Disclosure (though if you know me, it isn’t really): I am a massive nerd when it comes to various books, films, games and more, and I also own a virtual reality headset. So Ready Player One, Stephen Spielberg’s latest blockbuster focusing on VR, and featuring thousands of references to the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, was always on my radar! And despite some unexpectedly naff characterisation, it shows why the director is still the one to beat when it comes to huge, thrilling action movies onscreen.
In the 2040s, the USA (and by extension the world) is in a state of slum-like flux. With people living in near poverty and grim conditions, the highly advanced OASIS system gives all the opportunity to escape reality and live out their fantasies and dreams in a virtual world. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one among millions looking to solve late OASIS founder James Halliday’s hidden puzzles to win control of the OASIS, but is up against the corporate malevolence of IOI Corporation and slimy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want to monetise the system.
Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 book, which I managed to read in about two days on holiday three years ago, the film couldn’t really have been directed by anyone else, having now seen it. Unashamedly a fusion of nerdy film and TV references, just about imaginable VR tech and a thrilling, gamelike plot, Cline’s novel is catnip for Spielberg, who of late has taken a more CGI based focus on action (see the TinTin film for evidence).
Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn cleverly adapt the book for cinema, cutting out quite a bit of the detail (and unfortunately some more interesting character notes), but I can see that quite a bit of this would have been requirements by Spielberg. The book is not backward in coming forward with its reverence for his movies, and while some references are clearly still present, many are traded out for others.
This gives the film a more comprehensive, multi-generational feel – there are far more modern references that younger audiences will grasp alongside the bigger pop culture nods. The one that surprised me the most comes about halfway through, and is not only a major surprise but also an incredible technical achievement. Suffice to say, Spielberg and the effects team effortlessly port our characters into a film you would never see coming.
To be honest, much like The Lego Movie, the joy isn’t in searching for the references but spotting them by chance. Some people will definitely watch this over and over and pause on blu-ray to identify everything, but it’s more fun spotting the odd one out of nowhere. Musically, Alan Silvestri’s score is filled with sweeping themes but nothing too memorable. However, the use of film and popular music here is brilliant, and Silvestri himself revives one of his most famous themes at one point to great, audience-pleasing effect.
Moving back to the special effects, these are the undisputed star of the movie. You quite honestly couldn’t have made this film even 10 years ago, and Spielberg’s eye for action is still keenly visible through the CGI. From the slightly photo-real characters populating the OASIS, through to its unimaginable worlds, Ready Player One is a visual feast. In fact, having seen it in 3D I would recommend this in the cinema, as the virtual world of the OASIS pops out and is accentuated by it.
In contrast, regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has an easy job making the real world mundane but believably near-future, with a colour-drained, grubby aesthetic utilising our lovely Birmingham (yes, really) as the Ohio of the future
The acting is, however, quite mediocre – to the point that beyond some of the older cast, the in-OASIS, CGI avatars of our younger stars are more charismatic and engaging. Nowhere is this more evident that Tye Sheridan, as protagonist Wade/avatar Parzival. The actor was fairly naff in X-Men: Apocalypse, and doesn’t appear to have improved much here, his voice acting for the CGI much better than his onscreen appearances. When your CGI performance has more personality, that’s a worry.
Fortunately, Olivia Cooke’s diverse turns as both Samantha and Art3mis show the depths of the younger actress, to the point at which she is engaging as both person and effect. She represents the more human costs of the society’s changes, and I can’t help but feel – especially with the increased diversity coming cinema’s way – she might have been a better, much more impactful lead.
The best performance in this film (beyond the work of the visual effects artists) is another surprising turn from Mark Rylance. Having seemingly become Spielberg’s new muse after Bridge of Spies and The BFG, Rylance is both familiar and transformed as the awkward, eccentric James Halliday – the Steve Jobs of the OASIS. Boasting an excellent, drawly American accent, Rylance gives his enigmatic creator heart and a duality between real life and online. Without him, this film would lack a fair amount of humanity.
Ben Mendelsohn can feel a little robbed here, as his portrayal of antagonist Nolan Sorrento suffers from the streamlined script, and so we’re treated to another sneering, standard bad guy performance lacking much character (like his role in The Dark Knight Rises). Some rare but comedic asides show what Spielberg might have made of him and how the role could have been broadened out.
A couple of cameo performances see Simon Pegg ably contribute as the Steve Wozniak to Rylance’s Jobs, his Ogden Morrow more conscious of what the Oasis could be rather than the game it becomes. Pegg is quietly impressive in a few smaller scenes with Rylance too, a definite move toward more complex roles for him.
Previously comedic in Deadpool, T. J. Miller is (given recent accusations against him) thankfully only present in a voice role, his arrogant gamer dude I-R0k the quip-happy online muscle for Sorrento. Other small but notable roles include Lena Waithe’s Aetch, a clever commentary on online perceptions versus real life, while Win Morsaki’s Daito and Philip Zhao’s Shoto are quite good kid cameos in line with the Spielberg standard. Finally, Hannah John-Kamen as the ridiculously named F’Nale is another stock evil henchwoman, neither here nor there and appearing bumbling at some points, efficiently brutal at others.
A certain type of cinema-goer is going to absolutely love this film, and anyone that’s read the book will definitely enjoy it. For the average cinema-goer, this I believe has enough about it to please everyone, though don’t go in expecting an acting masterclass. This is pure Action Movie Spielberg with a dashing of characterisation!