Ready Player One arrives at our shores just in time for Easter, and fittingly it is the quintessential turducken of an Easter feast. It is an Easter egg stuffed with Easter eggs, wrapped in Easter eggs and – to take this metaphor possibly too far, but screw it – covered in rich melted Easter egg sauce.
This latest offering from legendary director Steven Spielberg – actually, let’s pause right there for a second. This is directed by Spielberg – not produced, or overseen, or babysat, or any of that nonsense that is just a way of attaching the Spielberg name to a project. Directed. And at the risk of sounding ageist, I can’t help but wonder how on earth the grandfather still has pieces of work such as this in him. You have to go back a long way – about ten years – to find the director having even remotely as much fun as this.
Ready Player One is an adaptation of the 2011 novel of the same name, written by Ernest Cline (who also has a screenwriting credit on the movie). It’s set in the year 2045, where overpopulation and events such as the “corn syrup droughts” and “bandwidth riots” have devastated the planet and left a pretty grim world behind. A world that its inhabitants, in Columbus, Ohio at least, want to have very little to do with. So instead, they escape to a virtual reality called The Oasis. Think Second Life or The Sims, but with a hard-core expansion pack added on.
As soon as our avid gamer-hero, Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) introduces us to The Oasis minutes into the movie, you can clearly see the appeal. It’s a beautifully rendered universe, quickly showcasing its endless impossible possibilities in a heady whistle-stop tour. This is where people socialise, Wade says, and where they work and study and play.
The Oasis is also where people self-actualise and become somebodies. Players can build themselves up into renowned masters of the domain, sometimes overnight, accumulating vast amounts of wealth and collecting really really cool tech. So the Oasis has pretty much the same draw as most games that it looks to for inspiration.
Only, that wouldn’t be it, would it? Well, no – the spacey genius behind the Oasis, James Halliday (expertly played by Spielberg-favourite Mark Rylance) decides on his death to release an Easter egg hunt for a, uhm, literally a virtual golden egg. But more than that, the hunt is for overall control and ownership of The Oasis. No player has made any headway in five years though, so don’t even bother… Ready Player One then makes the brave decision to have young Wade grapple with and finally accept the fact that some things in (virtual) life are just too hard and unattainable, and that you have to know when to give up. The End.
No, obviously not. Wade, in the guise of his avatar, Parzival, along with help from his best friend, Aech and crush, Art3mis, start solving the various challenges that should lead them to the Egg. Now, if that is your premise, you would then rightly assume that the movie stands or falls on the strength of these challenges. And luckily there is a lot of fun to be had with them. From an exhilarating race with some impressive gameplay, to a kooky reimagining of a beloved movie classic, to a big Battle of Helm’s Deep-style climax, the puzzles and tasks are just challenging and lengthy enough to keep you hooked.
Love it or hate it, the movie’s real strength, however, is all its own Easter eggs. Parzival, for instance, drives a DeLorean as featured in Back to the Future and is mockingly given the nickname McFly after that movie’s protagonist. He also obtains a so-called Zemeckis Cube, named for the director of Back to Future, and at one point that famous score is even sampled [bonus point: The score for Ready Player One was composed by Alan Silvestri, who also composed the Back to the Future music]. Occasionally the future world of Ready Player One is so strongly reminiscent of the future of say, Back to Future II, that you half expect the real Marty McFly to be hiding in a cupboard somewhere in The Oasis.
Spielberg also references or evokes several other movies he’s been involved with. The Jurassic Park T-Rex makes an appearance, Halliday’s avatar, Anorak, strongly suggests the grail knight from Indy’s Last Crusade, and a bunch of kids on a treasure hunt is screaming The Goonies, to name but a few. Somewhat separately, Ready Player One also gives 1999’s The Iron Giant an unexpected but wholly delightful cinematic comeback.
But why stop there? It’s as much about the movies Ready Player One definitely means to evoke as the ones it probably doesn’t. It’s enough to make your head spin – hints of The Matrix, Avatar (of course) and Inception. But for me, Ready Player One actually shares the strongest similarities with the charming Wreck-It Ralph, especially in tone.
And speaking of tone, this movie has some really deft comedic beats. Whether it’s TJ Miller as a mercenary in The Oasis who really needs to go see a chiropractor, or Ben Mendelsohn’s big bad, Nolan Sorrento, being aided by pop culture nerds to seem cool, Ready Player One consistently manages to be very funny. And it’s got the look and feel of a classic Spielberg movie to boot. So family and friendship are strong themes throughout. Thus, it’s funny as well as warm and fuzzy.
I had such a blast with this movie. With its bounty of loving detail, escapism and adventure. It’s movie magic at its finest. Spielberg doing what he does best in a new form that feels like an old, familiar form. But in a good way. Another golden egg indeed!
Ready Player One is in cinemas from 29 March – that’s right, THURSDAY ALREADY!