AUSTIN, Texas I am not all that familiar with Ernest Clines 2011 novel Ready Player One. Fans have apparently taken issue with the character of Art3mis, a sort of Manic Pixel Dream Girl who, like Princess Peach and countless other video game females before her, is rendered as a prize to be won; portions of its prose, including musings on masturbation, are laughably juvenile; and the book posits pop-culture capital as the ultimate currency. Here, Kevin Smith is Brad Pitt.
Steven Spielbergs oeuvre, on the other hand, is something I am familiar with, and I far prefer his fantastical early creations to the drab, dour history lessons of late. Spielberg once remarked, When I was younger, all I cared about was what people thought of me and my films. Now I care less about catering, hand-serving, hand-feeding the audience. Ive gotten to the point now in my life where Im serving myself. (So, catering to a 71-year-old man.)
Theres fan service, which Spielberg is great at, and then theres Eric Bana having The Worst Orgasm Ever in Munich. And Im happy to report that the film adaptation of Ready Player One falls squarely in the former category. It is without question the most entertaining filmor rather, MOVIE, as he introduced itSpielberg has made since Catch Me If You Can.
And what better place to premiere this MOVIE than in Austin, the home of its writer and its star, and at SXSW, a most peculiar marriage of storytelling and technology?
The year is 2045, and the city of Columbus, Ohio, like most of America, is in a state of dystopian ruin. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives among the stacks, a futuristic slum of stacked-up trailers. By night, he is neglected by his caretaker-aunt and slapped around by her idiot boyfriend, but by day, he retreats into the VR world of OASIS, a place where he is respected. He is one of many gamers attempting to complete Anoraks Questa puzzle-game created by the late architect of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), whos hidden three keys that, when acquired, will unlock the gateway to its Easter Egg. The winner gets Hallidays $500 billion and control of OASIS. Wade is uniquely equipped to play, having researched Hallidays life more thoroughly than anyone else on the planet.
Of course, this wouldnt be a Spielberg sci-fi flick without some rogue government/corporate entity threatening to ruin all the fun, and here its Innovative Online Industries (IOI), an evil multinational ISP run by proud philistine Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wishes to tame OASIS and milk it for every last drop.
Though the scene-setting leaves much to be desiredthe pitiable state of the world, and thus the stakes, are mostly impliedwere soon parachuted into VR-land, where Wade, who goes by the white-and-blue avatar Parzival (named after the Arthurian hero in search of the Holy Grail), is competing in a car race for one of the coveted keys. In Back to the Futures DeLorean, he puts pedal to the metal, weaving through an urban cityscape to Joan Jett whilst avoiding his high-powered competition, as well as King Kong, the T. Rex from Jurassic Park, and a host of other booby traps. Its a thrillingly high-octane sequence that puts to rest any reservations you have about this Final Fantasy-esque avatar world.
Its during this race that Parzival crosses paths with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a celebrated player and the only one whos gotten as close as he has to completing a competition and earning a key. The two, along with three other playersincluding the hysterical Aech, played by Master of Nones Lena Waitheform the High Five, a group of resistance-gamers out to win the keys and conquer OASIS before Sorrento and his army of paid players can.
With the minor exception of a clumsy nightclub dance-off, the VR set pieces are massively entertaining, including one set inside an iconic 80s horror film that had the theater cackling with glee. And the film as a whole never feels suffocated by its rapid-fire film, TV, music, and gaming referencescourtesy of co-writers Cline and Zak Pennmost of which land. The real-world scenes are not as effective, owing in part to Sheridan more closely resembling a hunky jock than a geeky gamer, but dont bog things down too much.
Any book issues with Art3mis, too, have been dealt with. She is Parzivals equal in every way, and a key plot point has been altered to even the ass-kicking playing field. Spielberg also appears to have attempted to address the lingering presence of T.J. Miller, who voices the gamer-troll (and Sorrento henchman) i-R0K. His is the only major VR character that we dont meet IRL, which may have something to do with the disturbing sexual-assault allegations against him.
Speaking to USA Today, Spielberg said that he was attracted to the 80s-loving world of Ready Player One because the decade had a refreshing lack of cynicism, and in our story, thats what people are trying to return to in their real lives, theyre living in a debris field of the first half of the 21st century.
Hes right: These days, many are indeed seeking an escape. And its great to have Spielberg as our guide once more.