We got to see Ready Player One with Steven Spielberg himself at SXSW – it was truly one of the most seminal moments I am likely to ever experience as a movie reviewer, and more importantly, as a movie fan. Sean wrote about it weeks ago, but I realized that I had something to add to the conversation.
I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One back in 2011 and I thought it was a tonne of fun. But it’s a highly nerdy book and I am not remotely nerdy. I do, however, know some nerds, and I eagerly pushed the book on them (it made for an EXTREMELY easy Christmas season: it knocked all the brothers-in-law off my list at once). I seem to recall Sean reading it in Mexico, and as I’d anticipated, he ate it right up. But for the many references that I just didn’t get, I still felt the energy and excitement of the book were translated to me. So while we were excited to hear that Spielberg was taking this on, we were less than thrilled to sit back and wait for three years for it to become reality. And then when were finally treated to a trailer I thought: holy moly, I don’t think I remember this book! So I reread the book a few months ago and prepared myself for its big March 29 release date – yes, we’d be busy in 2 different cities celebrating Easter, and Grandma’s 95th birthday, and my sister visiting from over 1000km away, and making the great variety of baked goods requisite for such a long weekend – but surely we’d be able to squeeze it in. But alas, no need! While in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival, Ready Player One was revealed to be the secret screening. Both Cline and the movie’s star Tye Sheridan are hometown boys, which means 300k of the festival’s attendees were vying for just 1000 seats in the venue. Some people may be discouraged by those odds, but not Sean! He gamely spent hours lined up outside (while I watched Blindspotting, which was an incredible festival revelation) but his dedication paid off, and we got in, got some pretty fabulous seats actually, and sat among people who were just so incredibly excited to see the movie they hardly stopped cheering for a single second of the film’s 140 minute run time.
First of all, for fans of the book: the movie Ready Player One carries all of the novel’s essence but none of its spoilers. The big, showy challenge scenes are all-new for the movie, so you get to enjoy it and be surprised by, and if I may say: delighted by it. It hits exactly the right tone but it’s new and it’s exciting. And some of the new stuff IS REALLY FUCKING COOL. But Spielberg HIMSELF asked me not to spill the beans, so I won’t. And I wouldn’t want to in any case: not every movie is capable of enchanting us, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that simple little thrill of pleasure.
Second, to fans of Speilberg: this is the most ‘Spielbergian’ film of the century. By which I mean, Spielberg himself has really gotten away from Spielberg-type movies. He hasn’t done blockbustery, popcorny movies in years. Lately he’s concentrated on smaller films, like The Post, and Bridge of Spies, which I have actually loved. It’s a different, more grown-up Spielberg; they’re movies that feel almost indie in nature, if not for the souped up cast. Dramatic stuff, more grounded, dark and moody, and often political. But little Stevie finds his inner child, indeed his inner fanboy, and allows himself to just express exuberant joy once again on the big screen – and even, and I do honestly believe this was hard for him, allow his own film legacy, to be paid homage in this film right alongside other iconic pop culture moments from the 1970s right through the early 90s.
Ready Player One feels like Steven Spielberg has thrown himself a parade, and he’s got every one of his time-honoured tricks riding big loud floats. It’s fantastic. I’ve heard the Internet shitting on the fact that this film is load with pop culture nostalgia and I can’t for the life of me understand that. I mean, the first time you see the film, you won’t notice half, or likely a third, of what’s hidden in there. Spielberg himself doesn’t know every single thing that’s been recreated in the film – he was surprised to find a Gremlin long after he’d already approved the scene, and he’ll continue to be surprised by Easter eggs (how fitting, for this weekend!). In subsequent viewings, you could easily play a drinking game with friends, or a Bingo game would be fun, just spotting all the cool things the brilliant art department and visual effects people slipped in there – it’s like the hoarders of movies with so many layers it’ll take forever before you reach the dead cat layer.
I still haven’t even told you what this movie’s about, but you’ve already gleaned that from elsewhere, haven’t you? It’s basically about the near future where the world has gotten so bleak that everyone prefers to live in this virtual world called the Oasis. The creator of the Oasis dies, and leaves the rights to it to whomever can win a little game that he’s rigged. Now, the Oasis is definitely worth a kabillion dollars, but it’s worth even more politically. So while our protagonists are kids, they’re up against not just adults but corporations in order to win control of this thing. And the Oasis creator (played by Mark Rylance) is a guy just enamoured with the 80s, so everything he does is basically a loving tribute to the “golden age” of gaming. But you don’t need to be able to pick up on those references in order to enjoy the story – they’re just the window dressing on a dystopian tale as old time.
The fact is, the world in Ready Player One is not so far from our own, and it feels worrying possible. The real trick, the one the movie keeps bumping up against, is to ask yourself: what are we taking from this virtual world, and how are we using it to make meaningful connections in the real world? Though this fight is online, the repercussions exist in the real world, and this creates an interesting duality between the avatar characters online and their real life counterparts. Though it looks and feels like a game, the stakes are high and the consequences dire. There’s some really flashy editing that allows us to move back and forth between worlds, and some truly exceptional visual effects mean the movement between the two feels natural but looks distinct.
And at its heart, this movie tells a story like many of Spielberg’s best: that of friendship, trust, and human connection. The film omits some of the book’s more subversive themes – race, gender, class – and given its scope and run time, it’s no wonder. There simply isn’t enough space to explore this world from corner to corner (read the book!). Instead, this movie submerses you in a world of pure imagination.