Published Work – Ready Player One: The Nostalgic Game of Reality

One of Warner Bros. Pictures latest productions, Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a Sci-Fi blockbuster with a sentimental twist. The movie is a sharp turn from Spielberg’s gripping historical dramas like “The Post” (check out Savage Femme’s review of it Here!), choosing instead to bask in the glow of history’s jollier cousin – nostalgia. This nostalgia comes straight from Ernest Cline’s eponymous 2011 LitRPG novel on which the movie is based, which is set in the futuristic year 2045, but is jam-packed with 70s and 80s pop-culture references. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn (Avengers, X Men First Class) and Spielberg himself made a couple personal calls to ensure that they could get the licensing for as many video game and movie references as possible. The result: an action-packed Sci-Fi movie that is both awe-inspiring yet familiar.

One of Warner Bros. Pictures latest productions, Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a Sci-Fi blockbuster with a sentimental twist.

Ready Player One takes place in the not-so-distant dystopian future where people immerse themselves in a virtual game/universe to escape their bleak environment and living conditions. This universe, known as OASIS – the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, is the brainchild and creation of eccentric billionaire genius James “Anorak” Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his former friend and co-founder Ogden “Og” Morrow (Simon Pegg). When the former dies, he leaves his entire fortune and total control of the OASIS universe to whoever can complete his three-part quest and find the Golden Easter Egg. If you just briefly thought of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you’re not the only one having flashbacks. The completion of “Anorak’s Quest” hinges on discovering clues and decoding and facts about Halliday himself and the things he liked, which means a plethora of 70s and 80s videogame, movie, and pop culture references.  Not only are people from the 21st century escaping the corporal world to submerge themselves in the digital, but they’re also immersing themselves in Halliday’s world of nostalgia in order to win the quest.

One such Halliday enthusiast, or “gunter” (“egg hunter”), is the main protagonist, Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts is a young 18-year old from a high-rise trailer park in Ohio who uses the OASIS daily to escape his lower-income life and hopes to win “Anorak’s Quest” in order to leave that life behind once and for all.  He is joined by his friends and fellow “gunters” Samantha “Art3mis” Cook (Olivia Cooke), Helen “Aech” Harris (Lena Waith), Toshiro “Daito” Yoshiaki (Win Morisaki), and Akihide “Daito” Karatsu (Phillip Zhao).  These four supporting characters are not exactly multi-dimensional – at times they seem like sounding boards for Watt’s monologues, but each one has their own motive for wanting to complete the quest, and the diversity is nice to look at on screen.

No Sci-Fi feature is complete without the quintessential governmental agency/ major corporation with nameless henchman, and “Ready Player One” is no different. Here, the antagonist agency is Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is a video game conglomerate that manufacturers a majority of the virtual reality equipment used to access OASIS. Led by their villainous Head of Operations, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), IOI henchmen aka “sixers” strive to complete “Anorak’s Quest” so IOI can monetize the OASIS to ensure an economic monopoly of the virtual world. Wade gains their attention when he is the first to complete part one of the quest, and when he refuses to work for them – their ire. Now Wade and his friends are not only on a quest to find the golden egg, but to save both their virtual and corporal world as they know it.

Spielberg and his VFX team show exceptional skill in their world building and create a visual so beautiful and comprehensive it is not hard to understand why people would want to carry out their entire lives in a virtual reality.

While this backdrop certainly makes room for a lot of creative and action-packed sequences both inside and outside the virtual world, it also leaves room for quite a bit of dissonance. Although there are ongoing debates about whether or not OASIS would be interesting as a video game, it is strikingly beautiful and creative as a major part of the movie. Although I am not a big video game player myself, I have always enjoyed watching the way animators and creators use technology to create entire new worlds. Spielberg and his VFX team show exceptional skill in their world building and create a visual so beautiful and comprehensive it is not hard to understand why people would want to carry out their entire lives in a virtual reality. Certain scenes which come to mind are the race scene from the first quest – particularly Wade’s backwards version, and The Shining scene (yes, I do mean Stanley Kubrick’s) from the second quest. When the virtual characters are racing on courses terrorized by King Kong or are attempting to navigate their way through the haunted Overlook Hotel, there is an almost childlike fascination of watching these familiar places be reimagined in an entirely new way. With upwards of 200 references, Easter eggs, and cameos throughout the film there are so many pieces which the audience can find familiar yet different.

In turn, the interesting mix of new and nostalgic present in the OASIS is almost dragged down by the movie’s mundane portrayal of the real world. This might be my millennial talking, but several times throughout the movie I found myself a bit bummed out when the action left the virtual and returned to the corporal. The movie made a great show of portraying the stakes at risk in the virtual world but struggled to drive that point home in the physical world. Even a physical death in the movie fails to maintain the same urgency or create as lasting an impact as when characters are in danger in the OASIS. Considering that characters remain alive even if they are killed in the OASIS – although they can lose all their virtual and worldly possessions, this disproportion of importance lessens the stakes in the movie, making for joy-ride that is exciting but lacks reflection.

While the main theme of “Ready Player One” seems to be understanding the importance of actual reality even though it may be depressing and scary, the movie operates more as an example of why virtual reality and limitless creation can be so exciting.

Toward the end of the movie Halliday’s virtual presence, Anorak, has a poignant line where he explains to Wade he created the OASIS because he never felt at home in the real world, but later in life realized that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real”. This line could be cause for positive retrospection in today’s virtual and digital obsessed society, if only it were toward the end of a different movie. While the main theme of “Ready Player One” seems to be understanding the importance of actual reality even though it may be depressing and scary, the movie operates more as an example of why virtual reality and limitless creation can be so exciting.

Paced like a quest-driven video game, Wade, his friends, and their enemies race through the film with their goals already set in mind and their checkpoints already mapped. The audience members are just NPCs along for the ride, and there is little time to consider the larger questions.

Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert considers “Ready Player One” to be overwhelming in all aspects, but maintains that it “will almost certainly thrill those who Spielberg setss out to thrill”. Paced like a quest-driven video game, Wade, his friends, and their enemies race through the film with their goals already set in mind and their checkpoints already mapped. The audience members are just NPCs along for the ride, and there is little time to consider the larger questions. Nevertheless, if Avengers: Infinity War is the comic book superhero blockbuster of the summer poised to satiate the masses, then Ready Player One is the true nerd/geek nostalgia fest that hardcore gamers, Sci-Fi enthusiasts, and pop-culture fanatics can all enjoy.

Image Credit: Anorak’s Quest Scoreboard : CC Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. via IMDb

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