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When the going gets tough, just get going.  In 2045, that’s pretty much what nearly an entire population of the civilised world has chosen to do, while facing unending poverty and depression, with no hope in sight.  The poor and working class citizens of Cleveland, Ohio have learned to live together -- quite literally -- in trailers piled one on top of the other in a slum called “the stacks.”  There is no privacy; in order to go anywhere outside of one’s single-wide, they must rappel through many neighbours’ property to reach the ground.  When we meet one resident of the stacks, Wade Watts is swinging from trailer to trailer like a lemur on his way to an imaginary paradise.  

There is one escape from Wade’s bleak existence; OASIS.  A virtual reality world where players can pull on a pair of bulky goggles and leave their cares behind.  OASIS is a free game that enables its players to travel anywhere in the world; scale Everest, golf the perfect game, burn up the dance floor of the hottest club, or annihilate enemies on alien planets for cash and prizes, and all achieved in their most perfect pixelated self as an avatar.  Small wonder the entire planet is addicted to it.  

OASIS was the brain baby of James Halliday, an eccentric genius who had a very definite idea for his game.  After his death, it was inevitable that vultures would prey on the bones of Halliday’s beast.  Nolan Sorrento, a former intern of Halliday’s has set up a rival company, IOI, that has fed off OASIS by selling players pricey in-game items they must pay for by successfully completing games.  If a player is killed in the game, so goes all the money they have amassed, and they must work off their interminable debts, chained to gaming stations, grinding coins for IOI.  

Sorrento is desperate to claim OASIS’ financial potential, which Halliday left untapped right through the day he died.  The new revelation of Halliday’s last testament is true to the game-loving creator, as he has willed ownership of OASIS to any player who can find three Easter Eggs hiding the three keys that will unlock OASIS and all Halliday’s wealth. 

Like every single person hooked into OASIS, Wade could think of a few things he’d like to do with such riches, but for the young man who grew up idolising Halliday, there is more to the quest for OASIS than money or power.  Wade soon discovers he is not alone in searching for the keys, not only to preserve Halliday’s dream of OASIS, but to keep it out of the cheating, corrupt hands of Sorrento and IOI.  Having to trust real-life flesh and blood friends in the world outside of virtual reality for the first time, Wade and his gamer pals, collectively called the High Five, join together to save OASIS.

The moment Wade pulls on his goggles to escape the washed out, dirty, dusty, vertical trailer park of the stacks is akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy steps out of her tempest-tossed, sepia-toned Kansas home into Munchinkinland.  Once Wade plugs into OASIS, he, as his avatar Parzival, is plunged is a 3D world, so overwhelming with colour, light, beauty, and every type of entertainment imaginable (Including fun he is too young to indulge in) that it’s amazing that anyone would willingly leave.  Based on the popular novel by Ernest Cline, one  of READY PLAYER ONE’s biggest strengths comes from designing the world of OASIS so perfectly.  It simply goes on forever, offering its players another existence of endless possibility, where they can be anything and anyone they want.  

Impressive on its surface, it’s the inclusion of the American pop and gaming culture iconography of the late 20th century -- particularly the 1980s -- so dear to OASIS creator James Halliday that gives the world and the film much of its heart.  Many of the film’s oohs, ahhs, and giggles occur when spotting characters like Ryu, Street Fighter’s main protagonist strolling down a racing lane with Speed Racer’s Mach 5 on one side, and the 1966 Batmobile on the other, moments before the challenge begins and everyone is left in the dust by Kaneda’s scarlet motorbike from the classic anime, Akira.  Parzival’s own ride is BACK TO THE FUTURE’s immortal DeLorean, tricked out with bits and pieces from KNIGHT RIDER and GHOSTBUSTERS.  

Keep a sharp eye for Looney Tunes’ tiny Marvin the Martian making his way through an office lobby, and a Freddy Kruger avatar being obliterated in a shower of coins.  It’s a world where a Madball has awesome velocity, and Child’s Play’s Chucky is a secret weapon.  Three generations of gaming goddesses run into battle as Street Fighter’s Chun Li, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, and Overwatch’s Tracer join forces.  There is that blink-and-you-miss-it moment of Parzival using Goku from Dragonball’s signature Kamehameha move on an enemy, a short time after tearing up the lit-up disco floor to the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” with fellow gamer and quest partner, Art3mis. 

Not pinning everything on pure nostalgia, there are some clever spins on the past, like turning Erno Rubik’s popular invention into a powerful “Zemeckis Cube” that can send players back in time for 60 seconds.  I got a lump in my throat seeing the blistering appearance of the RX-78-2 Gundam on the attack, and realising this was the first time any Gundam had been in a Hollywood film.  (That Gundam is brought out to fight the enemy’s MechaGodzilla, which doesn’t really look much like MechaG, but I appreciated the reference.)

There is a sequence that is almost a film unto itself involving Stanley Kubrick’s classic, THE SHINING, that may lose viewers too young or unfamiliar with the film -- like High Five member Aech -- to Aech’s great peril -- while those in the know will cackle at the ingenious inclusion.

The production wasn’t only concerned with getting the gaming and movie references right.  They’ve taken great care with the imaginary world backdrops: Seeing the racing panorama of 1980s New York made me a little verklempt to catch sight of the old brick and mortar buildings standing in the South Street Seaport as it was before its current, gentrified glass and chrome coldness.  They included other tiny details in that scene that only actual New Yorkers would care about; like the bright red neon sign of Delancey Street’s legendary Ratner’s bakery shining once more, and Jurassic Park’s T-Rex popping up to chase the racers out of Chinatown (Only Gamera might’ve been funnier).  The appearance of King Kong in that sequence, looking like the more realistic 1976 film version, and more to scale as he uses the Empire State Building as a tree, was touching because it felt so correct and like an homage.

All these fond memories and tributes to beloved pop culture characters elevates READY PLAYER ONE beyond its stunning visuals and submersive, fast-paced, gaming action, which is great onscreen and entertaining for any age; but it’s the look back to happier, more innocent times that all those icons represent, that touches the heart.

For all the mind-blowing visuals, it is when the film moves out of OASIS, that it stumbles.  The character development is at best shallow, at worst, nonexistent: The real-life counterparts of the High Five comrades Wade had previously only known online, don’t get any depth.  (Though the revelation of the youngest member of the crew is a laugh.)  For a film that is so immersed in the third dimension, it’s stunning how one-dimensional READY PLAYER ONE’s real-life characters and script are.  For example, exposition about an underground resistance to IOI’s debtor’s prison that aligns with Wade, is so offhand and perfunctory as to be meaningless.

Even our hero is a bit of a mystery; as it’s revealed in fits and starts that Wade's parents have died, leaving him in the care of an irresponsible, Blanche DuBois-like aunt, who brings abusive jerks into their home to mistreat and steal from both herself and her nephew.  That is handled with barely a glance.  

Also jarring by its lack of any chemistry, was the romance foisted into the story between Wade and OASIS legend, Art3mis/Samantha.  After having met once online in avatar form, Wade is practically writing sonnets to her, and by the next meeting, he’s emphatically declaring that no matter who she (or he) is, or what she (or he) looks like, he is irrevocably in love with her, and so a side story is forced. 

I couldn’t tell if a lot of my disconnect with Wade was due to the writing, or the not-exactly mesmerising performance of Tye Sheridan, who seems to be getting all the roles, these days.  Physically, Sheridan reminded me of a young Richard Dreyfuss, who was Spielberg’s onscreen avatar through his early films.  Mild to the point of blandness, Sheridan didn’t have the presence or chops to stand up to the onslaught of VFX all around him, and his bishounen, silver-haired avatar, Parzival, will probably be the image most people remember when they think of this film.  Sadly, without anything other than a skin-deep notion of what Wade did in a day, other than be harassed by his aunt’s boyfriends, and jumping into OASIS at every opportunity, we don’t really know who he is, and so the real-life character of Wade, is far less interesting than his virtual avatar. 

Ben Mendelsohn plays our villain, Nolan Sorrento, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was cast in part due to his resemblance to Paul Gleason, who embodied the bellicose Principal Vernon in the late John Hughes’ 1985 teenage opus, THE BREAKFAST CLUB.  Sadly for Mendelsohn, he hasn’t a drop of the late, great Gleason’s energy, charisma, or comic timing.  Again, this might be down to the slapdash quality of the real world screenwriting.

I would have also enjoyed more about the man who started it all.  Outside of a shaggy, nerdy, benign mad scientist, we don’t really get a feel for the presence looming over the film, James Halliday.  We also don’t really get an idea of what exactly was the rift between him and his closest friend, Ogden Morrow, who was like the Steve Jobs to Halliday’s Steve Wozniak.  We know there was one, but the only premise we’re given of a possible love triangle couldn’t possibly be so cliché... could it?  While our short moments with Halliday are made compelling by the excellent Mark Rylance doing very much with very little, Simon Pegg as Morrow was utterly wasted.  

Still, nobody’s really here for the real world, which is a subject that bears canny observation by the departed Halliday.  READY PLAYER ONE is all about escapism, fantasy, and turning off your mind for a while and purely being entertained.  In that respect, the film is a blazing success.

Never has a movie been made for more mandatory repeat viewings, if not for the fun of it, then to try to catch all those wonderful characters and icons strewn and hidden throughout.  With READY PLAYER ONE, Steven Spielberg has crafted an electric Wonderland that is a love song to fans, fandom, gaming, and pop culture itself.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 28th, 2018 

 

 

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Photos

Stills Courtesy of  Warner Brothers Pictures

 

 

 

 

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