Nostalgia has long proven a shortcut to the heart of an audience. Show us something beloved from our past, and we melt into the fanboys and girls of our lost youth. Bestselling author Ernest Cline keenly understands the innate desire to resurrect what we once loved and lost, and it has fueled his two popular novels—the one upon which Steven Spielberg’s new movie is based and his lesser second book, Armada. (Cline also wrote the script for the Star Wars-specific flick Fanboys.) Cline knows his audience; one assumes he is part of it.
On the page, Ready Player One is a prime example of how to do nostalgia right. The references are indigenous, not obligatory, to the narrative (whereas Armada is overstuffed with so many unnecessary Easter eggs they grow irksome). The movie, Spielberg’s most crowd-pleasing in over a decade (at least since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is open to more debate than it should be) employs major changes from the book to ensure a primarily successful transition to the screen.
In the world of Ready Player One, most people would rather exist in a virtual reality known as the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Spend a few moments in the stacks (think vertical trailer park) of 2045 Columbus, OH, and you will not wonder why everyone wants to escape. Created by visionary game-maker James Halliday (played by Spielberg’s new go-to guy, Mark Rylance), the OASIS offers people the opportunity to be, do or look like anything they want. Do you want to be an over-muscled superman or hang out with the actual (virtual) Batman? How about travel to a nightclub sans gravity, or fight in a “Halo”-esque galactic conflict where your avatar is in actual danger? Why go to the movies with your best pals, virtual or actual, all of whom are online, when you can hang out in your favorite movie? The OASIS allows all of those opportunities and more.
But the death of Halliday has left the OASIS’ ownership up for grabs, available to the first person who finds three Easter eggs purposely hidden by the reclusive digital-world builder. Gunters, or egg hunters, like 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the mysterious beauty upon whom he is crushing hard, hope to find the eggs before the army of Sixers employed by evil megacorporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) can. If IOI, led by its unscrupulous CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), gains control of the OASIS, invasive advertising and massive monetization will darken the bright, open, online worlds in which everyone has chosen to spend their waking hours. Fortunately, Wade is one of the foremost scholars in everything Halliday, so his chances of winning are better than average, assuming Sorrento does not kill him first.
As expected, the OASIS created by Spielberg is vibrant and welcoming. The filmmaker falls back on his blockbuster instincts that gave us the movies upon which much of Ready Player One’s ’80s appeal is based. Yet the film may have been more interesting in the hands of a younger director who grew up adoring Spielberg’s movies, not the actual 70-plus-year-old who gifted them to the world.
While Spielberg may not deliver a new product to be adoringly devoured decades later, at least he guarantees Ready Player One will not disappoint on arrival, which it does not. Overjoyed audience members extolling the film’s timeless virtues are likely to be rare, but dissatisfied customers will be even rarer. Fans of strict adaptations may question the necessity of some changes made by Cline and fellow screenwriter Zak Penn (sorry, WarGames fans), but everyone else should get the gratifyingly reminiscent movie experience for which they paid.
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