Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, is a treasure trove of 1980s pop culture. Initially it has a nihilistic message, that there is no God and that the world we live in is only good for escaping from.
The film differs wildly from the book, leaving many fans of the source material furious. The changes are mainly to make the story suitable for younger audiences – with a greater range of pop references, minimised peril and Cline’s snipes at religion removed. Spielberg’s movie-going audience is much broader than the book’s readership.
The setting is a common one in science fiction – a not so far off dystopian future. Almost everyone is living a parallel life in the OASIS – a virtual universe accessed by the internet. Their alter egos, or avatars, are controlled with the user’s whole body, so they can do everything that can be done in the real world – and more. Tye Sheridan plays Wade, a lone player who spends all his spare time in the OASIS – where his only friends are.
The idolised creator of the game is the enigmatic James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a cross between Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka. The story begins years after his death, with players (including Wade) on a quest to discover a hidden prize, known as an Easter egg. Halliday’s fortune is at stake, as the winner is set to inherit his empire. Innovative Online Industries (IOI) are corporate bad guys pouring money into the search, with plans to dominate the global economy, and flood the virtual world with advertising.
To say that Ready Player One is a feast for the eyes is an understatement. Spielberg has crafted a digital wonderland, full to bursting with imagination and detail. The story touches on social issues that have been raised before, in films such as WALL-E (2008), but with greater prescience as VR gaming is already a reality.
Spielberg’s usual composer, John Williams, is sadly missing, with stand-in Alan Silvestri’s score completely unmemorable. A nostalgic rush of classic 80s tracks helps to make up for this, plus musical nods to Silvestri’s magnum opus, Back to the Future.
For a film aimed at younger audiences the amount of blood and gore is surprising. Scenes from 18 rated horror films are smuggled in as references, but still have the power to shock, even in the context of a simulation. That said they include one of the most inspired sequences in Ready Player One – a huge treat for fans of the classic film in question, where Spielberg pays tribute to one of cinemas greatest directors – and one of his old friends.
The coherence of the story starts to fall apart in the last sixty minutes or so. The plot moves at lightening pace as Spielberg works to cram the book into less than two and a half hours. The intercutting between the real and virtual worlds isn’t always convincing, and the villains’ actions sometimes don’t make sense. These problems would be easier to overlook if the film was aimed strictly at children, but for anyone over 12 there are huge plot holes. The flaws aren’t enough, however, to detract from the overall effect of wonder and fun.
Spielberg’s achievement with Ready Player One proves he will always be a relevant voice in cinema. The book might be anti-Christian, but this adaptation has a simple and wholesome message. It offers an encouragement to spend less time escaping from reality, and more time making the most of what’s real.
★★★★☆ Immense fun, even if the story doesn’t always work.