“Reality is the only place you can get a decent meal.” — Ready Player One
SXSW. Austin, Texas. Monday, March 12, 2018. 3 am. Ready Player One,directed by Steven Spielberg, is a great movie, a great big lovable mess of a movie. I laughed. I cried. I folded my arms in consternation. I cheered when the 2D bad guys got what was coming to them. This movie will be revered by science fiction fans for generations. If you’re not one of us, well, you’ve been warned. As for this elder nerd, I am crying with joy as I write this. Though the plot holes are large enough for the Iron Giant to walk through, Ready Player Oneleft me a wobbly, sniffling mess, for reasons personal and professional. It is a love letter to video games and our collective and often misguided tech fantasies but, more than anything, it is, like all of Spielberg’s best films, a love letter to the movies.
TYE SHERIDAN as Wade Watts in Warner Bros. Pictures,’ Amblin Entertainment’s and Village Roadshow Pictures’ science fiction action adventure “READY PLAYER ONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Now, the caveats. You might want to skip ahead. These will probably be longer than my not-review. I call it that because I’m not a reviewer. And honestly, I couldn’t in clear conscience rip into this movie (and some will; ignore them) if I wanted (and I don’t). I worked with Spielberg on “Roger Rabbit” shorts “Tummy Trouble”, “Roller Coaster Rabbit”, and the unmade (thank god) “Baby Huey” movie in the 80s. I found him to be kind, generous, and insightful. The movie’s producer, Donald DeLine, was a colleague at Disney in the early 90s. Oscar winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminsky, is one of my oldest friends. He worked as an AC (assistant cameraman) on a kitschy slasher movie I directed in 1984. The author of the inspiring and visionary book on which the movie is based, Ernie Cline, has been extraordinarily generous to me personally and made a substantial though invisible contribution to my recently released soon-to-be best selling AR-enabled book about VR and AR. To say I am very very invested in the success of the new immersive media that is the basis of this archetypal story would be a ridiculous understatement. Oh, and I cry like a baby at musicals. Yes, musicals like Les Miserables, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. I cry at movies now, too. I’m still deeply emotional as I write this right now.
Oh, and the movie froze during the climactic battle scene, leading to a rapid early exit of the Hollywood contingent to the Warner jet waiting at the Austin airport to whisk the entourage back to LA. No doubt this epic technical glitch dampened the champagne toast on the plane. It shouldn’t have. Stuff happens. This audience didn’t care. If they loved the movie any more they’d have been kissing.
The plot revolves around a contest created by the recently deceased creator and owner of the massive virtual world, the OASIS, James Halliday, played with nuance and empathy by Mark Rylance. Halliday, who apparently died friendless and alone, decides, as the sole owner of the OASIS, to bequeath the trillion dollar Google of the future to the winner of a character-defining contest. Millions of people, including an evil and omnipotent corporation, IOI, and a legion of independent “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”) have joined the search. A young Gunter, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), operating in the virtual world as Parzival (after the questing knight), realizing Halliday was obsessed with his youth in the 80s, becomes a student of the period. As he comes close to collecting the 3 keys needed to acquire total ownership of The Oasis, Wade becomes the target of IOI, led by vicious and unscrupulous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelson), whose army of enforcers are unbound by law until they are not, one of the many contrivances that sometimes dims the underlying greatness of the story and the movie. Just as no VR experience can ever do justice to a story, no movie can ever surpass the mind movie created by the words of a masterful novelist. We have no idea what drives Sorrento other than cartoonish greed.
(L-R) TYE SHERIDAN as Wade Watts and OLIVIA COOKE as Samantha Cook in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Amblin Entertainment’s and Village Roadshow Pictures’ science fiction action adventure “READY PLAYER ONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Spielberg guides a young cast of relative unknowns to uniformly compelling performances. You may recall except for Oscar winner Alec Guinness, no one ever heard of the actors made famous by the Star Wars movies, either. Stars, in a story where most everyone is mostly represented by their cartoonish game avatars, seem unnecessary. I especially enjoyed the under-utilized bounty hunter, T.J. Miller, who helps and sometimes hinders Sorrento, and Sorrento’s henchwoman, Julia Nickson. Lena Waithe, in her major motion picture debut, plays Ache, Parizal’s loyal best friend with a magic mechanical touch, is similarly impressive.
No doubt other reviewers will snark out on the ironies of Spielberg directing a movie about Spielberg movies since so much of his work in the period as both producer and director defined popular culture in that era. Remember, in the 80s, before the Internet and social media ate the public’s consciousness, movies, TV shows, and video games defined popular culture. The number of references to the characters that inhabited these popular period celluloid fantasies is staggering, starting with “the Zemeckis Cube”. Robert Zemeckis directed “Back to the Future” and “Roger Rabbit”, both produced by Spielberg. During the climactic battle scene, Sheridan holds up a boom box like John Cusack in Say Anything, while the Iron Giant, and Gundam, backed by a legion of pop culture characters from movies like Batman, Back to the Future, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, and Child’s Play (remember Chucky?), Akira, and popular videos games from the period, like Duke Nukem and Street Fighter. There will be much written about this, and doubtless, legions of fans will spend dozens of hours picking out each one.
Steven Spielberg introduces the cast of “Ready Player One” at the South By Southwest pop-up premiere of the movie.
I feel compelled to mention there are some odd strings left untied. Art3mis, played with appealing spunk by Olivia Cooke, is Sheridan’s love interest, a gifted Gunter and leader of a revolution, although of what against what is unclear. In this dystopian near future of 2045, the country is falling apart from neglect, and no one or everyone seems responsible. During the final, huge battle scene, Ache, in the Iron Giant avatar, dies a dozen deaths. At the same time, genuine suspense is generated when Art3mis is a prisoner of IOI. To release her, during the mele, Parzival has to shoot her avatar in the head. Virtual death enables real life. Nicely played. To love someone is to let them go. In virtual reality, literally.
A sci-fi epic about 80s pop culture is risky business.
Ready Player One is a relentlessly entertaining movie. If you are a fan of the genre, get in line. Like all sci-fi fans, I look forward to seeing it, again and again, to earn its many Easter Eggs and ultimately own the OASIS myself.