Film Review: Ready Player One (USA, 2018) is bursting at the seams with escapist nostalgic fantasy

So some full disclosure here, I have not read the book upon which Ready Player One written by Ernest Cline is adapted from. So henceforth this review is based solely on my viewing of the film and my experience with pop culture in general. There seems to be a fairly general consensus that a lot of critics have enjoyed the film. I’d definitely class myself in that category but at the same time I also do have some issues with it.

For those of us (like myself) that are not familiar with the source material there’s some voice over exposition provided at the beginning. That in 2045 (aka “not too distant future”) the world is nearing a dystopia, communities are being forced to live in ‘stacks’ whereby trailers are literally stacked on top of each other (think extra high density living) and life in general kinda sucks. So in order to escape people dive into the OASIS, a virtual reality universe where you create an avatar and basically be anybody they want to be or do anything they want.

The creator of this digital dreamscape is James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and just before his death he Willy Wonka-d a sizeable inheritance as well as access to the entire OASIS system, advising all-comers that in order to win the lucrative prize they had to find three magical keys hidden within the gamesphere. In comes Wade Watts / Parzival (Tye Sheridan) a ‘Gunter’ (aka Egg Hunter) but also an orphan with nothing to lose and intent on finding Halliday’s keys. Joining him are some fellow gunters Samantha / Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Helen / Aech (Lena Waithe) Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), as they must outsmart and outwit and out-fan the CEO of IOI, Innovative Online Industries, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) the corporation intent on capitalising on the OASIS, and beat the corporate wigs to finding the keys.

From beginning to end Ready Player One is director Steven Spielberg pumping the gas on almost every kid’s dream growing up. Getting to live in a virtual reality, where you can make your own rules and look exactly how you want to look. The limit is your imagination, so of course the scenes within the OASIS (of which the film is mainly set) are entirely CGI laden. Throughout it is quite literally bursting at the seams with escapist nostalgic fantasy, littered with pop culture references, nods and its own Easter Eggs that the only way somebody will be able to find them all is by scouring it frame by frame. Spielberg’s forte though has always been action and adventure and whimsy and this film leans heavily into all of these. With the opening car chase level and also an entire level set inside a replica of the Overlook Hotel (from The Shining) being both genius in concept and thrilling to watch.

Our core group of characters, the High Five, probably could have been renamed to the Top Three, since really the main ones we have any interest in are Wade, Samantha and Helen. Only the smallest amount of backstory is given to them for us to care about them achieving their goal. There are some themes about being true to yourself, taking risks and finding your “clan”. Though it sometimes glosses over how that “clan” or better known in today’s vernacular “fandom” can also be dangerous and toxic. It has self referential moments (eg “a fanboy knows a hater”) but it also seems acutely aware of itself and never takes itself too seriously. Which is where audiences can have fun with the film and relax into its silliness. It also helps that it has a ridiculously banging soundtrack of some great 80’s songs accompanying the other-wordly musical scoring by Alan Silvestri.

Disappointingly though the stakes don’t really feel that high. If you die in the OASIS you just lose the loot which you had accrued through the course of your game playing. There is a loose almost throw-away mention of people having to work in labour camps to repay debts, but it’s never properly delved into. And we spend such a significant amount of time in the OASIS that there’s not much explanation given to the state of the real world and its people so our emotional empathy for what happens to them in real life is stunted. Out of the supporting cast, Mendelsohn feels sorely under-utilised and not nearly evil enough. I’m certain they wasted all their budget on the CGI which is the only explanation for the shoddy prosthetics and aging of Simon Pegg’s character, and I’m deducting points for having TJ Miller in the cast at all just because they could’ve easily chosen a known video game voice actor (what about Nathan Fillion or Troy Baker or Dameon Clarke?) to play that role and do it better and make it even extra meta.

Ready Player One has some flaws in that its characters can feel a little shallow and underdeveloped and the complex mix of balancing real world consequences with interactive virtual reality gameplay probably could have been better fleshed out. But the sheer explosive thrillride and complete immersion in whimsy and fantasy and the fact that the film barely takes itself seriously allows you to just sit back and put your goggles on and escape.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 140 minutes

Ready Player One screens in Australian cinemas from 29 March 2018 through Warner Bros Pictures and Roadshow Films