“Find the Easter egg,” says James Halliday to the players.
“Find the Easter eggs,” says Steven Spielberg to the audience.
Ready Player One revolves just around that, the hunt for an Easter egg (a secret feature of a videogame or any other work) inside the virtual reality simulation OASIS. It is a visually stunning adventure, and pleasure from watching it derives from elaborate actions sequences as much as from the onslaught of pop culture references – some blatant and relevant, other more subtle and veritable Easter eggs – it relentlessly hurls at the audience. The CGI that brings the OASIS alive is crafted with indisputable mastery, whether it be spectacular landscapes, minute details of character design, or mesmerizing sequences of joyful, unbridled devastation. Shape, colour, motion: even more than the digital spaces themselves, it’s the bursting dynamism permeating them that makes Ready Player One a treat for the eyes impossible to look away from. Its stunning visuals and shots filled with characters and cameos to the saturation point make watching it in IMAX an especially rewarding experience.
In perfect Spielberg tradition, the film is both tremendously entertaining and accessible to all. An encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture is not required to appreciate the eye-popping action or understand the narrative, although it does facilitate immersion.
The year is 2045, and with the world having turned into a heap of slums where poverty and corruption among the powerful abound, nearly everyone seeks refuge from misery by immersing themselves in the OASIS, the brainchild of James Halliday, where they can do, and be, just about anything. After his death, Halliday announced that whoever managed to unlock three keys hidden in his virtual reality and find the Easter egg would inherit ownership of the OASIS. Among the Gunters (“egg hunters”) is Wade Watts, a boy from the dilapidated outskirts of Columbus whose avatar is named Parzival. Allying himself with four others friends he has made online – the mechanic Aech, the exceptional player Art3mis, and the brothers Daito and Shoto – they seek to find the Easter egg before Nolan Sorrento, CEO of IOI, a rival videogame tech company which forces debtors to play to seek out the Easter egg.
Viewers and characters share the same objective. Anyone who has come across any sort of promotional material before stepping into the theatre will be aware that the movie is rife with (and capitalizes on) pop culture references. In and of itself, this is nothing new: mystery films challenge the spectator as much as the detective, whereas Tarantino and, more recently, Stranger Things, are well known for their mishmash of references. What is peculiar about Ready Player One is that, much like the characters themselves, the audience is encouraged to roam the filmic space outside of the narrative on a massive scale.
The prize? More pop culture nods that you have time to register on the first watch. From Akira to Alien, from Superman to Overwatch, Spielberg’s film explodes with eye candy for those of the nerdy persuasion. It reads as a love letter to entertainment products that are zealously exalted as the emotional capital of a devoted fanbase, cast as the adversary of “phonies” and corporate interest. However, this celebration does indeed come across as excessive, even pathetic at times, and it is easy to see how the hierarchy between the viewers who “get it” and those who don’t risks undermining its passionate attack on the video game = seclusion formula. Ready Player One cautions the audience against isolating themselves in the virtual reality they nonetheless have every right to enjoy. The by now trite dichotomy between the real and the digital is blurred by the emphasis on relationships.
If on the one hand friendships built through avatars are regarded as a valid bond, on the other they should not substitute real-life interpersonal interactions. Addressed to a generation regarded as so disenchanted with the world it seeks achievements in virtual realities, it seeks to unify them under the flag of pop culture, turning it into a common language instead of a marker of self-imposed isolation. It is almost ironic that a film which appeals to escapist desires (two of its taglines are “An adventure too big for the real world” and “A better reality awaits”) would try so hard to remind its audience that fantasy is not enough; or perhaps it is a clever way to engage them on a slightly deeper level than the marvellous CGI and narrative thrills can, attempting to compensate for the lacklustre characters.
In fact, for all its focus on relationships, one of the film’s major flaws is that the characters are pretty much flat, and thus rarely manage to generate an emotional response. Their backstories are swallowed by the fast-paced narrative or skimmed over completely, their development non-existent, and even among the “High Five” one can wonder what Daito and Shoto, the latter in particular, have added to the plot. It is during the challenges of the virtual reality that characters are at their most interesting, while outside of it, they feel more hollow than their digital personas. In the end, the emotional impact stems purely out of the events inside the OASIS; the decaying real world is barely explored at all, and it is where the film’s problems with pacing between the first and the second act become more painfully obvious. The long voiceover in the introduction can be accused of being a cop-out, but it does manage to get the premises of the narrative across clearly and with a certain level of style. With the exception of a few moments of stiffness, the acting is mostly on point, but it is the voice acting that really shines. Vocal performances are heightened by expressive, magnificent motion capture and animation.
Ready Player One is bogged down by the shallowness of its characters, a jarring interplay of wish-fulfilment and pseudo-revolutionary celebration, and questionable (but mostly untapped) gender politics. Nevertheless, it remains an exciting spectacle whose action sequences, rapid-fire references and breathtaking visuals are guaranteed to keep its audience entertained.