Saw READY PLAYER ONE:
Was it fun? Yes. With a capital “F”.
Was it good? Yes. but with a small letter “g”.
I want to start off by saying READY PLAYER ONE is far from the best film Spielberg has made. However, it is the work of a director still at the peak of his power, and already with nothing to prove. Spielberg’s biggest achievement here - in this Intellectual Property eat-all-you-can buffet of a movie that works like a game, about a game that is about all the movies and video games - is that yes… in the end (finally) the movie does have a human heart and does tell a human story that I think is somewhat important for today’s cyber generation.
At its center, READY PLAYER ONE tackles that increasing intrusion of virtual escapism and virtual economic rationalization that is affecting how we live and work in the real world. READY PLAYER ONE uses video games (particularly the video game to end all video games) as its sugar-coated wrapper. But Spielberg usually has good timing when selecting what themes he can sense are relevant, and in this one he asks us to enjoy (and later adds a note of caution) to this increasing importance that video games, virtual reality, and virtual currency have in the real world.
The greater fantasy in this film actually begins from the off, and it’s not one that occurs from behind a set of virtual reality goggles. READY PLAYER ONE happens in a world where one video game - THE video game - is so valuable that everybody is playing it and has some degree of money in it. It’s a fantasy, because in real life gamers like us killed any chance of something like that happening: we shut down STAR WARS: BATTLEFRONT 2. But READY PLAYER ONE, like any good (small “g’”) movie asks us to presume what would happen if we didn’t.
Between action set pieces that occur in the virtual world of the OASIS, we learn what the OASIS means in the real world and it’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel that far away. We learn the OASIS has “items you can buy with real money”, “real items you can buy with virtual money”, we learn the game has a form of Perma-Death… you ‘zero out’… and you lose everything… If you can imagine a game whose singular Easter Egg quest for billions of dollars worth is so important that people have put their own savings into this game, then you have the kind of Hollywood fantasy parable for everything from Lootboxes to Bitcoin.
Unlike other films I’ve discussed here, it is not that important to discuss characters, or motivations (though they do have them), and to an extent some plot logic is not that important. That is because, READY PLAYER ONE is constructed almost exactly like a video game. The film introduces from the beginning that there is a quest to get to the “end of the Oasis video game” where an Easter Egg waits that will “solve all your real world problems forever”.
I found myself wondering throughout the film if the Oasis was not somehow responsible for the neglected state the real world was actually in. But at any rate, this is a remarkable construct for the film. It’s exactly what most action video games are like, and like many of the games that rely on this structure, everything drives towards that ultimate boss fight, that ultimate challenge, to grab that last prize, to win the hand of the princess, to get to that screen that lists the names of the people who made the video game.
This is the soul, the energy, of this movie. It is remarkable that it is all it ever really needs. Some have described READY PLAYER ONE as the most accurate video game movie there is because it actually feels a lot like one and they are right. For better or worse, characterization on this “video game movie” feels only about as deep as you can find in say a Bioware “epic” - one that hints at a larger world of clans, teams, and more gamer aliases with weird alphanumeric spelling - but Spielbergian film discipline means we only follow one such group from start to finish.
But if his discipline as a film maker is what keeps the film tight enough to say its message about how we must regard the real world and our real lives in a highly cyber-obssessed society, it is his childlike excess that barrels on whenever the Oasis sequences take hold.
READY PLAYER ONE, as a concept, is difficult to work with as a full novel, never mind as a 120 minute movie, and there are definitely points at which the film seems to jump quickly from point to point. Beyond the first challenge, the second and third challenges are more than a little hard to follow, and, to be honest, the lead characters of this film - who are the greatest Oasis players on the planet - issue out rapid fire exposition about why something works. This is the biggest weak point of READY PLAYER ONE as a conventional film. The amount of times characters and events leap headlong from one thing to the next.
Spielberg also uses his skills with cameras, music, and actors to conjure “a moment” or “a story beat” to actually substitute for moments and story beats rather than representing them. There are moments in the story where events seem only loosely supported by information, or none at all, but the music is swelling, the actors are emoting genuinely… and you know in your gut that “this is what’s happening”… And that’s exactly what happens. Times like these, I was unsure about whether I should be happy that my emotional viewing experience was now able to affirm things onscreen that normally should be down to my intellectual viewing experience.
In most cases, this would be pretty poor, but ironically, I found, that whenever it occurs in the Oasis (which is thankfully the majority of incidents) it is actually an accurate representation of Gamer Subculture. This is like, if you could step into HITMAN in an ultra real VR environment and you had to stay in touch while Fortheseven and Gule speedrun through The Showstopper and they’re telling you at the same time why everything they’re doing works. You can’t follow it precisely and you may take a (virtual) bullet hole through your (virtual) kidney in the process. But you can’t deny that it holds water because in the end they get both targets and soon you’re all walking out of the Palais de Waleska’s gates… and you think to yourself how great these guys must be (even if you’ve only spent time with them in some virtual Paris).
It must also be noted the film will remind some of the real life exploits of Prod1gyX who became the world’s first player to achieve Pirate Legend standing in the massive multiplayer title Sea of Thieves, with the help of a group of friends who happily play supporting cast to his status as the “main hero” which comes to show how closely life can sometimes imitate art.
One unusual side effect though of this film, is that while it warns people about how much we value our virtual enjoyment to the possible detriment of the real world, I can see from the comments and discussions surrounding this film that feedback has been dominated by people wishing the Oasis was real and while the film already contains about probably 300 or so references and actual character appearances from films and games both recent and classical, it seems that the fandom that watched this movie would happily fill themselves with 300 more things if the Oasis was real. Spielberg never realized what he did to the reputation of sharks when he made JAWS, so I guess now he has to contend with the way he has represented virtual reality and escapism in READY PLAYER ONE - for better or worse.
In the end, READY PLAYER ONE is a simple movie. With a simple message. That it has one, and manages to state it just clearly enough is its best quality. The rest is pure escapist energy that delivers on that one promise of films and video games - a fabulously virtual good time.
P.S.: You want to know about the references? Well, this is where I think Spielberg shows how clever he is. Much was made of the references, but in reality they weren’t important at all. But they were COOL (all caps). And it wasn’t just characters. One of the neat things about the Oasis was that you could have weapons and vehicles from any game or film you desired as long as you could afford it, so you have everything from Cowboy Bebop ship to Galactica Viper fighters, and a shop that sells you all the gear from Overwatch alongside stuff from Borderlands.
One of the characters even sports this bad boy in a hero sequence:
But… no chainsaw kill (PG-15 you know)