by Benjamín Harguindey
Cashing in on 80s nostalgia, as you do, Steven Spielberg‘s Ready Player One (2018) – based on the 2011 hit novel of the same name by Ernest Cline – imagines a a future enveloped in a worldwide virtual reality where everybody’s leading fantasy lives online 24/7 and pop culture is king. So it’s more of a present-day dramatization, really. Let’s get to it.
1) The name of the virtual reality is OASIS. Via an array of sensory receptors and the optional treadmill (the movie’s kinda sketchy about their absolute necessity) you can log on to OASIS from pretty much anywhere, pick your avatar and partake in just about any activity imaginable. This virtually massive multiplayer continuous online event is presented as not only the panacea of gaming but the industry’s natural conclusion. Me, I’m sorry for the single-player experience. The AAA publishers won.
2) The creator of OASIS passed away some time ago and has left behind three “Easter Eggs” concealed in the vast virtual reality. The first one is hidden at the end of an impossible death race, and leads to the other two. Whoever gets all three inherits the rights to OASIS, making Egg hunting something of a career. The movie gets right the fact that in videogames Easter Eggs are unlocked through incredibly counterintuitive ways, but is wrong about their purpose: they don’t have any. To turn them into MacGuffins is to show a fundamental lack of understanding of games.
3) Teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is the protagonist. Points for accuracy: his avatar looks like one of those punky boy toys from Final Fantasy. He’s an enthusiast of the lore behind OASIS and his creators, which makes him the ideal candidate to eventually figuring out how to get the first Egg and start the world’s most important scavenger hunt. He’s up against an evil corporation called IOI, which employs hundreds of mooks daily on their quest to gain all three Eggs. CEO Nolan (Ben Mendehlson), not the brightest Bushnell, is putting all of his chips on the infinite monkey theorem.
4) Wade craks the puzzle for the first Easter Egg with some good old lateral thinking and is promptly joined in his quest for the other two by his friend H and fellow hunter Art3mis. Wade develops a crush for Art3mis’s Na’vi cosplay, prompting H to warn him about who might be behind the VR headset. I forget the exact line but H essentially paraphrases Bruce Willis from Surrogates: “For all I know, you could be some big, fat dude sitting in his stim chair with his dick hanging out”.
5) Art3mis is actually played by the lovely Olivia Cooke. No, it’s not a spoiler – just look at the poster. That whole speech she gives to Wade about being bound for disappointment? She has the world’s most aesthetic machiatto-tinted birthmark ringing her left eye. Boo-hoo. The other reveals of Wade’s friends are just as underwhelming. What I wouldn’t give for the film to have the balls to pull a Crying Game on Wade. In fact, what I wouldn’t give for the movie to tackle any of the other internet-related issues of today. What happens to trolling, stalking, bullying, doxxing and all kinds of cybercrime in a world this codependent of virtual nourishment? Why even raise the issue of identity politics if you’re not going to do anything with it?
6) The AAA gaming industry has gotten so generic at this point that games are hard-pressed to coast on their USP – unique selling point. This movie’s USP is 80s nostalgia in the form of cameos, references, callbacks, name-drops and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods. Ready Player One contains an impressive catalogue of 80s-and-upwards nerd culture, presented either casually in the background for those on a safari binge or front and center for fans to point and clap. It’s a lot of fun but most of these scenes are pointless – such as the Xenomorph popping up for a non sequitur – or placeholders, like the Iron Giant double teaming Mechagodzilla with a Gundam. To be fair Spielberg gets the random, hyperbolic nature of comic book lit to a T.
7) The best part of the movie is actually an homage to another movie: Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining (1980). This is the part where the heroes step into an impeccable virtual replica of the Overlook Hotel and relive some of the movie’s most iconic moments while racing the clock for another Easter Egg. It’s just as fun as having cartoons cruising through the fabric of classic paintings and having fun in creative ways with the Greatest Hits. It’s also a pretty damn good homage.
8) At one point adult Nolan tries to ingratiate himself to young Wade by spouting 80s trivia. Wade concludes that Nolan is being disingenuous and accuses him of trying to manipulate him by emulating a passion for pop culture he doesn’t share. You could make the case that Spielberg is doing the same by making this movie. Glass houses, Steven.
9) Then again you could make the case that Spielberg sees himself more as Halliday (Mark Rylance), the late co-creator of OASIS who lives on in his creation to spur forth hero kids on their quest. The quest itself is compared in any number of ways to the one for the Holy Grail: Wade’s code name is Parzival and the challenges are designed to prove his worth rather than his skills. I’m also pretty sure the leitmotiv from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) makes an appearence. Rylance lends more emotion to the human element of the story than any of its youthful heroes by channeling kindness and sadness in his self-appointed role. Simon Pegg also shows up as the other co-creator just long enough to make you wonder how much better the movie would’ve been in the hands of Edgar Wright.
10) Ready Player One isn’t the game-changer it could’ve been, but it’s way better than most of the YA sci-fi fantasy being produced en masse today. Spielberg still knows how to make a blockbuster and imbues this one with his customary gentle charm, humor and whimsy. In many ways it emulates the very culture it’s trying to cater to: entitled, condescending and with a flair for indulgence. It’s the movie we deserve, just not the one we need.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).