A thought kept occurring to me while watching Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE: what would a director like Paul Verhoeven have done with this material? The movie would certainly have had more bite. Spielberg isn’t prepared to step over that line into satire. As usual he focusses instead on the emotional content and the wonder of the visual, which is fine. Just fine.
In a dismal future ruled by tech corporations, the commoner’s only escape is the OASIS, a near-infinite virtual pop culture adventure. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies and bequeaths his company and his creation to whoever can complete a series of knotty challenges that delve into hist past, young hopeful Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) steps forward…
Not a lot of extra thought seems to have been put into the world outside the OASIS simulation. It’s just a generic Big Business-run dystopia where the rich have become richer and the poor live in boxes. Do the underclass work? How do they live? Given the amount of time everyone spends in the virtual plane, has the OASIS become the basis of the world economy? We see pizza delivery by drone and the police turn up at the end so presumably some people not in the tech industry still have regular jobs. All these questions and more will remain unanswered, because this is (admittedly appealing) surface-level world-building only.
I would have liked to have taken a deeper dive into why players pick the avatars that they do, why some play as themselves with different hair and/or brandishing a famous piece of pop culture ephemera and others completely reinvent themselves. At one point one of the lead character avatars changes to reflect self-acceptance, but there’s certainly more room to run with this idea and enrich the characters. The characters in general seem like placeholders and don’t really connect despite some of the cast’s best efforts (Olivia Cooke and Rylance stand out).
Little to no critique of the film industry is in evidence (Spielberg doesn’t crap where he eats) but mostly it’s about how the games industry is being corrupted. Sorrento’s spitballing of ideas to make his games more profitable at players’ expense basically summarises everything wrong with AAA games publishers’ business practices today.
Pop culture references are a little laboured at first, but by the time a key (and poignant, given Spielberg’s relationships) film sequence is recreated they become far more satisfying. The film they choose for this set piece is surprising, and pushes the boundaries of 12A certification to the extent I worried a little about how well the younger audience members at my screening would be sleeping that night.
The “dump the whole toy box on the floor” fun of the finale gave me the same beaming grin, for the same reasons, as THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. There is at times a but too much visual information on screen at once to process, which may be intentional, the first reveal of the OASIS is probably supposed to be overwhelming to the senses, the whole thing designed to be something to be rewatched time and time again to play nerd culture bingo (or a killer drinking game). I’d like to think I got 80% of the references that I saw, and Warner Bros have some great property to draw on, with Spielberg calling in favours elsewhere to fill out the background characters. It seems like they desperately wanted Disney/Lucasfilm to let them borrow one of their icons (STAR WARS is a glaring omission in Halladay’s obsessions), but there is more than enough American and Japanese cross-over pop culture to populate this world as it is.
Ready Player One isn’t top-tier Spielberg, but there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s not deep, it’s not complex, but it presents its vibrant pop culture cornucopia in an appealing way, a way which is a lot more compelling if you stop over-analysing it. Not the most nourishing of cinematic meals, but a very tasty one nonetheless. SSP
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