READY PLAYER ONE (2018, PG-13, 140 minutes, AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT/WARNER BROTHERS)
Many directors have a style you can sense a mile away—sometimes that is a good thing in that it reassures you, like an old familiar book you have read a dozen times. Other times, it’s crappy, as in “oh, goody, another Michael Bay film that moves at the same pace as a coked-up squirrel running on no sleep and way too many Red Bulls and exploding metal”.
Steven Spielberg is one of the consistently stylish ones; he creates a sense of wonder from a child’s perspective. He doesn’t insist that you believe, but rather assumes you will find the proceedings as magical as he does. Mr. Spielberg may have had a few misses in his career (ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN, anyone?), but his visual style of storytelling is one that feels comfortable and reliable and altogether amazing. And his latest is no exception.
READY PLAYER ONE, based on the book by Ernest Cline (who co-wrote the screenplay), has a sweeping narrative which switches from the virtual reality of The Oasis, an online and fully immersive digital universe, and actual reality, where the consequences are even more perilous than losing one’s avatar. The story follows Wade Watts, aka “Parzival” (played by Tye Sheridan, whose performance in 2012’s MUD was absolutely heart wrenching), as he hunts for a vast fortune and control over The Oasis itself. It seems that upon his death, the creator of The Oasis hid an Easter Egg somewhere within the game, and the first to find it inherits it all. Parzival’s online friends are also hunting for the prize, as well as every other gamer on the planet—including an evil corporation that wishes to seize control just so it can begin charging people to play The Oasis.
What ensues is a life-or-death chase that occasionally sees the fantasy blending with reality, although Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Cline want you to know that there is a distinct line separating the two. Having an escape from the real world is fine, but that real world is still there waiting for you when you log out of the system. Whether you are looking at the online world of the game, or the seedy underbelly of real-world Columbus, Ohio, each depiction is fully realized and equally beatific and gritty.
Of course, there are going to be differences from page to screen, but having Cline co-write the screenplay helps ensure that the geeky glee of the book is kept alive and virtually kicking onscreen. Whereas some things would not translate well from the book (for instance: to win the contest, the players must collect three keys, which give them clues to the next stage; some of the ways those keys are collected in the book, like playing a video game against a monster, or acting out an entire film from the eighties, would not translate well to the big screen), the author is there to guide the story along. For the most part, this works.
However, there are two key sequences in the film that do not work quite right, and therein lies the only real problems I have with the film. Wade’s romance with Samantha (known online as “Art3mis”), played with a staunch resolve by Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL), falls flat. This happens mainly because there isn’t enough time to convince the viewer of their passion, but also because, in books, the structure is allowed to linger on Wade’s thoughts and emotions. The other sequence that felt off to me (no spoilers!) is their face-to-face meeting in the real world. Sometimes deviations from the source material are necessary, but there is a way to make them more believable, and this makes for an unfortunate stumbling point in the flow of the story.
But did I mention that there are Battle Toads? And an alien? And a gremlin?!? The magic of the book, which translates beautifully to the screen, are all of the pop culture references; from BACK TO THE FUTURE to a certain haunted hotel, there are characters and music and visuals from the eighties and nineties that should bring more than just a smile to your mug. The use of avatars from video games (and I’ll not get into specifics, as there are far too many to catch during one screening, and I wouldn’t want to distract you by making you look for certain ones) and characters from other films is never overwhelming, but used more to accentuate the storytelling.
And in the hands of an already quite capable teller of tales—who was insistent that none of his prior creations appear in this film, although the post-production staff did manage to sneak one in—you should feel confident that what you will be witnessing is a director getting back to his roots.
-- T.S. Kummelman