The pervasive wave of nostalgia that we’re currently riding on, flooding our television and cinema screens, has hit a new, eye-popping peak in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a visually medium-pushing sci-fi adventure littered with call-backs to your favourite films and games, and appearances from their respectively beloved characters, that unfortunately forgets to develop its own protagonists along for the ride.
Developed from Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a shy yet plucky teenager living in “The Stacks”, a precariously constructed suburban district in Columbus, Ohio. The year is 2045 and, as Watts informs us in an overly explicative voiceover, the world has ceased its technical progressiveness. Rather than solve its problems, society has instead opted to placate itself through an escape-route from reality, an all-consuming VR network dubbed “The Oasis”. A computer-generated haven that provides all you could ever want, Wade also finds shelter in it: taking the form of an avatar named Parzival, he participates in challenges, socialises with over avatars such as his close friend, H, and generally gains a level of confidence that he lacks in the real world. However, his life will change upon the announcement that Oasis founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died, leaving the ultimate quest in his wake: to find an Easter Egg in the system, by completing three seemingly impossible trials, a feat that awards ownership of the Oasis.
Yes, it’s effectively Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And the film’s Wonka, Halliday, proves to be the more interesting character, with Rylance delivering a subtle performance tinged with melancholy. It’s a shame then that our main heroes are so underserved in this department. Sheridan struggles to give Wade any discernible characteristics beyond the usual clichés that he’s straddled with courtesy of Zak Penn and Ernest Cline’s script, which treats its heroes more like their virtual avatars than real people. Ben Mendelsohn fares better: whilst his villainous corporate schemer Nolan Sorrento is characterised like any other, no one snarls as charismatically as Mendelsohn.
But even Mendelsohn can’t quite escape the looming shadow of a shallow story. The real world is given little to any real attention and as a result, it can feel difficult to relate to or care for the lives of Wade and his company. Wade’s journey through the Oasis is exhilarating, propelled along at a rapid pace through some ingeniously designed and visualised set-pieces. Unfortunately, these are offset by forced dramatic moments outside of the Oasis that feel arbitrarily added for the sake of narrative convention. One example is an abusive father figure (Ralph Ineson) whose inclusion is so brief that it’s a wonder why it wasn’t just removed in the final edit. The film can feel a little awkward at points therefore, stopping and starting like a videogame console on the fritz.
However, we mustn’t forget the man responsible for bringing us this ambitious blockbuster, the saving grace of a somewhat generic narrative foundation: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is the quintessential Hollywood filmmaker, effortlessly crafting action sequences that remain singed in the memory bank, and Ready Player One might be his finest effort yet. From a perfectly-paced, seemingly single-shot car chase that piles on the destruction and chaos in a way that somehow feels natural, to a surprise, horror-based sequence that pays detailed homage to one of the finest movies of the 1980s, Spielberg ramps up the visual intensity and refuses to let up.
But the thing you want to know about, the feature that attracted you to the film in the first place, are the references. And I will say that while, at times, they serve as an optical distraction from the core characters, more often than not they’re a delight that will have your inner child grinning in giddy ecstasy. I’ll admit, seeing the DeLorean on screen again was a sight for sore eyes, an iconic image that’s used to great effect. But it’s one amongst many, as each scene offers itself up as a huge mural, populated with familiar faces that you’ll have fun spotting. A grand, geeky spectacle, it’s a pleasure to see this kind of culture represented on such a scale and Spielberg deftly weaves it into the narrative when necessary.
So it’s a question you need to ask yourself really: are you going for the nostalgic parade or the personal story? If it’s the former, prepare yourself for a brilliant tirade of visual and aural amusements, from Atari to Chucky from Child’s Play, seamlessly captured by the ever-reliable cinematographic eye of Spielberg regular, Janusz Kamiński. If it’s the latter, then expect a banal retread of a story told many times already, from the aforementioned Willy Wonka to Steven Lisberger’s influential Tron. Overall, it’s neither a level-up nor game over for Spielberg, just further proof that he’s still got the skill to deliver a thrilling adventure film.