Everyone under the age of 35 probably knows a gaming fan, whether they swear by Xbox, PlayStation or PC. Most of us have no doubt encountered a few keyboard warriors in our time too, those who are seriously sassy and mighty mean when armed with the shield of the screen but wouldn’t say ‘Boo’ to a goose in real life.
However, what would happen if keyboard warriors could transcend the screen, leave the restraints of real life and immerse themselves into the digital world? What would happen if it wasn’t just gamers who were absorbed in virtual reality but the majority of society, and what if it wasn’t a game, but the whole population addicted to an expansive and infinite digital universe for, not just entertainment, but work, education and distraction too?
Sound familiar? That’s likely to be the case given how hotly anticipated new release Ready Player One was. But did the new action-packed sci-fi film that’s brimming with golden pop culture references from Harley Quinn and The Joker to Batman, Iron Giant and King Kong and even a scene from The Shining live up to the hype and could Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg bring home another classic?
The danger often predicted with a film so loaded with cameos by such cherished characters and heroes is that it serves as a love letter to too many film sagas, becoming watered down and imbalanced at the expense of substance and meaningful narrative. It is a pleasant surprise to find that the plot to Ready Player One is good, albeit a bit simple, with a bit of a basic villain.
Orphaned 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a slum with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her deadbeat boyfriend (Ralph Ineson), much like the rest of the world in 2045. As a result of their grim and dismal reality, people spend the majority of their time escaping to the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) – a totally immersive and unlimited digital world created by the revered eccentric genius, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When the Oasis creator dies he sets the population the challenge of completing three tasks in order to secure three coveted keys to unlock a gate, behind which lies a mysterious Easter Egg. Win the challenge and the victor gains control of Oasis and inherits half a trillion dollars.
Wade is an avid Gunter – a.k.a an Easter Egg Hunter – who embarks on a quest to crack the Easter Egg’s location, which soon gets him noticed and pursued by IOI, a video game company, and its CEO Sorento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is hellbent on gaining control of Oasis.
Sorento comes across as 2D and flat, rather unsuited to the complex digital world he craves. Relentlessly thirsty for power, as far as villains go he seems cliché and somewhat lacking. The storyline may be a typically coming-of-age, in which Wade goes on a journey to discover his inner purpose to find love. There’s even a reference to the fact that his father named him Wade Watts as it sounded like a Peter Parker / Bruce Banner superhero name in the trailer – if that isn’t a boy becoming a hero on a journey of self-discovery I don’t know what is.
From thrilling car (and bike) chases to captivating effects with lasers and lights, Spielberg’s layered and dynamic displays manage to exceed the run of the mill explosions and bangs making you feel like you’re everywhere and nowhere at once. With Spielberg’s unique eye for detail, you could easily watch Ready Player One multiple times and clock different elements, stunts and effects upon each viewing.
Where the film is slightly conceptionally reminiscent of Tron and Spy Kids 3 (it’s amazing to think how far games have advanced since then), it isn’t so much storyline that has been compromised at the expense of a visual experience, but more character development. The fact that Wade almost immediately falls for Samantha / Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) after spending barely five minutes with her is somewhat implausible even for a film of this mantra, showing just how much the characters are in need of being fleshed out.
Where Ready Player One does pack a punch is in the message it sends – the importance of not losing touch with authentic human relationships, of not forgetting the raw, the real and the right. The effect of blurring the lines of reality are highlighted when Wade’s Gunter companions and allies turn out to be completely different ages, genders and identities to their real-life counterparts. With VR games already on the market, the theme of not losing ourselves inside a screen couldn’t be more relevant.
With the sheer amount of beloved franchises and classics with cult followings referenced, Ready Player One is going to be like Marmite, you’re either going to love it or hate it.