Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a timeless tribute to escapism, an amalgamation of all geek worlds, an apotheosis of nostalgia. This is the reason why we go to cinema.
Atari 2600, Akira, Batman, Chucky, Godzilla, Gundam, Hello Kitty, The Iron Giant, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Looney Tunes, Street Fighter, Star Wars, Willy Wonka, Saturday Night Fever, The Shining, Michael Jackson in Thriller… oh, wait. This is not a list of my pop culture influences. These are only some of the references that Steven Spielberg’s latest feature copiously used throughout the entire film. Actually, it’s almost virtually impossible to write them all down in a single viewing. For Ready Player One, as it’s tagline boasts, is “an adventure too big for the real world.” It is a timeless tribute to escapism, an amalgamation of all geek worlds, an apotheosis of nostalgia thriving on other works of fiction. As a full-time geek, you guessed it right: I immediately got sucked into it. However, the biggest litmus test is this: Can the movie stand tall without using pop culture as a crutch? Thankfully, the answer remains to be a resounding yes.
The film follows an orphaned teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who lives in “The Stacks” – a neighborhood of wobbly trailer homes perched on top of one another, a la Jenga style. It is 2045 and much of Earth’s cities have been degraded into slums like this due to overpopulation and climate change. This grim dystopic future is a breathing juxtaposition to the virtual world of “Oasis”. As Wade dons his VR shades, we are plunged headfirst to this realm where different forms of entertainment becomes limitless. Players can hide behind pseudonyms and avatars to be more outgoing versions of themselves. There’s a casino the size of an entire planet. You can climb Mount Everest with Batman. The possibilities are infinite.
Oasis was created by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a socially-awkward genius that all players look up to. Think of Steve Jobs canonized as a saint or hailed as a national hero – this is how RP1 puts Halliday at a pedestal. Despite appearing only on archive footages, he is the most fleshed out character here. His wisdom, aspirations and regrets in life are used as a framework/hints to the series of challenges he created before his death. Winning those challenges will grant players the three keys that unlocks the Easter egg. Whoever finds the egg first can take full ownership of the Oasis.
Essentially, the contest itself is the driving force of the film. But since the stakes have huge real-life implications, this means serious business. This leads Wade (assuming the character of Parzival), along with his friends, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), Sho (Philip Zhao) and later, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) to an underdog race against Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – a ruthless CEO of a tech conglomerate aiming to have full control on Oasis and thereby monetizing from it.
RP1 takes the format of shifting back and forth between physical and virtual reality. The same seamless transition can be said on how auteur Spielberg zigzags between disparate film genres. It’s a level of mastery that feels like a flick of a switch. We have a mature Spielberg who makes gloomy Academy-award winning dramas (his recent work The Post gained universal acclaim) and on other side of the spectrum, we have a Spielberg who creates features with a wide-eyed, childlike sense of wonder. But what’s special about his work here is how he takes 80’s pop culture and blasts it through the 21st century sci-fi genre – a territory occupied by filmmakers like James Cameron (Avatar), Wachowskis (Matrix Trilogy), Christopher Nolan (Inception – there’s a part where Wade plays a game within a game). This is Spielberg’s territory all along.
Beyond the visual spectacle, RP1 conveys a deeper meaning. No matter how marvelous Oasis is, it is a warning from the not-so-distant future. This is a nightmare disguised as euphoric gaming. A future where everyone will be too absorbed in virtual technology ultimately undervaluing physical human interaction and losing one’s true identity in the process. Sure enough, there comes a controversial scene where a character decides whether or not to push a red button that wipes out the Oasis for good.
The only gripe that I’ll have to squeeze in this review is RP1 needs a stronger emotional mint beneath the sugar rush. Some of the supporting characters are underdeveloped and since most of the performances are animated, the real-world chemistry between Sheridan’s and Cooke’s characters feel rushed and weaker compared to their avatar’s digital connection.
With all the visual cacophony happening on the Oasis, RP1 still comes out dazzling, kinetic yet restrained. The relentless barrage of film and gaming references are all thrown for the sake of establishing a world that’s obsessed with pop culture. It’s a lot to take in but it does not overwhelm in a negative way. Spielberg effectively sustains awe and reverts his viewers into their eight-year old selves again. Don’t let me even get started on those catchy 70’s and 80’s tunes!
I got the chance to catch this on an advance screening and as soon as the credits rolled, a unanimous sound of applause flooded the theater. This level of film mastery is the reason why we go to cinema.
Ready Player One opens on PH cinemas this Black Saturday, March 31, 2018.