Right in time for Easter comes an adventure film featuring an Easter egg as the ultimate prize/ goal for its heroes. Gamers and pop culture fans will appreciate the unending array of virtual reality (VR) environments and video games in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.” At the same time, film fans will enjoy tributes to classic movies and characters such as “The Shining,” “The Iron Giant,” “King Kong,” Chucky, and Batman.
But, audience members don’t need to be gamers or movie buffs to enjoy “Ready Player One.” All they need is a love of involving, non-stop action adventure stories.
Set in Columbus, Ohio in 2045, “Ready Player One” shows a not too distant future where residents have decided it’s too hard to solve problems. So, instead of trying, they have settled for living in The Stacks, a neighborhood of high rises constructed of multiple layers of trailers. To escape their surroundings, they engage in VR games for hours on end.
In one of the trailers dwells Wade (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned gamer who lives with his down-on-her-luck aunt (Susan Lynch) and her abusive boyfriend. Like most of his neighbors, Wade finds escape in the OASIS, a VR world. The action there is always available, with gaming opportunities for a variety of tastes.
The OASIS’s appeal lies both in the many games it offers and in the fact it enables every participant to hide behind an avatar. Wade has named his VR identity Parzival after one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. Wade’s gamer best friend is Aech (Lena Waithe), a hulking avatar who can fix almost anything and whose latest project is building the Iron Giant. Wade/Parzival and Aech are both “Gunters”- gamers on the hunt for the Easter egg hidden in OASIS by the realm’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance in his third teaming with Spielberg).
Halliday died five years earlier. He is mourned by fans of the OASIS, all of whom hope to find the three keys he hid in his games. The successful Gunter who captures all three keys which lead to the gold Easter egg will inherit OASIS plus Halliday’s fortune.
However, the Gunters aren’t the only ones pursuing this prize. IOI (Innovative Online Industries) has a 24/7 workforce, many of whom work as slave labor, trying to find the Easter egg. Nicknamed “Sixers,” IOI’s team is dedicated to solving Halliday’s riddles. IOI wants control of OASIS in order to maximize profits. Its leader, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is smoothly ruthless and has enlisted the assistance of I–R0k (T.J. Miller), an intimidating avatar with a skull face for a torso. One of the main opponents of IOI and the Sixers is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a fearless crusading female Gunter upon whom Ward/ Parzival has a VR crush.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, “Ready Player One” lets Spielberg use his storytelling skills to great advantage as he shares a tale that celebrates pop entertainment but doesn’t forget the strengths of real life. Part of what propels Wade on his quest is the desire to win the ultimate gamer prize by solving Halliday’s puzzles. At the same time, Wade’s attraction to Art3mis leads him to step out of his lonely existence into the real world where the stakes are more than just control of OASIS.
Author Cline teamed with Zak Penn for the screen adaptation of Cline’s best-selling novel. The resulting film proceeds like a gamer version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Rylance’s Halliday is very Willy Wonka-esque, a creative genius who lived a solitary life creating fantasy worlds. The Oompa Loompa stand-ins are IOI’s brain trust in the Oology Department whose members keep trying to crack Halliday’s riddles. Wade is definitely an adult Charlie, with poverty and dreams prodding him on. Luckily, Aech, Art3mis, and Wade’s other VR friends, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), aren’t bratty like Charlie’s peers. And, in the end, the ultimate prize may be much more valuable than either the chocolate factory or its relative, OASIS.
To create OASIS’s world and the avatars, Spielberg turned to production designer Adam Stockhausen. The visually appealing results include images that make the audience feel like they really have entered a VR game (viewing the film in Dolby Cinema or 3D further enhances the visuals’ immersive quality). “Ready Player One’s” scenery is full of so many pop culture icons and its own Easter eggs that fans of detail are sure to enjoy watching it multiple times.
The images are paired with a soundtrack that includes a score by Alan Silvestri and anthems from groups such as Van Halen, the Bee Gees, and Blondie (some hip hop would have also fit the bill, but unfortunately wasn’t included). The differences between reality and VR are smoothly delineated by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s decision to use two different mediums- film for scenes of reality and digital for the VR world.
Wade and his VR friends, who become known as the High Five, are an appealing band of gamers, each with their own persona. Their exploration of Halliday’s life choices during their quest impacts their own decisions. Wade and Art3mis are the main focus and Sheridan and Cooke have authentic chemistry as mutually attracted Gunters who initially have very different reasons to want to win. Cooke especially makes an impact with Art3mis’ fearlessness and intelligence. The contribution of the other members of the High Five render them worthy sidekicks.
Time and again Spielberg has shown he can deliver via films based on both history (“Schindler’s List,” “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” and most recently “The Post”- made while “Ready Player One’s” VR shots were being created) and fiction (starting with his blockbuster “Jaws” and continuing with gems like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”). In “Ready Player One” he has a project that reflects his core love of Saturday matinee adventure films and sci-fi elements. Audiences will be glad one of American film’s most successful storytellers decided to bring them on this adventure.