Review: Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg is back in form with virtual reality action thriller

Ready Player One (Ready Player One: Hra začíná)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

You have to look fast to catch all the cultural references in Ready Player One, a new sci-fi film from director Steven Spielberg based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline. It pays homage to video games and popular films while telling an above average tale of corporate greed versus individual freedoms.

Director Spielberg breaks the curse of films based on or about video games and virtual reality. Some have been popular at the box office, but most fared rather poorly with the critics. Tron, released in 1982, was an exception, as was the recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. But many films like Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter and Wing Commander lay at the bottom of the critical rankings.

What helps Ready Player One is a plot that functions in both the film’s real world and its virtual one, giving a sense of true urgency to the quest to find hidden keys and secret levels. It also targets multiple age, gender and ethnic brackets.

There are some important questions raised about the difference between people in the real world and their online personas, and whether getting completely lost in a virtual world is really the best thing to do.

The film takes place in 2044 in a dystopian version of Columbus, Ohio, where people live in a vertical trailer park called the Stacks. Nobody seems to do anything aside from wearing virtual reality glasses and play games, or do some sort of online work to get virtual coins. Much of this happens in a vast online realm called the Oasis.

The person who developed the virtual world, a reclusive computer nerd, announced before the passed away that he had hidden clues and things to find in the Oasis. The game to find it is very high stakes. This has attracted all sorts of nerds, geeks, gamers, trolls and gamblers.

It has also interested some corporate types who want to exploit the Oasis and the people who depend on it. The evil corporation, called IOI, has amassed an army of gamer and trivia experts to solve the puzzles and eliminate any competition.

There is a somewhat creepy aspect to the game. Players have to pore over every aspect of the designer’s life, looking at security footage and other personal details to find insight into to clues.

But this gives some depth and purpose to the story, which is essentially just another race to find the hidden prize.

The hardest part of making the film was actually licensing all of the pop culture references used in the film. Some references had to be changed, as rights couldn’t be secured. Director Steven Spielberg also wanted to minimize the quotations from his own work, so as not to seem vain and conceited about his contributions. Characters, cars and items from dozens of games pop up.

One of the highlights takes scenes from a 1980 horror film and places the avatars of the Ready Player One characters into the scene. It more than just superimposing them. The scenes use camera angles that weren’t in the original film.

Blending the colorful and exciting virtual world with the slumlike Stacks in Ohio was another challenge. The actors in the real world are seen as they look, more or less, but in the virtual world, they are completely different animated versions of their fantasy selves. The characters, avatars and the parallel plots have to work together on both sides of the virtual reality glasses.

Spielberg manages to cut back and forth between how the action happens in both worlds pretty effectively.

Most of the young cast is made of actors who are not that well-known. Tye Sheridan plays the lead gamer Wade Watts / Parzival, one of the millions of people chasing clues while living a desperate life in a collapsed real world. Sheridan has appeared as Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse, and other films like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.

Olivia Cooke plays Samantha Cook / Art3mis, the main love interest. She has been in a few films including Ouija and some TV work.

The actors don’t bring much in the way of big expectations for them to be action heroes. They work well as everyday people put into an unusual situation.

British actor Simon Pegg turns up briefly to provide some comic relief.

Ready Player One draws in the audience enough that they feel invested in the outcome of the game, which is crucial. Otherwise, the hunt for a hidden prize gets rather dull.

The film also provides a trip through the history of gaming, back to the earliest cartridge machines. Older viewers who played games in the 1980s and ‘90s, and who now have children in tow, might appreciate some of the nostalgia.

People these days often have friends online they have never met. The film gets into the issue of people not being exactly how they seem online but doesn’t ridicule the characters for not being as cool as their avatars. And since nobody is who they pretend to be, no one can claim the moral high ground.

The fast pace of the film covers over some of the plot holes and cliches. So much happens so fast that it is easy to overlook that some of it makes no sense. The reflexive nature of the story makes some of the action cliches seem like more pop culture references,

Steven Spielberg recently made The Post, a film about freedom of the press during the Vietnam War. It was good but didn’t live up to expectations. With Ready Player One, Spielberg is back on more familiar territory, pop culture, and he doesn’t disappoint this time.

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