With Steven Spielberg’s big-screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, we’ve hit peak nostalgia entertainment. If it sounds like a complaint, think again. Because with this movie — an unhinged, extremely entertaining and joyful paean to all things ’80s — the auteur proves once again why he is the undisputed king of genre filmmaking. And that too, with utmost humility.
Here’s a broad view of all the films directed/produced by the man in the 1980s: All the Indiana Jones films, The Goonies, The Gremlins, the Back to the Future franchise, E.T., Poltergeist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the list goes on. And yet, in a film that’s expressly about that same period and references almost everything else made during that time, Spielberg somehow manages to refrain from throwing himself in the mix. Save for the DeLorean from Back to the Future, not a single movie finds its way in.
Now for the premise: The year is 2045 and the story takes place in Ohio, a derelict and post-apocalyptic version of it. People distract themselves from the misery of it all by escaping into a vast virtual reality world known as the Oasis, where players can virtually do anything and be anyone.
The sudden death of the much-loved but painfully reclusive and introverted Oasis creator James Halliday (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) leads to the discovery that the trillionaire genius, who is also a huge fan of all things ’80s, has created a global scavenger hunt for three hidden keys, which leads to an Easter egg. Whoever finds the keys and unlocks the egg wins control of the Oasis and will own all of Halliday’s possessions, including his vast wealth.
The movie begins five years after the death of Halliday, when people have all but given up on the hunt. All except the gunters (Easter egg hunters), one of whom is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by Parzival in the Oasis. He teams up with four other players (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao), after a moment of pure genius leads him to the first key, raising the stakes of the game.
And because all movies need villains, Ready Player One has one, too: Ben Mendelsohn’s gleeful Nolan Sorrento is the evil corporate incarnate, who heads a company that also wants to take control of the Oasis, and in this effort sends wave after wave of what are essentially slaves at the Easter egg chase.
Granted that this is a lot of information to take in, but the movie gets done with its exposition in the first ten minutes of its first act by way of Wade’s narration, and so we get into the heat of the action pretty quick. And then the thrill ride begins. From raging T-Rexes and the rampaging King Kong to DC characters shaking a leg at a zero-gravity club and Street Fighter kids running alongside our heroes on the battlefield, the movie is a smorgasbord of geek wonders. Spielberg also, thankfully, replaces a sequence from the book that’s set in a Dungeons & Dragon’s narrative with an extended sequence that horror fans everywhere will instantly recognise and fall in love with.
The true wonder of the film, however, is the manner in which Spielberg manages to switch gears between the virtual and real worlds, ramping up the stakes and energy as the team of gunters progress closer and closer to the Easter egg. The director, after busying himself with serious-minded films for the larger part of the last decade, is back to his glory days form and you can tell that he’s having fun.
But the film gets problematic when it refuses to meaningfully engage with the implications of its sci-fi premise, and glosses over them by relentlessly following the action. Even for someone who enjoyed the movie immensely and is already considering going back for seconds, watching the movie felt like a bludgeoning of the senses.
But perhaps this is what Spielberg wanted us to feel all along? Because the notion that 30 years from now, humankind is so hopelessly lost that we’re clinging to a decade long gone and ultimately non-relatable is just downright horrifying and sad.
While Ready Player One will probably never be called a Spielberg classic, watch this movie for the classic feeling that only Spielberg can provide: the simple joy of being swept away at the movies.
Don’t miss it!
Ready Player One releases in the UAE on March 29.