Thursday, March 29, 2018
Review: "Ready Player One"
I’ve been playing video games for 40 years, so it’s no surprise I would truly dig a book that’s about them, and the movie they made of the book -- from director Steven Spielberg, no less, a filmmaker who’s always been plugged into the pop culture of the day.
The Oasis in “Ready Player One” is essentially every video game rolled into one. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, the story is set in a dystopian future in the year 2045, where life on Earth is hell and all meaningful interactions take place in the virtual world of the Oasis. People wear VR goggles, gloves and other gear to act out their dreams.
Think of it as Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft all rolled into one -- along with every creature or gadget from every science fiction/fantasy film ever made.
There, you can do almost anything you can dream of: live as an 8-foot-tall ogre cyborg, drive the DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” movies… even fall in love.
But the Oasis has a downside. It’s become the center of world economy, which means it’s a ripe target for those who would exploit it for their own gain, like Innovative Online Industries, or IOI. They’re swarming the grid with their drone-like army of avatars, known as Sixers, to solve the riddles left by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) after this death, which will lead the finder of three keys to the mother of all Easter Eggs.
The prize? Nothing less than control of the Oasis itself.
Though it differs from the book in myriad ways, small and huge, “Ready Player One” is still a dazzlingly entertaining movie that also nudges its audience to consider the weight of their own existence in RL (gamer lingo for “real life”). As fantastical as this world is, we’re left with the conclusion that nobody should spend all their time wrapped up in a comfortable cocoon spun out of technology.
The story brings together a band of young freedom fighters waging war against the tyranny of IOI and its conniving leader, Nathan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). To get a flavor of his M.O., in one scene Sorrento cheerfully informs his corporate board that once they take over the Oasis, they believe they can fill players’ visual fields with advertising up to 80% “before inducing seizures.”
Chief among the rebels is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a humble teenager who goes by the handle Parzival in the Oasis, taking the form of an androgynous, albino-haired punk. His best friend is Aech (pronounced “H”), the aforementioned ogre, who’s the fun-loving, self-assured yin to Parzival’s dweeby yang.
The most famous “Sixer Fixer” in the Oasis is Art3mis, an elf-like warrior played by Olivia Cooke. Parzival and Aech soon join forces with her, with Wade predictably falling in love with the avatar of someone who, as Aech points out, could very well by a 300-pound dude from Detroit.
Like James Cameron’s “Avatar,” most of the prime action in the movie plays out in a CGI dreamscape, punctuated by occasional returns to the “real” world, which is dank and grim. There’s so much to see and take in, and so many little Easter eggs and pop culture references, you’d have to rewind and freeze-frame the movie to catch them all.
(My personal favorite: the chant used for an important spell is the same used in 1981’s “Excalibur.”)
There’s no way the filmmakers could have obtained the intellectual rights to all the bits of pop culture stuffed into Cline's book, most of it hearkening back to the 1980s and '90s, so they swap them out with other ones, or invent new stuff entirely. I was a little bummed we didn’t get to see Ultraman make a pivotal appearance, though his replacement isn’t exactly mincemeat.
Cline and Penn also significantly alter and truncate the actual quest line in the book, making the three keys themselves the object rather than the gates they open. (Probably a wise choice, as it could easily have pushed an already long movie to the three-hour mark.)
For example, things start off with a slam-bang road race, rather than a very RPG (role-playing game) descent into a classic D&D module that must seem like dim history to Millennials.
“Ready Player One” is part computer-generated thrill ride, part Luddite warning, and all Spielbergian nostalgia adventure. Insert your quarter -- er, about 40-50 of them, at today’s ticket prices -- and get ready for a gleeful romp in the ultimate video game playground.