Steven Spielberg is the crowned king of American cinematic sensationalism and his vast catalogue of film is the picture of eclecticism. Spielberg is the man who brought creature thrillers like Jaws and Jurassic Park to the big screen but also fast-paced adventure flicks like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Adventures of Tintin. Spielberg has also touched down in brilliant historical dramas like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Munich, and most recently The Post, in visually stunning sci-fi like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report, and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and in delightful and imaginative family films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Hook and The BFG. Unlike Stanley Kubrick who, due to his tragic perfectionism, could only make a handful of films before his death, Spielberg has a long list of successful American films, and he isn’t done yet. Ready Player One is evidence of this.
I had never read Ernest Cline’s novel and knew very little about the plot before walking into the screening of Ready Player One. I am happy this was the case. I despised the Warner Bros. ad campaign and thought that, since I’m rather hot and cold on Spielberg, more cold as of late, that I would probably dislike this new film. Ready Player One is a film, however, that almost too perfectly melds together several of Spielberg’s strengths. It is a strong piece of visually stunning entertainment and is true Spielberg-ian storytelling at its finest.
Ready Player One is that fast-paced adventure flick with the young hero with the cool name and the wicked villain who audiences love to hate. In this case the hero is not Indiana Jones but Wade Watts. Character actor Ben Mendelsohn plays the villain, Nolan Sorrento, as a sniveling corporate jerk. This film is also the visually stunning sci-fi with the cool gadgets and thrilling chase scenes. If you go to see RPO and are expecting something deep and consistently thoughtful like Lincoln or A.I., then you are missing the mark. RPO taught me to be content with a simple story about cool characters living in a badass world trying to take down the bad guys. In this way, RPO is all of the films it pays homage to, which are too numerous to count.
Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living with his aunt and her horrible boyfriend in a slum-like trailer park called “The Stacks” in Columbus, Ohio. Wade’s world is a post-apocalyptic one and he and billions of other human beings around the world utilize a virtual reality program called “The Oasis” daily to escape their dark reality in order to live an interesting, fulfilled, and connected life. The users of this virtual reality can enter into a world populated by pop culture’s most recognizable and beloved characters and tropes. “The Oasis” was created by a genius named James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance in yet another excellent performance, who died and left the question of how to beat the popular video game within The Oasis, “Anorak’s Quest,” unanswered. Wade, whose avatar is called Parzival, sets out to beat the game by finding three keys that lead to a hidden “easter egg.” Parzival joins forces with his friend Helen/Aech (Lena Waithe) and the mysterious Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, who is clearly having her break-out year). Nolan Sorrento feels threatened by Wade’s progress and seeks to make his task more difficult and dangerous.
I have heard that Cline’s YA novel is so poorly written it is almost unreadable, but his content translates well for a Spielberg popcorn flick about video game avatars trying to save the world from corporate tools. If you are looking for something more than bold, exciting, and visually stunning entertainment with a cool hero and a vile villain, then go rent Citizen Kane. Much like the virtual reality in the story, Spielberg has made a movie that exists for one sole purpose: to help us escape. Escapism, in and of itself, is not bad or wrong, and has a long history in American cinema.
While there aren’t necessarily any significantly deep or poignant themes in Spielberg’s movie (not that there has to be), I feel that RPO is making the same point that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2009) made: the geek community bound to gaming, garage bands, comics, and movies does a better job of building community that cares for one another than most said “responsible” adult communities. At the core of RPO’s story is the search for belonging. Belonging to a community is invaluable and Wade, Helen, and Samantha, although they may seem immature, insecure, and nerdy to the rest of the world, have built something beautiful together. They have connection. They have community. They belong to something bigger than themselves. Isn’t this what we are all looking for?
Spielberg was an architect of the pop culture zeitgeist in the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. It is only fitting that he would make a film that is all about people who cherish that very thing. As I watched Ready Player One, I felt the same way I did when I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future for the first time. Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts really is the Marty McFly of the iPhone generation, like him or hate him. Good thing, too. There are plenty of obvious Zemeckis references throughout the film. I won’t give it away. Escape a little bit from the hell of your Facebook newsfeed and go see Ready Player One for yourself.