Ready Player One, despite being about a dystopian civilisation that’s happier to hang around in a virtual world than deal with the harshness of the real world, isn’t the sort of film to get drawn into discussions over, say, what constitutes reality. And yet, it’s impossible not to think about that question, for, more than once, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) — the hero with an unhealthy obsession for OASIS, the MMOSG world in the film — is belittled for having lived all his life, escaping the troubles of the real world. He’s not alone, of course. An opening shot shows all his neighbours, with VR gears on, comically flailing about in their seemingly lonely homes. It’s darkly comic.
But what indeed is reality? In Matrix — the film of the last three decades that perhaps most concerned itself with this topic — Morpheus asks, “What’s real, Neo? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, smell, taste and see, ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” In the digitally gorgeous world of OASIS, humans don’t just find immersion; they can actually feel contact across their body. The villain — of the corporate variety, like is usually the case in such stories — gets kicked right where it hurts the most, and upon disconnection from OASIS, holds the area as he limps in pain. It is real. The only reason you’d disconnect from OASIS is to take care of your body. Wade has a quick robotic routine in the mornings, as he tries to get done with the boring human rituals of eating and exercising, so he can go do his living in the other world. That’s the world with infinite possibilities. As Wade narrates at the beginning, “You can skii on the pyramids, you can climb Mount Everest… with Batman.” And yet, eventually, he’s shown to buy that reality is somehow more preferable, because well, that’s the right thing to say, right? I never truly bought that he bought that. It’s probably got to do something with the film’s reluctance to really delve into the topic, save for these occasional self-righteous detours which I suppose were deemed morally necessary.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
So, we have established what Spielberg’s Ready Player One isn’t. What it is though is a eye-poppingly spectacular visual feast, littered with more pop culture references from the 80s than you can keep track of. Right at the beginning of the film, Parzival (name of Wade’s OASIS avatar) flicks an icon from his inventory, and you can’t but look on enchantedly as it unfolds into a customised DeLorean DMC-12 (from the Back to the Future series). The visuals in your mind, they say, are always more beautiful than any real rendition, and that’s always applied to film adaptations, but Ready Player One is among the few films that break this rule. It’s beautiful to behold all these objects and characters you read about in Ernest Cline’s book. A large part of the film’s enjoyment — much like in the book — is in recognising them, and in feeling self-important about doing so. I spotted Goro from Mortal Kombat, mechagodzilla, Chucky, Kratos from God of War, Nathan Drake from Uncharted… There’s a Jurassic Park reference too, but that’s all you get as far as Spielberg’s work is concerned. It’s strange though, given that he is such a big part of the pop culture of 80s. I suppose it must have been a conscious choice to keep his own work out of all the homage.
Cline’s story gives you reason to believe that all that time you ‘wasted’ gaming may not have been in vain, after all. The story itself is a pat on the back of gamers and geeks. The film itself begins as a game, when OASIS’ founder James Halliday, after his death, throws a contest open and announces that the winner will inherit his substantial share. And then rolls the title… Ready Player One. Let the game begin; let the biggest geek out there win.
As with most film adaptations, there’re quite a few notable departures from the book — some quite useful, some deeply annoying. The first task to find the copper key, for instance, has been reimagined as a racing competition. This is a welcome change from the arcade sequence in the book, and also because Spielberg gives you a visually gratifying sequence, with much chaos and madness, unleashed partly by a dinosaur and King Kong. One of the biggest disappointments for me — and I suspect for the vast majority of those who read Cline’s book — is the absence of the ‘flicksync’ tasks. In the book, these are where the participant finds himself in the shoes of a character from a popular film. The task is to faithfully reproduce lines and reactions from the film’s scene as it happens. If that’s not a test of obsession with the films of 80s, what is?
Also, in the book, the female lead, Samantha Cook a ka Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is supposed to be a lot more gorgeous in OASIS than she is in reality. A facial birthmark is supposed to have left her fighting deep feelings of inadequacy. But in the film, this birthmark isn’t nearly as offputting as it should have been. You almost get why Wade would rather stay with her than escape to the OASIS.
The biggest problem for me was the rebellion. Towards the end, Samantha dramatically announces, “Welcome to the rebellion, Wade.” If you’re unfamiliar with the story already, you’d be forgiven for scratching your head and going, “Rebellion? What rebellion? Against who?” You never really learn that a large number of gunters (the egg hunters in OASIS) are in opposition to the evil corporate organisation, IOI, or that their favourite pastime is to take down the avatars of IOI’s agents. That’s why, towards the end, when gunters pour like the Biblical locusts to help Wade and co, there’s very little sense of awe. Even Wade’s big motivational speech feels perfunctory.
So long as you’re occupied, identifying all the 80s trivia and revelling in the digital carnival that is Ready Player One, you’ll find yourself quite absorbed and rewarded even. If you’re out for depth though, well, this isn’t it. Not unless we’re talking of depth of pop culture knowledge that you can brag about, which I did a lot during the film. Oh, hey, did I tell you? I also recognised Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet!
This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.