Only four months after unveiling his Oscar-nominated drama The Post, Spielberg respawns with the jaw-dropping visual spectacle Ready Player One, the clincher in his latest one-two cinematic punch. Set in a dystopian future where the majority of the population disappears from daily life into an immersive virtual reality video game environment, Spielberg’s nostalgic sci-fi epic is a return to his blockbuster roots in the style of filmmaking that he helped popularize, yet a flawed script and misjudgments in execution impede Ready Player One from status as an instant classic.
Spielberg has been quoted as describing Ready Player One’s shoot as one of the most difficult projects he’s worked on, which is a heavy statement considering the woes that have plagued his past films such as Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. This is partly because the director juggled effects work on the CG extravaganza while shooting The Post, similar to his revered stunt shooting Schindler’s List while polishing Jurassic Park in 1993. It’s safe to say that Spielberg has nearly replicated that feat here, as the level of detail in Ready Player One is nothing short of astonishing.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the year 2045, in which environmental and economic disasters have transformed American cities into filthy, overcrowded ghettos. Rather than focusing on their problems at hand, citizens spend hours daily escaping into the OASIS, a virtual reality game which transports users into a customizable world where they can be who and whatever they want to be; male or female, big or small. They can also chase after virtual currency and interact with others as they immerse themselves into whatever fantasy they choose.
This alternative reality consumes Wade’s life, just as it does so many others. The gamer traverses the OASIS in the form of his avatar, Parzival, with his best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe) looking for three keys hidden by the OASIS’s deceased creator, the eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever finds the third key unlocks Halliday’s Easter egg, which promises the reward of Halliday’s stock in the OASIS and full control of the program. As society’s most valued resource, control of the OASIS guarantees untold wealth, power and prestige in the real world.
The dystopian society pictured in 2045 is a startling vision to behold, but the visual landscape inside the OASIS will flabbergast even the most blockbuster-weary of viewer, with a CG setting here on par with Avatar in its ability to transport you to another domain. And since the movie takes place inside an actual game, any deficiency in the CG technology (though it’s in prime form here) fits right at home. Speaking as one who wasn’t sold on the supposed realism on display in Avatar, the concept of Ready Player One allows me to embrace the intent here wholeheartedly.
Just as Halliday laced his legacy with Easter eggs, Spielberg’s vision of the OASIS is profuse with references to the 1980s and pop culture. Using Halliday’s status as an unabashed 80s baby, Spielberg pounces on opportunity to pay titanic homage to the era of his prime. Though his own filmography is ripe with relevant material, a discomfort for self-praise prevents any mention of Spielberg classics. This doesn’t stop him from honoring other directors however, as an entire portion inside The Shining’s Overlook Hotel prevails as one of the standout sequences in the film.
Since much of Ready Player One’s conflict takes place in a virtual environment, an inevitable weakness to the concept exists in that none of the hazards pack the real-world stakes of your standard action movie. Death is not a concern; however, loss of an avatar can promise genuine consequences for users whose livelihoods rely on years of investment in a character. In addition, disclosure of actual identities can expose gamers to genuine threats at home. The film may take place in a game, but Spielberg more than succeeds at evoking genuine concern for the players.
And that in part demonstrates why Spielberg is so talented and successful of a filmmaker. Ready Player One packs shortcomings in its premise, but succeeds thanks to its director’s ability captivate the viewer, and immerse them into every scene with veteran technique. Unfortunately, an imperfect script by Zack Penn, as well as original novelist Ernest Cline, hinders Spielberg’s return to escapism from replicating his past achievements. Thin characters, a lack of character arcs, a sappy love story, and poor dialogue restrain Ready Player One from reaching full potential.
Also, while Spielberg is in predominately top shape here, his depictions of the real world are misguided. The contrast between stylized action in the game and in real life is not as strong as it should be, as shootouts and high-speed car chases outside the OASIS appear as if the characters never left. As things progress, it becomes clear the film aims to communicate the importance of appreciating reality, but as it exists in a CG-drenched blockbuster designed to lure consumers into dark viewing chambers, the message resonates as fairly hypocritical within context.
In addition, similarities to other films dwindle Ready Player One’s sense of originality. Halliday’s quest with hidden Easter eggs invokes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with an idiosyncratic tycoon throwing buyers into a frenzy. The film is also heavily reminiscent of Avatar, and not just in the special effects department, with characters inhabiting other forms to navigate an otherworldly setting. But despite undeniable issues throughout, Ready Player One still culminates as a breathtaking display, and boasts a welcome return to the mainstream for Spielberg.