by Noemi Arellano-Summer
Photography courtesy of readyplayeronemovie.com
It’s 2045. 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the Columbus, Ohio (“Stacks”), rows of trailers stacked on top of one another. The world is in a crisis, but it’s clearly the aftermath of a crisis that has come and overstayed its welcome. Most of what is shown is run-down slums.
People instead choose to lose themselves in the Oasis, a massive virtual reality game that now seems to be the only reason worth living. As Wade said in one of his exposition-heavy voiceovers, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.” The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday (an utterly delightful Mark Rylance) died five years earlier. However, he left behind a contest for an ‘easter egg’: three keys and three gates that would lead to the egg, full control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune, offhandedly mentioned as being around half-a-trillion dollars. Wade, under the avatar Parzival, is a gunter, or egg hunter, along with his friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and famous gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), among many others. The clue to finding the keys and gates is the 1980s pop culture that Halliday loved.
As you can already tell, there are a lot of details and history to work through. In addition to explaining the current setting, “Ready Player One” also dives into exploring Halliday’s life, which adds a whole new level of exposition, this time for a deceased idol. Luckily, the dialogue powers through and doesn’t linger long on mutinae.
The quests are altered from those in the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, and I applaud the changes wholeheartedly. Granted, the majority of the quests either wouldn’t have worked well on-screen or would have been a copyright nightmare. For example, several times Wade must role-play characters from 1980s cult films such as “WarGames.” The one time characters play an arcade game in the film, it doesn’t linger on the playing itself, and this even turns out to be relevant to the plot.
“Ready Player One” instead draws its strengths from visual medium and artistic interpretation instead of mimicking nostalgic work and changes the quests from the novel to be more dynamic. For example, the first quest is a car race against an enraged King Kong pummeling toward the finish line, ready to smash vehicles and avatars at barely a moment’s notice.
The film as a whole flowed well, and I enjoyed it mostly due to the art in spite of the lack of well-developed, dynamic characters. Wade is blandly typical, and honestly, his companions Aech and Art3mis were more interesting, as were their warnings of the perils of virtual reality. Wade doesn’t know what either of them actually look like, and he is called out for this more than once when his desires for riches or success or vanity run away from him. The other two main “gunters” that Wade interacts with—Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao)—are unfortunately given little characterization. The plot of the egg hunt is the main set piece in this film, and character development takes a backseat. While this is disappointing, it’s also expected from a film heavily marketed on its nostalgic callbacks. I would say the novel does this as well; again, the point is the hunt.
The film’s visuals are extremely fun. Given that the Oasis is a video game that borrows popular culture from all over, the visuals are allowed to be geeky, and are therefore full of references (Batman! “The Iron Giant”! Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”!). Along with that, the rendering of the Oasis as a video game is gorgeous.
The state of the real world is sadly glossed over, which is odd considering the ultimate message. “Ready Player One” is so enamored of the quests and the in-game universe it’s created that it spares little time for the actual world. Exactly how the world became so overcrowded and run-down is answered in a few pithy, throwaway lines. Another aspect that gets tossed out and never fundamentally addressed is the condition of those who become addicted to the Oasis to the detriment of those around them. For example, the camera flashes on a mother, playing in the Oasis, and her child, futilely trying to draw her attention to the real world, where their stove is on fire. The film never stays long enough with this problem to solve it, and “Ready Player One” ends happily on the surface, but, unless something is done off-screen for the real world, still has unfortunate problems underneath.
Ultimately, “Ready Player One” is a fun, flashy Hero’s Journey tale, with a dish of 1980s nostalgia on the side.