Trying to adapt Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was going to be a challenge for any director, even a veteran one like Steven Spielberg. Released in 2011, Cline’s debut was filled with pop culture references that were indicative of the decade it was written in, though he also sprinkled in a plethora of ’70s-’90s references as well. Yet because the film adaptation is gracing screens seven years later, what was seen as contemporary back then is now outdated.
Spielberg thankfully does not force characters from 2018’s popular zeitgeist to interact with the characters Cline used in his novel. Ready Player One is surprisingly able to revel in the nostalgic excess that made the novel so popular in the past, yet it explores thought-provoking themes about virtual reality, climate change and escapism present in today’s society. While the film’s visual thrills tend to outweigh the emphasis on character development, Spielberg invites viewers to get lost in the magical world of collaboration and possibility. To gamers and self-professed nerds alike, this film is a dazzling and magical love letter.
The core plot remains largely unchanged from the novel. In 2045, the majority of the world’s most populated areas have become slum-like cities due to overpopulation and pollution. To escape from life’s hardships, individuals enter into a virtual world called the OASIS, created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). In the OASIS, people can create new lives for themselves. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a frequent visitor of the OASIS and discovers that Halliday has left a challenge to the world’s inhabitants: those who are able to find his Easter Egg will gain full control of the OASIS as well as Halliday’s fortune. Watts, alongside a few friends must race to find the Egg before Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his company do.
While leads Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke are fine actors in the real world, their virtual counterparts are far more exciting and unfortunately, the film spends more time focusing on the former. You get the feeling that Sheridan’s Wade Watts is supposed to be more obsessed with gaming than he is, but unfortunately his bursts of passion seem more rehearsed and mechanical. Cooke is surprisingly more mellow as Samantha/Art3mis here than she did when she played an emotionless teenager in Thoroughbreds, though she is still able to command the screen effectively during the action sequences. The supporting cast is not as developed, though Ben Mendelsohn’s sneering and greedy Nolan is appropriately charismatic and compelling to watch. His inexplicable hatred of the OASIS and view of it simply as cultural capital clashes well with Wade’s more tender view of it as a second home. Though Mark Rylance only appears in a handful of scenes, his quirky and awkward performance of James Halliday adds some much-needed comic relief.
Yet what the film lacks in character development it more than makes up for in visual splendor. The OASIS is very much a representation of a virtual harmony where characters from rival franchises can co-exist with (relatively) no consequence. It is impossible to capture all the characters that populate the screen, especially during the film’s final action sequences where it seems like every major franchise has a combatant in the final battle; most of the fun comes from seeing which characters you recognize. Sensory overload is the best way to describe it, but this makes even simple expositional scenes work; while there may be important dialogue, fleeting cameos tempt your eyes to wander.
For all of this visual eye-candy, the film asks a poignant question: did people’s obsession with video gaming lead to a neglect of the real world and its destruction? Or did the destruction of the world drive people to virtual reality? Either way, as wonderful as the OASIS is, it was never meant to replace the real world; VR should not have served as a way to numb reality but find a way to solve its problems. Thus, it is strangely fitting that Ready Player One was released on Easter Weekend, a celebration that highlights Jesus’ resurrection and the finding of the greatest treasure: His empty tomb (insert puns about Easter Eggs here too). In the Gospel of Luke, there is a scene where angels tell the women who came to Jesus’ tomb that “He is not here; he has risen!” The angels encouraged the women to not focus on the empty tomb but on the good news of the resurrection. Likewise, the Spielberg encourages the audience to look past the “empty tomb” of virtual reality; there truly is nothing quite like the real world.
Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.