SXSW 2018: Ready Player One
Steven Spielberg introduced his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One to the sold out audience at the Paramount Theatre at SXSW by saying he didn’t make a ‘film’, he made a ‘movie’. It turns out the 140-minute pop culture frag grenade carries very little weight—this is no The Post or Lincoln, nowhere near as serious or good. Ready Player One is a sugary confection for the senses, and whether you’ve heard Spielberg talk about it beforehand or not, you’re well aware this is nothing more than pure, unfiltered blockbuster entertainment, made the master of blockbuster entertainment. In a movie that could have been Pop Culture: The Movie, Spielberg offers his patented theatrics to keep the entire audience—not just the diehard nerds—interested.
In the year 2045, in the face of how crappy the future has become, society has dug its head into the proverbial hole that is the OASIS, a virtual reality world where you can become anything and interact with others in a multitude of online activities. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is among the many who sink into this cyber space—he jumps from world to world, gathering coins, weapons, and other precious items, by gaming and taking out opponents. The stakes are raised when the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), passes away and leaves behind a set of trials leading to a hidden Easter egg, the finder of which will be given control over all of the OASIS.
Halliday’s obsession with the past—‘80s games, movies, and songs—is the groundwork for both the world of the OASIS and the path leading to the final Easter egg. Special items inundate the gaming world, from the DeLorean from Back to the Future to the Iron Giant from The Iron Giant, for all to collect. And Wade, along with other obsessives, including businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants the OASIS for his own nefariously corporate ways, delve into Halliday’s life to help uncover the mystery. Yes, because of Halliday—played in an ultra-weird, yet loveable way by Rylance—the plot revolves around major film and gaming pop culture reference from the ‘80s. It’s mind-numbing at times, as our senses are attacked with thousands of references onscreen, but thanks to the script, co-written by Cline and Zak Penn, most of what’s shown wraps itself comfortably around the plot—it doesn’t feel that forced.
To dive into the what exactly is referenced would spoil the fun of Ready Player One, as apparently the screenplay deviates from the book in many ways. And that’s the whole point of Spielberg’s latest—it’s here for your entertainment. A race early in the movie packs as much punch as the camera-unchained sequences in The Adventure of Tintin; it’s pure motion, with huge surprises throughout, directed by the master of action blocking. It’s bound to stir the senses, even though you’re not fully enthralled by Wade’s quest. Once you see more characters come together to join Wade—Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe are highlights—to face off against Sorrento’s thugs in the final battle, in and out of the OASIS, you’re more invested than how many times your hear the Back to the Future theme on the soundtrack—which isn’t the absolute worst thing, seeing as Alan Silvestri steps in as composer here, only Spielberg’s third time not working with John Williams.
In all, there are enough well-staged action set pieces and genuine, smart surprises throughout (the characters go into one classic film, which is a new sequence in the film adaptation, and it might just be the best thing about this movie) that keep Ready Player One being empty-headed. There’s a danger in just flashing onscreen glutton-level nostalgia; Spielberg takes it a step above that, thankfully. Though, he may not entire control what slips through—Spielberg didn’t know just how many references his visual effects team snuck into the final film. But, when he is in control, it’s no question; who better to wield an epic like this than the man who built his career on making the blueprints? Like Halliday’s legacy, if you do your research and get everything there, you’ll surely be entertained, but it doesn’t require hardcore nerd-level dedication to enjoy Ready Player One.