Ready Player One adds depth to genre

Video game movie genre gains a gem
Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Ready Player One claims that “the limits of reality are your own imagination”—and director Steven Spielberg has a more limitless imagination than most.

In Wade Watt’s (Tye Sheridan) 2045, life is so grim that most of humanity has chosen to immerse themselves in virtual reality rather than address escalating concerns of pollution and overpopulation. Tech mogul James Halliday made this escape possible by creating the OASIS, an expansive VR system that allows users to completely define the shape of their pixelated worlds. Upon his death, Halliday launches a challenge that offers up his fortune—and control of the OASIS—as a reward. The challenge creates a borderline theology surrounding Halliday’s 1980s pop culture obsessions, and Wade is as pious as players get.

Ready Player One constructs a world where players can climb Mount Everest alongside Batman and where knowing a piece of John Hughes trivia can be the difference between life and death. It’s a narrative dependent on disparate balance, and as a book adaptation, it strikes the balance between faithfulness and novelty very delicately. Since many licenses to characters and other intellectual properties couldn’t be purchased for the film, Wade’s approach to finding Halliday’s three keys is wildly different on screen; however, because Ernest Cline wrote the book and the screenplay, the characters remain authentically themselves even while engaging in drastically different plotlines. The screenplay is at times a complete revision of the novel, and new sequences (like a key hunt through The Shining’s Overlook Hotel) expand on the source material in a healthy—and immensely entertaining—direction.

Spielberg’s camera deftly collapses the space between reality and the OASIS. The film’s primary action sequences veer between the two narrative planes with jarring intentionality—there’s no forgetting the impact one world has on the other, which both heightens the stakes in the OASIS and keeps audiences grounded in the flesh and blood consequences of the real world. In a climactic fight scene, audiences have access to the visually resplendit army of Iron Giants and armored Deloreans in the OASIS, as well as comedic shots of people swinging fists through empty air while hooked up to VR headsets.

To the benefit of the story, the philosophical impacts of this split existence aren’t often explored with great depth. There are enough skeletal structures there for willing viewers to sink their analytical teeth into, but Ready Player One is a movie that would have failed if it tried to be anything other than two hours of surfacey, nostalgia-steeped pleasure. Had it been the film the trailer promised—a grim dystopia overly invested in the construction of a dramatic rebellion—it would have forgotten that it is, at its core, a celebration of passion and fandom. Book fans will appreciate new access points to that celebration, and newcomers will enjoy what is meant to be a vehicle of pure entertainment.

Taylor Kirby
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