured, and many of the human relationships feel underdeveloped. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great story in there or that there aren’t great characters, but the sheer density of the screenplay makes it often hard to penetrate. As a foundation for a film, it plays with broad strokes where it needs detail, and concerns itself with small details exactly where it shouldn’t. It’s also weighed down by a terribly clunky love story that really isn’t earned nor has a place in the film. That said, I haven’t read the book, but fellow SWITCH writer Brent Davidson did tell me that the film deviates from the novel in many ways, mostly for the better.
In the hands of a lesser director, the film could have been a real mess, but in the hands of the master, ‘Ready Player One’ still ends up being an entertaining, often impressive spectacle. The screenplay might be rickety, but the filmmaking itself is stellar, Spielberg bringing Cline’s virtual world thunderously to life. Spielberg is still one of the great cinematic visualists, and the advances in technology have only increased his audacity and imagination. Few directors take advantage of current technology quite the same way he does, and many moments in ‘Ready Player One’ are amongst the most spectacular visual effects sequences we’ve seen in years. It also brings out his most playful and cheeky side, sending the camera, his characters and the audience wheeling and spinning through impossible worlds. It also makes total sense that he should be the director bringing this novel to life, being the man who not only essentially invented the pop culture the film riffs on, but was instrumental in shaping our understanding of it (and has a killer taste in 80s music). He knows what he’s working with, and often with thrilling results. The highlight of the film has Wade and his friends playing a game inside an iconic 80s film (the name of which I won’t spoil, but boy, did I shriek with delight), and the attention to detail to recreating that film is an absolute blast. After a number of careful and considered dramas, this is Spielberg off the chain and having a ball, pushing the limits of his imagination and his medium more so than he has in years.
Few directors take advantage of current technology in quite the way (Spielberg) does, and many moments in ‘Ready Player One’ are amongst the most spectacular visual effects sequences we’ve seen in years.
The film moves between reality and the OASIS with great ease, and each has its own distinct and complementary visual style. The realisation of the OASIS is superb, tactile and textured but purposefully just that little bit fake, like watching a video game come to life. It’s a careful step away from reality, which makes it much easier to buy into. The real-world sequences are shot on 35mm, giving them a much more textured feel, and yet Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski still find a way to make them just as visually dynamic as the digitally captured sequences.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the film was always going to be the nostalgia factor, but surprisingly, this side of the film is handled pretty well. The screenplay mostly justifies and uses all the references to further the story, albeit with some thunderously bad moments of explanation and exposition around particular pop culture touchstones. Spielberg though never makes a point of them, allowing the vast and varied references to be part of the texture of the film rather than its purpose. The film is also partly a critique of the commercialisation of nostalgia, of making profit out of people’s fondness for something without understanding why it was loved in the first place. These kinds of corporate critiques always feel weird in a Hollywood film, but Spielberg makes it feel sincere, and all the more surprising considering how easily the film could have been nostalgia bait. It also comments on how technology can disconnect us from each other, something the screenplay handles lazily but the film finds ways to deal with in simple and effective visual moments.
The visual scale of the film dwarfs the cast, but they mostly do a good job. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke have charisma in spades, which even comes out through their motion capture work. Ben Mendelsohn has played this kind of villain before, but he seems to be having a lot more fun than usual, and ends up being a delight. There’s also great work from Simon Pegg and Lena Waithe, but no one is having more fun than Mark Rylance, playing Halliday as a kind of spaced-out tech shaman. It’s nice to see a different, more relaxed side of Rylance after so many dramatic roles.
A very poor screenplay threatens to topple ‘Ready Player One’ at many points, but the hand of the master holds it sure, resulting in a wildly entertaining, often batshit nuts film that embraces its cheesiness and its bonkers premise. The action set pieces prove once again that Steven Spielberg is still peerless, a master filmmaker and storyteller still hell-bent on pushing cinema as far as it can go to see what else he can find. I had such a blast with ‘Ready Player One’. See it on the biggest screen you can, switch your brain off and enjoy the ride.