From the dystopian source novel by Ernest Cline and the 80s pop culture master director Steven Speilberg, Ready Player One is a futuristic dash through all things nerd, set in an encompassing virtual world known as the Oasis. When James Halliday, the ‘Willy Wonka’/Creator of the Oasis passes away, a scavenger hunt to locate three keys and the chance to control all of the virtual worlds. Will Parzival, the avatar of Wade Watts, be the rightful heir to the Oasis – or will the corrupt practices of competing company IOI ruin virtual reality for everyone?
The premise of the book (and movie) is simple – in the mid-2040s, things on Earth have become much worse – instead of trying to solve problems, humanity works on ways to escape them. The vast majority of people spend all of their free time playing in a virtual world known as the Oasis, where you can be anything and do anything. If you are unlucky enough to die in the Oasis, you can play again, but you have to start completely over, losing all of your assets. This is known as ‘Zeroing-Out’ and can have real ramifications in the real world since people can dangerously overspend and become indebted to the game (through middlemen like Innovative Online Industries – IOI). If you are left without means to pay back your debts, you are sent to ‘Loyalty Centers’ where IOI will make you a virtual slave to repay (or die). It’s a tough life, but the mere thought of being the master of your own destiny in the Oasis far outstrips the bleak prospects of reality in the modern world.
Things take an interesting turn when James Halliday, the creator of the Oasis and pop culture vacuum of the late 20th century, passes away, leaving no heirs. Instead, an offer to become the new ‘ruler’ of the digital realm is extended – IF you can find the three keys that Halliday has hidden in the universe. The stakes are so high that entire companies have built their business on solving the puzzle and locating the Easter Egg. If a corporate malcontent like IOI can own the Oasis, they would control the world, adding advertisement and monetization every step of the way. The only way to truly find the keys is for a player to understand and empathize with the enigma that was Halliday, and there are only a select few that could accomplish that feat. Parzival, the avatar of Wade Watts, a resident of the lowly Cleveland Stacks, is that player. The friends that he teams up with – Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Sho, comprise of the High Five – a digital Knights of the Round Table in the quest for the holy grail that is control over the Oasis.
With Steven Speilberg tagged to direct, you knew this was going to be a visual feast. Spielberg IS a 20th-century pop culture god, and his works and influence pervade all aspects of Halliday’s creation. There is just so much to take in. From a death stakes race in New York city against King Kong and the T-Rex “Rexy’ from Jurassic Park, Delorians and Batmobiles streaking across the lanes to a dance club packed with 80s hits all the way to the Overlook hotel and a live-take of the horror that was Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic take on The Shining. This movie is one that will take multiple viewings to catch ALL the cameos and references, and that’s ok. It was a stunning journey and a laudable technical achievement.
In a lot of ways, this was a very 80s style film. There was a bleak reality, a big treasure hunt, a group of friends being chased by an evil corporation, and of course young love. It strikes a similar vein to so many other classics like The Goonies, Back to the Future, Stand by Me, and Tron amongst others. In that way, the film is familiar but also finds some legs on its own. I really wish there had been some more development of the outside world. The character development was solid all-around, but I found that the most interesting and compelling character was James Halliday himself. I enjoyed the portrayal of IOI (this was where I felt a strong Tron Vibe – Gregarious Games/Flynn vs IOI/Encom) and it has now been added to my list of favorite ‘evil’ future corporations. Perhaps the coolest throwback of all was that the entire fate of the digital universe was left to the humble Atari 2600, the grandfather of all video game consoles. That unassuming plastic deck with faux wood paneling formed so much of the first gaming generation’s mindset and imagination, leading to pioneers that have shaped the tech world today. Now that the millennial generation is coming into form, we must take the digital torch and take the fire to new frontiers. Hopefully, we do not let our real-world fall to the point where the digital one is our only respite.
While this was a stunning film in a visual sense, there were some areas where the movie just didn’t quite resonate. It was almost too frenetic and busy, pushing in so many directions that I was able to catch slight glimmers of emotion, but any real cathartic moment was fleeting and lost in the visual feast that was unfolding. Perhaps the most intimate and touching storyline was hidden within the final scenes when Oasis creator James Halliday explains to Wade that even though reality can be painful and terrifying, a life spent in fear of it or trying to escape it will be unfulfilling. Reality is the only thing that is, real. And the reality of this movie is that despite fantastic visuals and solid acting performances, it falls just a little short of delivering the easter egg I was looking for. Perhaps with more viewings, this will change, and I look forward to that. It has definitely earned a place on my shelf.
Bonus Music from GUNSHIP