Lifelong gaming fan Steven Spielberg goes all-in for motion capture, with much different results than The Adventures of Tintin. It’s an ode to 1980s videogame fads and pop culture that could be re-titled ‘Astounding Adventures in Licensing.’ It’s Star Wars, TRON and Avatar mashed together for young teens, and more interesting than it ought to be.
Ready Player One
Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital
Warner Brothers Home Video
2018 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 140 min. / Street Date July 26, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 44.95
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen.
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen
Film Editors: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn
Original Music: Alan Silvestri
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on his novel
Produced by Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko, Steven Spielberg
Directed by Steven Spielberg
In early 1979 I was on the set of ‘1941’ the day Steven Spielberg told everybody he was having trouble finding an idea for a tie-in board game, and was open for anybody’s ideas. A few weeks later some people came in with a mockup of a proposed board game, that I think had an image of John Belushi. It was a dumb roll-the-dice thing where a tank, a plane, a sub and motorcycle game pieces raced across an artwork city to see who got to the P.O.P. pier first. Spielberg was not pleased and no board game appeared for 1941. A couple of years later I had to drop something off at the Amblin’ office on the Universal lot. That took only twenty seconds, but I did get a glimpse at Steven’s office, where he was talking to people while playing an arcade game set up in front of his desk. It had to be at least 1981, so I feel safe saying that, yes, Steven Spielberg was definitely part of the cultural wave reflected in Ernest Cline’s book.
Ready Player One is a fresh item for me, as I paid little attention to its publicity buildup and theatrical rollout. It’s a perfectly decent CGI picture in that the direction is smooth and the storytelling slickly efficient. Zak Penn and Ernest Cline’s script gets across concepts that will tax the imagination of some of its intended audience of precocious kids and adults indulging their arrested-development synapses. Approached as an action throwaway picture (the kind that cost $250 million to throw away) it’s a fun diversion with more to offer than Spielberg’s dinosaur park money machines. Even if only partly engaged, viewers will find RPO to be the pop fantasy equivalent of an epic packed with all-star cameos: instead of playing spot-the-actor, we try to spot scores of ’80s fantasy characters and icons.
It’s a picture about kids playing video games, that once-dire genre set largely inside video arcades. Big action movies now appear to exist inside elaborate virtual reality video game worlds, not just Marvel sagas but action films like the Bourne series — which operates in a stylized action world, not the one we live in. Ready Player One is very aware of this 21st century entertainment construct: because so many human consumers spend so much time in a virtual gaming space, it’s possible to pretend that video games are the real world.
Just like the multi-leveled realities proposed by sci-fi pioneers like World on a Wire, Ready Player One proposes that players can live on both real and virtual levels. The story plays out in a future America (2045) where most people are impoverished; our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a shanty town trailer park, where the trailers are stacked a dozen high. Wade prefers his time spent in a virtual reality zone called OASIS, where he exists as a far cooler avatar called Parzifal. There he meets and interacts with other players that know each other only by these secret identities. Wade seriously wants to win an all-important, world-changing virtual game. OASIS’s creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is dead, yet lives on in a virtual legacy he has recorded, as the wizard Anorak. Halliday is going to give OASIS away to whoever can solve three game puzzles and find the game’s Easter Egg, the toughest challenge of all. Various players ‘clan up’ for the challenge, but the expected winner is the IOI Corporation’s CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who has hired massive teams of players and regularly buys the services of any player that shows promise. Parzifal finds himself bonding with several other egg hunters, especially the technically savvy Aech (Lena Waithe); he’s also dazzled by the sexy, spunky and competitive Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). The first challenge is a horrendously hairy car race game. Parzifal succeeds by going to a virtual James Halliday museum to look for clues in the hologram records of the genius’s life. A curator pokes fun at Parzifal, but also likes his analytic approach to the problem.
As soon as Parzifal solves the first puzzle his life changes. Everybody considers him a celebrity and even Art3mis sees an advantage in casually teaming with him. He joins an anti- IOI group and meets Art3mis’ real-world counterpart, Samantha. She’s self-conscious of her facial birthmark but the two do not disappoint each other. Sorrento doubles down with crass offers to put Parzifal on his team. When the kid continues to succeed in competition, Sorrento puts more effort into stopping him by underhanded means. That includes criminal activity back in the real world.
My frustratingly literal synopsis gives no indication of what Ready Player One is like to watch — it’s at least 80% hyper-intense action montage inside a computer game. Cut lightning-fast, the car race scene throws imagery at us faster than it can be absorbed. Most every shot has three things happening simultaneously, the information overload piles up at a rate only gamers could appreciate. Spielberg’s editors also complicate the mix by frequently cutting to parallel action outside OASIS — in a battle game, dozens of virtual combatants in the game are mirrored by their real-life originals performing the same virtual-reality motions in the real world. When a giant monster falls and crushes a hundred IOI players, their gaming stations shut down (‘game over’) and new players must be rushed in to take the place of those that are exhausted.
Let me get the film comparisons over first. There’s an obvious precedent in Tron, with its strong story similarities. Non-gamers will also be reminded of big pictures that borrow gaming notions. Avatar of course has a man who is projected into a different identity, leaving his real self vulnerable back in the real world, which is Parzival/Wade’s constant problem. Less obvious will be Videodrome, with its less benevolent guru for a human video evolution, who continues to direct his domain after his physical body is dead. The pop culture realm that Ready Player One celebrates is mostly benign nerd culture, the faith of the folk that still worships Star Trek and Star Wars and haunts comic book stores.
Wade’s ‘journey’ is straight from the Star Wars / Luke Skywalker mold, through and through. Our disadvantaged hero is also the future master of the universe. This George Lucas brainstorm tickled the imagination of lazy teens everywhere: YOU already have the magic quality that will make you a hero, even if you’re an ignorant underachiever who refuses to get an education, work, or otherwise better yourself. The parallel continues in that Wade loses his Aunt Beru to the Empire Alice to a raid by IOI. A bombing in the trailer stacks is a terror act straight from The Battle of Algiers.
And to knock off the last thematic observation, OASIS founder James Halliday is set up as a parallel to the masters of our present-day computer/internet/social media world. Like them, OASIS is a lifestyle power & profit goliath that dominates and directs modern life. The nerdy Halliday had two acolytes way back when, the benign Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) and the venal Nolan Sorrento. The main storyline conflict is to see if Sorrento will conquer the virtual cosmos of OASIS and control our destiny forever. Putting ‘the fate of the world’ at stake isn’t enough anymore, our dream world is threatened as well. It’s a fully Totalitarian Leisure Lifestyle!
We older adults of course note that Wade and his pals, although penniless, have access to the expensive hardware needed for even minimal participation in OASIS. Grumbly types will see the same disconnect in reality, where kids that can’t afford tuition somehow can tote thousands of dollars of smartphone hardware and software subscriptions. It’s tough when modern teen life requires shelling out Mom’s hard-earned money for the right to choose from a narrow list of options owned and controlled by global companies. Welcome to reality, Glenn.
Back to Ready Player One. We’re thrust into a road race game and a giant battle game, plus at least a dozen action scenes that depict various IOI minions trying to neutralize Wade and his pals in the real world. These scenes will not be fully readable by viewers attuned to conventional visual storytelling — the pace will separate the kids from the parents.
The biggest aspect of Ready Player One is surely its use of hundreds of iconic, copyrighted characters, mostly from the 1980s but expanded to other extremes as well. Back in 1988 we were knocked out by Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which somehow managed to incorporate ‘intellectual property’ cartoon characters controlled by both Warners and Disney. The net is thrown much wider here. We’re told that at least one or two Star Wars references are tucked into the shot backgrounds, even though we don’t see any TIE fighters or Ewoks.
Each copyrighted and trademarked character must have involved some kind of licensing negotiation, even if the item was borrowed from something Spielberg personally produced. Listing them would be an exercise in futility — I’m sure I tapped into a bunch, but I suspect that many are comic book characters I wouldn’t recognize. The IMDB connections page for Ready Player One has a long list, surely not complete. Is that spinning blade weapon literally meant to be the same one from the ’80s fantasy Krull?
I would think that film fans will be impressed by the way parts of Kubrick’s The Shining have been incorporated into one of the games. The reference wasn’t in the book, and since that film was a Warners’ release, it feels more like product placement to me. Even in the Spielberg revisit of the Overlook Resort, it still looks like burgundy wine is cascading out of the Overlook’s elevator, not blood.
I believe I saw a Star Trek logo incorporated into something, but I could be mistaken. Gary Teetzel tells me that Spielberg didn’t want references from movies he directed, but some do show up from shows he produced. He also reports that giant (Mobile Suit) Gundam characters appear because Eiji Tsuburaya’s Ultraman was unavailable. I vote for a three-hour documentary to show the process by which Toho licensed MechaGodzilla, who is given a re-design for his digital appearance here. Or was the negotiation a two-minute phone call that ended with a verbal, ‘Whatever you want, Steve!’?
The show is capped by a couple of Hallmark Card mottos. “It’s not about winning, it’s about playing” is in our cynical age a canard that nobody really believes. There’s also a ‘Daddy Spielberg’ admonition for kids to take two days off each week to live in the real world. Somehow sharing waking reality with such fantasies doesn’t even seem like living (said the guy who spent his life watching movies). I would have preferred a Hallmark motto that motivates the legions of disconnected virtual zombies to go out and vote.
The acting is reasonable, and all of Spielberg’s actors hit the right notes in undemanding roles. Wade’s clan includes an 11-year-old pseudo-Samurai and an elderly guru, tapping all age groups. I recognize Olivia Cooke from her fine performance in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. They give her an easy-to-take facial birthmark, which comes off as a hipster fashion mark, not something to be self-conscious about. Samantha’s rebel teammate wears a tattoo that forms a similar pattern on his face — did I miss an explanation for that?
Director Spielberg must have had a good time with this show once he got beyond the headache-inducing months of figuring out the script and charting exactly what happens in such fine detail — there’s nothing sloppy about any of what must be thousands of demanding CGI shots. Once the digital work was being produced, did he just tell the effects supervisors, ‘make it incredibly cool and I’ll tell you if I like it?’ Can a hardworking CGI designer/manager/animator go to a particular frame, point out a detail and say “I did that!” The legions of talented artists that make these CGI movies seem very much like the expendable rent-a-gamers laboring by the hundreds for IOI’s Nolan Sorrento. To a better end, of course.
The Warner Brothers Home Video Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital of Ready Player One is yet another powerful home video product in a small package. The UltraHD image yields up a phenomenal amount of detail, color nuance and contrast range, so much so that I think it rivals the projection quality at the average multiplex. The Blu-ray plays exceedingly well, too. These are miracle products, that aren’t going to look as good in any other medium — even streaming and downloading must have compromises for bandwidth. That said, the digital streaming version won’t disappoint viewers either.
A 3-D Blu-ray release exists, but Warners doesn’t offer them as review screeners.
Warners’ extras are a string of expensive featurettes examining the film from numerous angles. Completing the crossover between game and Blu-ray, the disc menus and content are said to carry Easter Eggs as well, for more extras.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ready Player One
Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Supplements: Several making-of featurette videos
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 15, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Brothers Home Video.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson