I’ve never read Ready Player One, the pop-culture-heavy book written by Ernest Cline (who shares credit on the screenplay with Zak Penn) for which the film is based, but when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would helm the big-budget adaptation, excitement hit 88 miles per hour. In most people’s minds (and hearts), Spielberg is the quintessential sc-fi/fantasy director of the eighties, so to have him direct a movie that would incorporate so many beloved references — a lot of which he himself had a hand in bringing to life — was a film lover’s dream come true. As time passed, though, and the anticipation wore off, some began to wonder: could Spielberg, who had grown more accustomed to heavy adult material in the past two decades (and failed to deliver on his fantasy adaptation of the beloved children’s story, The BFG) pull off the same magic he was able to deliver back in the heyday of what this respectable critic deems the best era of film, music and gaming? The answer to that question has been answered, and I’m happy to say it is a resounding — Yes he can.
Digging deep within himself to find that child-like wonder once more, Spielberg pulls us into a world of pure imagination while using subtle (and some not so subtle) layers to comment on the world’s growing need to communicate in a virtual world as opposed to interacting with others in reality. When you see something like Super 8, It or Stranger Things — those wonderful attempts to recapture that free-wheeling purity the eighties encompassed — we reminisce about those memories of kids riding bikes until dusk and getting into mischievous trouble like the little scallions they were, harkening back to one movie in particular — E.T., which all but defined a generation of film making. Spielberg pulls off a unique magic trick by taking us back to that era while simultaneously propelling us into the future.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt and boyfriend in what can only be described as a vertical trailer park, in which a series of manufactured homes are stacked atop one another in a tower of freewheeling slums. He’s an outcast without friends who desires a better life, but can’t break free of his own artificial shackles. None of it matters, though, when you have the Oasis, a virtual fantasy world in which basically the entire population uses to escape their sorrowful lives. Here, you can be anyone or anything you want to be; a giant video game where the stakes are limited to losing everything you built and collected within the game (money, property, etc.) when you’re killed, but one in which you could live a happy, luxurious life forever as the doppelgänger you always wished you could be.
But as glorious as this world can be, there’s evil afoot (natch). The IOI, the massive corporation that manufactures the equipment that not only allow you into the Oasis, but provide gear such as body suits and gloves, which enhance the virtual experience with the sensory-level technology so you can feel every sensation as if it’s the real thing, is looking to officially take over the Oasis and turn the entire experience into one giant marketing scheme.
To do this, they must first win the game within the game set up by Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of the Oasis and lover of all things pop-culture, who refused to give into the corporate side of entertainment. It’s revealed upon his death that Halliday set up a challenge to find three keys, which would unlock a hidden Easter egg and give all shares of the Oasis to the winner. Everyone, including the IOI’s team of dozens of employees, has been looking for the clues to unlock the mystery for the past five years, but have been unable to get past the very first challenge — a deadly race that always ends with King Kong trashing the competitors just before the finish line.
Wade, using the gamer name Parzival while inside the Oasis, isn’t against joining in on the fun, but his reasons are much more pure than that of the IOI — Wade is doing it for the love of pop culture and to continue the legacy left behind by someone who may have been even lonelier than he is. Halliday, it turns out, left many clues in his extensive library of memories, and only someone who is so ingrained in the man’s past could possibly figure out what they all mean. When Wade does finally figure out how to finish the race, he and his team of friends, which include Artemis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe), quickly discover the clues to the next set of keys and do everything they can to save the game from a corporate takeover.
Everyone involved is clearly having a blast here playing out there fantasies. Sheridan and Cooke have a kind chemistry that doesn’t get in the way of their growing romantic feelings for one another. Neither of the characters start out perfect, and each have their own personal reason to hide in the Oasis. This clear lack of self-esteem (whether because of their situation in life or their appearance) bonds the two first as partners, then as friends, then as a couple.
It is a bit of a leap of faith to believe that all of Wade’s companions on his quest inside the Oasis all live within a close proximity to one another in the real world, but it’s an issue that’s easy to ignore. Spielberg could have thrown a line in about how a couple of them flew cross-country to help protect Wade from IOI operatives who come after him after learning what his name is in the real world, but who really cares? By the time it matters, we’re already invested in all of the characters to the point that we just want to see a team of superheroes join forces to win the game and save the world.
On top of everything, it’s the visual effects that would make or break the movie, and for all intents and purposes, Spielberg once again blows your mind. The animation within the Oasis isn’t perfect, and that in and of itself is perfect, allowing you to feel as if you are, in fact, living in a game found on any platform these days, with hair artificially blowing in the wind around a more plastic environment. Juxtopose that with a gritty realism created for the real world, which runs mostly gray and brown except for when Wade and Artemis, also known as Samantha, are together, which adds a fresh, light touch of color to match the passion and drive the two share for one another and their ultimate goals. Spielberg, it turns out, still has a terrific eye for detail that envelops his audience into a world that’s a marvel to behold, and one that you’ll need to see multiple times to catch every last bit of winks and nods of nostalgia that fill every pixel.
My Grade: A
God’s Not Dead: A Light In Darkness is a strong finale to a trilogy that speaks to both believers and non-believers alike, uniting us all under the disciplines of love, honor, patience and understanding, rather than hatred, vitriol, violence and antipathy towards those you may not agree with. A-
One thing you never want to feel when watching a comedy is the sense of trying too hard, and Sherlock Gnomes, a sequel no one asked for, does just that, forcing characters into situations and jokes that feel artificial and rudimentary because the filmmakers aren’t creative enough to come up with anything new. B-
Next week, new movies include Blockers, A Quiet Place, The Miracle Season and Chappaquiddick. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.