4 out of 5 stars
“Thriller? Or Duran Duran?” Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, asks while choosing his outfit inspiration for an online date in the expansive virtual reality universe of the OASIS. As his blue-tinted, humanoid-sprite digital avatar, Parzival, Watts is able to do anything in the OASIS; from fleeing the harsh realities of the stacks — a slum in Columbus, Ohio — for lush fantasy worlds, to making close friends and competing worldwide in a series of gaming challenges. The challenges, designed by James Halliday — the now-deceased creator of the OASIS — grant Halliday’s entire fortune and ownership of the OASIS to whomever can find his in-game Easter egg first. In real life, Watts is an awkward, bespectacled loner, without parents, an ardent hoarder of Halliday trivia who sleeps atop the washing machine in his aunt’s apartment. However, in the OASIS, Watts can be Parzival; rune-tattooed, relatively popular and revered for his fandom. Not bad at all for a lost teenager becoming an adult in the cyberpunk, retrofuturist USA of 2045.
Back to the in-game action, Parzival/Watts is dressing up for what he hopes will be a magical night at a virtual dance club with Art3mis – real name, Samantha Cook – a daredevil motorbike pixie girl avatar and fellow Gunter, which is slang for Halliday’s Egg hunters. As Parzival/Watts swipes through several increasingly over-the-top 80’s costume changes at the click of the button, you can’t help but chuckle. This is full of earnest teenage crushing and the appropriate stranger-danger warnings from his best friend Aech — “she is hacking your heart!” — are straight out of a John Hughes’ movie. Wade’s best friend warns him not to be “that guy” who wears his favorite movie character costume as his gaming avatar date outfit. As it turns out, Wade is, indeed, “that guy”. It is the quintessential date-prep scene in every young adult novel you read last summer. But here, in Ready Player One, the scene is reloaded with the additional complication of two teenagers meeting as their virtual selves, in a virtual universe mediated through the codes of popular culture.
Part of the fun is not only in the tropes that are recycled, but the staples of 80’s popular culture that are upgraded. Adventure? Back to the Future? Star Wars? Godzilla? Gundam? The Terminator? The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star? The Shining? A quadrillion times yes. Jam-packed with more references than an 80’s kid can ever recall, Ready Player One, based on the bestselling literary role play game book by Ernest Cline (yes, that is a genre — a hybrid of science fiction fantasy novels and massively multiplayer online role-player games) is divinely nerdy. The reason for all the 80’s points of reference? James Halliday was the supreme 80’s fan and inundated the OASIS with his favorite things.
Watching the film on an outing jointly organized by Paused: The NYU Abu Dhabi Videogame Society and DiscoVR at NYUAD — the gaming and virtual reality student interest groups on campus – there were laughs and gasps of recognition all around. To be fair, we were the target audience: fanboys and fangirls.
Granted, what the filmmakers have achieved with Ready Player One is no small feat. Spielberg managed to encode a geek haven that is truly, utterly immersive. Ready Player One succeeds where most gaming movies run into the limits of conventional cinema. Spielberg, like an overpowered in-game wizard himself, created a sensational cinematic world that aligns with the rules of video-games, and gives viewers a plot positioning to play along with the characters on-screen. We grip our cushy cinema seats as the Parzival drives his DeLorean time machine replica on a Mario Kart racetrack past a T-Rex to get to the finish line and win one of the three virtual keys that will lead to the final egg.
Spielberg takes the best of both cinema and gaming, sprinkled with 80’s pop culture nostalgia, to create an experience just as fantastical and immersive as the virtual worlds in today’s video games. In our modern era of cinema where the adaptations of games is commonplace (Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, this year’s updated board-game-to-computer-console Jumanji and even Angry Birds) the triumph of Ready Player One is how it manages to innovate where previous films felt like lengthy commercials or shameless pandering to the gamer market. Ready Player One is a different game altogether: the CGI animation is not over-the-top or cringey — to much relief, the avatars avoid the uncanny valley effect and you actually enjoy the in-game sequences instead of looking at the clock and cringing until you get back to reality. I was fully sucked in, as if I was watching a play-through or a machinima episode of a game I actually played. I left feeling as though I had seen cinema as I had never seen it before. The last times I felt something similar were with other digital revolutions in cinematic techniques, like Avatar for making 3D a dazzling not dizzying tool, Dunkirk for its deft attention to surround sound and Gravity for enhancing the already out-of-this-world IMAX experience. I left feeling like this was the first time I had seen video-games happily married to cinema – maybe we need a new film genre, Cinema-role-playing-games.
Praise aside, where Ready Player One lagged was character arc and story development. Though one of Watt’s/Parzival’s key family members dies, he does not seem to fully grasp the weight and gravity of the death. The other characters in Parzival’s clan, the High Five, have slick concept art but ultimately run backup for Parzival and are reduced to token one-liners. Besides that, it is almost impossible to overlook the glitch in Spielberg’s visual stunner. With a cinematic world just as pretty as its in-game universe, where gaming addicts literally become slaves for the corporations that run the OASIS, what about the uncomfortable ethics of the OASIS itself? Ready Player One establishes a dichotomy between the bad bossman – Gregarious Games’ CEO, Nolan Sorrento – and the good gamer, shrinking the debate to who has economic control over the game. The larger question remains: what is this game doing in the first place? Is Halliday really a worldwide savior for inventing the OASIS? Does the OASIS really need saving from the grips of Gregarious Games, as Watts insists? Watts is given an option to end the OASIS once and for all, and though his final choice aligns well with the movie as a clear candy-store romp through the joys of gaming, I’m not sure if we really see the OASIS’s dark side as completely as we could have. And with a movie as remarkably in-tune with the gaming world as Ready Player One is, it wouldn’t have hurt to seen that, too.
Jamie Uy is a columnist. Email her at [email protected]