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Review: Ready Player One – “It’s an absolutely wild ride”

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Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s latest film, and based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. It’s easily the most fun film he has done since the 80s and quite possibly his best film since 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

It’s set in a dystopian future where Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenager living in Columbus, Ohio. Everyone is immersed in a virtual reality video game “The Oasis” that was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Rylance is typically a British stage actor but has become Spielberg’s go-to guy of late. Halliday is sort of a mix between Willy Wonka, Andy Warhol and Steve Jobs. Halliday has passed on and has left several keys in the game so there’s a competition to win the game. If you can find all the keys and do all the missions in the game Anorak’s Quest.—you get his 500,000,000,000 fortune and be the owner of “The Oasis”.

Of course, there’s an evil corporate villain who runs IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Everyone has avatars as alter egos. Halliday was around as a child in the 80s and 90s, so his video game universe is completely littered with pop culture references from that era. The book has much more explicit references to his work, but Spielberg wanted to tone down references to his own work, saying he didn’t want to be too self-referential. Ironically he couldn’t get the rights to use material from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, there are a few, which makes sense as he’s a director closely associated with that era.

It’s an absolutely wild ride: if Joe Dante had not gotten sick at a certain point of making studio movies, it’s the kind of film he would be making. His films were always zany and full of pop-culture references, both obvious and obscure—and I would assume that the original author of the book was a big Dante fan. Of course, he and Spielberg have some history, with Spielberg producing his Gremlins, InnerSpace and (uncredited) Small Soldiers. Dante’s films were often aimed at kids but had a darkness to them that worked for adults, and Ready Player One fits that mould. A perfect example of that is a very long setpiece located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining (obviously not a kid-friendly film) which Spielberg shows the Grady twins, the elevator that shoots blood and the naked woman, and a giant axe (but no Nicholson). The story itself includes echoes of Brazil, with fascist police coming in to bust the game players who are the resistance, and has a very anti-corporate message—not what you expect from a director who owns his own corporate film studio, Amblin.

The references for the most part work perfectly. I think the book goes further with this, and there were some substitutions due to rights issues. It’s a Warner Brothers production, and it’s obvious that they’ve relied quite a bit on material Time Warner owns (a rather large library to pull from). The most overt reference to Spielberg’s own work is the main character drives the Back to the Future Delorean, Spielberg only produced that film so felt more comfortable with the overt nod.

I assume all of the references from the book, but one of the biggest is when he develops a crush on Art3mis, another avatar in the game, and they go to a virtual danceclub. He tries on a few 80s outfits but ends up in Peter Weller’s suit from Buckaroo Banzai. It’s a very clever choice, because Buckaroo Banzai was a film that bombed when it came out, but was one of the first films to be littered with clever cultural references.

Like the computer worked where the story is set, the film has many “Easter eggs.” My personal favourite was the bartender in the danceclub with the Devo Energy Dome. Its also got a jukebox soundtrack of 80s hits, and almost succeeds in making Van Halen’s “Jump” sound good as it played over an extraordinary tracking shot that opens the film.

The film was shot in Digbeth, Birmingham, which is also hilarious to anyone who knows that city. Anyone who has lived there will recognise some street scenes.

For a different take on the film, check out Alan’s review here.

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