Spielberg has always dealt in nostalgia. His most popular films were attempts to remake the icons of his childhood, which doubtlessly helped them to become such cherished artefacts for the next generation. He has also often been accused of being overly sentimental, his emotional scenes being over-wrought, especially when accompanied by a heavy handed John Williams score. Ready Player One conforms to these critiques and is indeed his most nostalgia infused effort yet, but it is also strange and surprising enough to entertain. It contains just enough of that Spielberg magic to make it compelling.
In 2045 everybody plays inside a virtual world called “The Oasis” which allows them to create an avatar and partake in epic adventures across multiple gaming genres. This is a dystopian future in which all gaming requires VR headsets and motion controls. The now-dead creator of this game has hidden an Easter egg at the heart of it which will give the finder untold power both in the game world and the real one. Gamers must explore the creator’s life and memories to find clues to find three keys to unlock the prize. Ben Mendelsohn plays a sinister executive who is willing to use whatever resources he has to win control of the game so he can sell ad space. Can our five plucky young heroes find the prize first? Probably.
Interestingly, the players have populated the world with modern (that is 2018) cultural references. It’s reassuring to know that Overwatch and Mortal Kombat will still be so popular twenty odd years from now. However the world that they inhabit (The Oasis) was created by a man whose key formative years were in the 80s. So all movie and music references are 80s themed creating strange incongruities like the main character asserting that his favourite movie is something called Buckaroo Bonsai. In any other script this would feel out of touch, yet it does serve an interesting purpose here. Perhaps the future will be inspired by nostalgia for the period we are living in now, which is rather 80s inflected and so perhaps we are doomed to repeat the 80s forever, its triumphs and its many, many failures.
Gaming is portrayed relatively positively here. Perhaps Black Mirror would present this game as some inane and dispiriting nonsense that keeps everyone distracted as good old values collapse around them. The grumpy old man perspective. But Ready Player One captures the wonder and fulfilment of a good video game and the reasons why people invest in popular culture in general. It does, however, present the dangers of giving up on this world in favour of the artificial. Even in this respect the film is optimistic.
The aesthetic of the film is very arresting. The real world is portrayed with a gritty realism whilst the game world is a sleek, computer-animated utopia. The dissonance recalls the different layers of society portrayed in Minority Report, an earlier Spielberg effort. The game world is colourful and just enough of it is practical to ground the action, making it more exciting.
Perhaps the strangest sequence involves the characters looking for a clue in The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Seeing animated videogame characters wandering the stately halls of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece will perhaps be one of strangest cinematic experiences I have this year.
The two young leads fit comfortably into the Spielberg mould of young lovers and are able to bring energy and heart to their roles. Mark Rylance has little screen time and yet is effortlessly perfect as the awkward yet charming inventor of the company. Mendelsohn isn’t offered the opportunity to exercise his considerable charm, but is effectively menacing.
This might be the most referential film ever made, with literally hundreds of Easter eggs for audiences to spot. This can be very distracting and the pacing is such that interesting ideas and plot points are introduced and then quickly moved past in favour of the next frenetic. It can, therefore, be difficult to invest in the characters and the story can feel a little disjointed. But the mystery is entertaining and the characters are fun. This is a very good example of a Spielberg blockbuster.
3 / 5