Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ready Player One

When Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg, was first announced, I didn’t know what to expect. When excerpts from the New York Times bestselling book floated around, I got the impression that it was basically wall-to-wall 80s pop culture references connected by a mediocre plot. This was one reason I didn’t see the movie when it came out initially, but after months of social pressure I finally caved in and actually watched it. To my surprise, it was better than I had expected, though still not that great of a movie.

In the year 2045, people escape to a VR universe known as OASIS, created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) of Gregarious Games. After Halliday’s death, a pre-recorded message is sent out to world, revealing that whoever can find three hidden keys can unlock a hidden gate, behind which is an Easter Egg that will grant them complete ownership of OASIS, along with $500 Billion. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphan living in the “stacks” in Columbus Ohio, seeks the Egg so he can have a better life, along with his online friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). His biggest hurdle, however, is Nolan Sorento (Ben Mendelsohn), owner of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who seeks to control OASIS for himself by using countless employees and indentured servants, called “Sixers”, to find and complete the challenges.

The story is not that hard to follow, a plus considering the setting, but the individual plot points can be pretty hit and miss, oftentimes relying on certain coincidences/contrivances to help advance the story. For example, without spoiling anything, it apparently took thousands of players four years to even consider looking for an invisible wall during one of the challenges to obtain a key. Another challenge requires taking creative liberties with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) to “actionize” it, with one character saved from death, aka “Zeroing Out”, entirely because the plot needed him to stay alive. On perhaps a lesser note, it’s noticeable that the police don’t get involved at any point in the story until the very end.

That isn’t to say that Ready Player One doesn’t have interesting ideas, like the setting and the technology, just that the execution is unrefined.

One of the more obvious references; Wade Watts as Parzival (Tye Sheridan)
about to race with a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future Part II.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Ready Player One, and presumably the reason a number of people saw this movie is the first place, is the numerous pop culture references. In-story, characters practically worship 1980s pop culture, as they believe that this period of time, which Halliday grew up with, could contain the necessary clues to finding the three hidden keys. From what little I saw in the novel, the references made as a result could result in unwieldy descriptions literally lasting at least a whole page.

In the movie, these references are comparatively far subtler, like a modern “Where’s Waldo?” where eagle-eyed viewers may spot some visual reference to their favorite icons if it’s not already pointed out. Some of these references, just from memory, include Minecraft, Overwatch, The Iron Giant, Gundam, Akira, Street Fighter, Back to the Future, Superman, The Atari 2600 (both the console and games), The Shining, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Battletoads, Looney Tunes, Sanrio properties, King Kong and Batman (1966). And that’s just merely scratching the surface. I personally liked this execution of the references, since the game VRChat allows a system where player avatars can resemble copyrighted characters, though it’s rather noticeable that all the characters that Warner Bros. didn’t need to license are all characters owned by them in some form. As a result, the usage of the Giant from The Iron Giant, while somewhat justified in-universe and from a production standpoint as a replacement for Ultraman, feels wrong considering the message of the movie it’s from. I’ll also mention here that not even the music is safe from references, since aside from the licensed music, the score itself references composer Alan Silvestri’s work on Back to the Future and music from The Shining.

There’s not much I can really say about the acting, as the actors can’t do much about the general lack of depth in the characters, but T.J. Miller, surprisingly enough, stood out in his role as i-R0k. i-R0k doesn’t really do very much, but he manages to be a good source of levity due to his casual nature despite also taking his job as an antagonist seriously.

Ready Player One is very much a Spielberg film, but ultimately one that’s just okay. It’s not a bad movie, since the story does have some interesting ideas and a better execution of pop culture references than the novel, but the general lack of depth and a host of small issues ultimately hold it back from being great. Give it a try if you’re a Spielberg fan or someone who just wants a chance to see a lot of their favorite things onscreen, but this is otherwise a game you don’t need to play.

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