James Halladay (Mark Rylance) didn’t get out much. An analog player in a digital world, James needed a place where he felt like he belonged and could escape to, so he created the Oasis, a virtual reality where regular people could become the extraordinary and escape their troubles. The device has created a dichotomy in the world, though, making reality a long-lost place where few wish to inhabit.
It is Halladay’s death that sparks Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which sets up in 2045 and follows the young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he prepares to race for the three keys that Halladay left behind. Once a player finds all three keys and locates the Easter egg that the creator left behind, they are entitled to ownership of the Oasis and all its stock and revenue.
Watts is far from alone. There is his resourceful ally, Aech aka H (Lena Waithe), who will crush a fellow racer with his monster truck before fixing the bike of the lovely Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). The dynamic combo of Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) can slice and dice their opponents with their Japanese samurai abilities. These and millions of others have battled for years to find the keys, but these days, most are just content to escape their world for a few hours.
Once again, Spielberg has taken a simplistic idea and transformed it into a revolutionary experience. Together with 2017’s brilliant The Post, Ready Player One shows the auteur at his most cunning and where he’s most comfortable: aiming his joystick for people’s hearts and souls instead of simply engaging their minds. Working from the popular novel written by Ernest Cline, Spielberg shows his mastery here at making the viewer feel like a kid again, where simple ideals and destinies were all that mattered.
What you have here is the cinematic slinger, but you won’t find these parts at your neighborhood diner. If you like your science fiction smothered in 1980’s pop culture references and served up with some witty humor, you are in for a treat. If you ever imagined what racing a virtual DeLorean against a giant King Kong and Freddy Krueger through a large metropolitan city, look no further. Ready Player One has got it all, but Speilberg never dismisses heart from a single shot.
There’s a Wade in all of us, a puritan who wants the best for his friends and family while looking for his place in the world. For him, the goal isn’t to solve Halladay’s world and just get rich. A long-time lover of the creator’s work, Wade wants to be like James and wishes to know how he worked and what caused his downfall. Before his death, Halladay forced his former partner of co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) out, wanting it to be a one player company. Wade wants to know why, so he races for that.
All he has to do is take down Noah Sorrento (Ben Mendolsohn, chewing scenery with malevolence), a diabolical CEO of I0I, which wants the Egg to harvest its own plans of tyranny. He employs the mercenary gun I-Rok (T.J. Miller) to go against Wade and his band of rogues.
I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination, because clearly, that’s all Spielberg wants us to live in here. The Oasis was built to to make someone’s imagination seem endless, and the film has a similar effect. It unleashes an urge to think back to that one time you could run away from it all. The cinematic treehouse only Spielberg could build.
Have you often wondered what it’d be like to relive Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with your friends and being attacked by zombies at the same time? You’ve come to the right place.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Sheridan made his first dent assisting Matthew McConaughey’s loner in Mud, and carries the action with ease here. There’s an assertive earnest in Wade that fuels the plot, and the young actor taps into that. Cooke is equally effective as Wade’s dream girl, who has a plan of her own.
Waithe provides a welcome dose of comic relief, but she isn’t alone. Before he set his career on fire with sexual assault allegations, Miller was known for adding levity to heavy plots, and he works his magic here as a hired hand playing both sides. The Deadpool player proves that laughter is the best medicine for a rough career patch. You may hate him in real life, but the guy will make you laugh here.
Rylance is such a heavyweight talent, and the fact that it took him a while to get notoriety in Hollywood is the only bittersweet part about his rise. He brought a quiet power to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and he offers similar work here as the guy who started it all. I admire an actor who can craft a performance that feels like a leading role out of a handful of scenes and minimal screen time, and Rylance does that here. Blending the personality of a zany Bill Murray with a subdued Steve Jobs type mind, Rylance makes you believe.
The real star here though is Spielberg. He was once a young kid who did what he needed to in order to escape the chaotic world. Building sets in his backyard and filming mini-adventures to dull the arrival of the end of innocence, Spielberg has laid the groundwork for this film for quite some time.
Every one of his films shows up here in some form or thread, evoking the initial emotion of that film and making you smile as you watch his latest unfold. There are few directors who can lay their own Easter eggs or callbacks to previous films in every film they do. With the Oscar-nominated The Post and this one, Spielberg is showing the young filmmakers how it’s done and why he’s still the King. Please show me a director who could make these two wholly different films back-to-back. It’s most impressive.
In many ways, Spielberg is Wade Watts, a youthful mind trying to find meaning and excitement in the world while battling the rigors of a business-minded world. A kid at heart until his end, Spielberg’s renegade sensibilities turns Ready Player One into a true treasure.
If you love the movies and what they stand for, you’ll love Ready Player One.